Growing up at First Baptist Wallingford, the Dominican Republic Mission Trip was always there. From a young age, I saw the pictures. I saw the people I knew, with some people I didn’t know, always smiling, always tan, and always wearing some brightly colored shirt. I had heard all of the stories and how life-changing the whole thing was, and there was always a part of me that wanted to see that for myself, and plenty of people that encouraged me to do so, but life always got in the way. But I am a believer in the idea that God makes things happen at the right time, and I couldn’t be more happy or thankful that I waited until this age for my first trip, when I could fully understand the magnitude of the work we were doing, the impact of my every word and action, and be able to remember it all.
A couple of the kids from this church loved to point out my “newbie” status during the trip, some of them, younger than me, with five or six trips under their belt. This title proved to be my enemy when it came to certain things. Let’s just say the water dispenser gave me a challenge on the first day. But I quickly learned to embrace it. This was my first time, yes. So I was able to ask questions, I got the opportunity to learn about the people and places everyone else knew so well. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and into, as it seemed to me, everyone else’s. And I loved every second of it.
I was put on teaching team for the week, it’s what I chose. I didn’t really know what it entailed, but I have a knack for working with kids, so it seemed like a perfect fit for me. At the beginning of that week, they told us about teams switches and I was so sure that I was going to switch. I could join medical, maybe have a day with construction. I was the newbie after all, I wanted the full experience. But after one day of teaching team, I knew I could never leave that group, and with it the interactions and experiences and richness I would get from being in those bateyes, in direct one on one contact with the people and the kids.
We actually forgot the teaching team bag on our first work day. These bags, full of the toys and activities we used to interact with the kids, were left an hour away at the dorms. It was ironic because at morning worship that day someone actually prayed for God to help us lead and work even when things don’t go according to plan, or when mistakes are made along the way. This ended up being the day where my love for this trip was planted, founded in error. A day that could’ve proven so difficult presented me with the first smiling faces that got me hooked. We sang and danced all morning, played games that resulted in the most heartwarming laughs. And I was taught MY first lesson. Obviously we didn’t have any of the whiffle balls or bats that we usually bring, but these little boys came running over anyway. In each of their hands they held different sticks, one was technically a plank of wood, and one held a ball, half deflated, that he had dug out of a pile of trash. As people pitched to them, they smiled. When they pitched, it became Major League. You wouldn’t believe how serious these kids got, and the ones on the sidelines loved to cheer on their friends. It was such a simple game, but they were having such a great time. They were doing so much with so little. The stresses of not having the bag faded away. The kids didn’t need anything to have a great time.
Without a doubt, my favorite day was Wednesday. Teaching team was in Batey 50. For those of you who don’t know, the DR Mission Team has been working in and with Batey 50 for many years now, so the relationship with the people there is great. I had been told the kids would be excited when we got there, but that was much better confirmed by the huge bear hug and jump into my arms that I received from this little girl right off the bat. I didn’t know her, and she definitely didn’t know me. All it took though was a bright smile and welcoming arms, and I knew I had to make this day great. I spent the entire day with this little one. During the activities, we colored and made bracelets, we danced when the processional of people bursted into the church, and she gladly smiled at the camera when asked for a photo. After we broke for lunch, the first person I saw coming off of the bus was her, smiling up at me, arms outstretched. As we distributed food, she followed me, holding me shirt when my hand wasn’t available. I was amazed at how she walked, barefoot, over all the trash and glass. I was so worried, but every time I looked down at her, made some joke in english, or made a silly face, she shot back the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen in my life, and not once did it fall from her face that day.
We had to leave again for dinner, and when we came back she wasn’t waiting right outside of the bus doors. This time, she was on the other side of the train tracks, waiting for me to get to her. Understandably of course, because this girl was dressed to the nines. I had been told the Batey 50 kids dress up for movie night, and they didn’t lie. The bare feet I was so worried about earlier were now fully covered with pristine pink shoes. I knew she was saving them for this occasion. And as she curled into my side during Moana, which was all in Spanish so I understood nothing, she looked to me every time she laughed, wanting to share the joy she was experiencing. We had been told that day that the people look forward to movie night, that it’s the best night of their year. I’m not saying that this wasn’t the best night of my year, it honestly very well might be, but I know it was the best of hers. And still, she was so willing to share her joy with me, so open and so kind. It was a gift she gave to me that I wasn’t expecting. After a tearful goodbye, but hopefully a see you later, I could only hope I gave her half of the blessings she gave me.
Although I’m glad to be back home, being able to wash my hands without the involvement of hand sanitizer is something I now greatly appreciate, I’m am infinitely more glad for the new desire I have since coming back. I’m already planning my trip for next year, already looking forward to those smiling faces, the new connections, the beautiful friendships, and the lifelong impacts it will make on not only them, but me as well. My spirit of service has been multiplied because of this experience, and for that I am extremely grateful, especially to everyone who helped me get there. I can not wait to put these newfound qualities to work, and use them to discover more about myself, about the world, and my fellow humans within it. With everything I learned and the intensity of the new experiences I had, the way I felt while in the Dominican Republic and have felt since returning, this fire, is something I never want to lose. I’d had been told countless times how life changing this would be, and, not to be cliche, but it very much was, and it in the best ways possible. If this is what going outside my comfort zone will get me, I guess being the “newbie” wasn’t so bad after all.