Hattie Wilczewski, class of 2016 and currently a sophomore at Saint Michael's College, travelled to the Dominican Republic with the college this past March for a service-learning trip. Saint Michael's College partners with ADESJO (Association for the Development of San Jose de Ocoa) which helps sustain the rural way of life for thousands of families in the region who suffer from rural poverty. As a cooperative, ADESJO helps to create change, hope and social justice through infrastructure projects like hurricane-resistant homes, schools and aqueducts. They also foster adult literacy and healthcare and provide small loans to help women start small businesses. Check out the link (ADESJO) to find out more information of the cooperative. And read Hattie's description of her travels along with some heartfelt reflections from such an incredible journey below. Take a look!
One of the first things that I remember learning about the trip in general was that the community (Los Corozos) does not have a lack of labor but does have a lack of resources. This is why fundraising was an essential aspect of the trip, because they have plenty of workers to build crucial structures (houses, schools, clinics, etc.) but a lack of money for the necessary resources. I struggled with this aspect of the trip for the first few days- were we really necessary down there? They have plenty of laborers to build the house, we mostly just got in the way of the construction and it was hard at first to make connections with people in the community. Now, this trip involved mainly three types of service. Service involving the head, heart, and hands. We learned about the local community and about the DR (head), we made connections with the community members (heart), and we did physical work to build the house (hands). Our main objective was to build the house and we did a lot of physical labor, the connections and learning came along with that when you’re working with people for 8 hours a day (even if we aren’t fluent in Spanish). We built this house using only simple tools and our own labor, first by hacking and shoveling out dirt for the foundation, then by hand mixing cement and using buckets to pour the cement into the foundation (this took about 4 days). Then, we started placing cement blocks to create the walls of the house. After a week of work, we had a few feet of the wall already placed, and it actually had started to look like a house!
The first few days of labor were a little awkward between the group and the workers, especially because the majority of our group were girls. We all felt the machismo that was very prevalent and noticed that the construction workers would give us the easier, methodical tasks rather than the hacking or shoveling. It also proved difficult to connect with some of the workers because they were older men and the dynamic between us and them was a little awkward and uncomfortable at first. By the third day, however, we were doing the work alongside them and I think they built up some respect for us for doing the same work as them. It felt more and more as if we empowered each other and engaged in our shared humanity, as opposed to feeling the divide between them and us. It remained like this for the rest of the trip, we all just felt close to the community members and were able to engage in meaningful conversations and make some strong connections with the people down there.
Something I tried to remain mindful about during the trip was avoiding romanticizing the community. It could be easy to only focus on that people are so close with each other, humble, kind, hard working. But then if you look a little deeper, you see that these people live in relative poverty, struggle with food security, live in a male-centered society, have low education, low levels of societal development. I believe it would be a mistake to flow in and out of this community without giving it proper thought, and that one should not ignore the not-so-glamorous parts of their culture.
We went through a program called ADESJO that works for the development of San Jose de Ocoa. It is a fantastic organization that my school, Saint Michael's College, has been working with for many years now (I've attach the link to the website at the end if you'd like to take a look). Part of what ADESJO does is facilitate groups coming down and buying the necessary resources for construction as well as providing a cook for our meals and arranging a safe place to sleep. They do great work for the most part but you can probably notice the catch- they have to make sure that the service groups are sent to safe locations for obvious security reasons. This means that the poorest, most poverty ridden communities with highest rates of crime, drugs, and violence do not get help they desperately need. They appear to be stuck in a vicious cycle, unable to get outside intervention to break it. Obviously it would not be a good idea to send a service group into an unsafe neighborhood, but it also doesn't sit right with me that more isn't done for these extremely poor & crime-ridden communities. Some food for thought.
Anyway, I decided that the profound purpose of the trip was much more than wiring money down to the DR for the construction of a house. It was about humanization. We were able to engage our minds and hearts in service and work to empower each other. At least we could touch the community with some laughter and kindness while we were there for a week. We could connect on the most basic, human level and I can’t help but believe that we left an impression on the community. If anything we are a fun memory for them to reminisce about, and perhaps they’ll look forward to future groups visiting.
Personally, I got a lot out of the trip. I think that it added a layer of dimension and perspective to my life and even shifted my outlook. I hope to live my life guided by the experiences, values, and perspective I have gained on this trip. Rarely have I felt so empowered as I did when I got back from the DR.
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