2014 Dominican Republic Mission Trip
Sponsored by Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta, Georgia
Posted on July 22, 2014
The mission team sponsored by Christ Episcopal Church (Valdosta, Georgia) was in the Dominican Republic from June 7-14, 2014. The fifteen members of this team represented churches in the six Episcopal dioceses: Alabama, Atlanta, Central Florida, Central Gulf Coast, Georgia, and North Carolina. The team members included: Julia Ariail, Julius Ariail, Dan Cook, Jim Drazdowski, Jim Ellis Fisher, the Rev. Deacon Sue Gahagan, Angela Hope, Grady Lacy, Bert Power, Bill Querin, Fred Richter, Paul Stevenson, Mary Stowe, Helen Tucker, and Liz Welch. Each team member wore a ceramic cross that had been designed and made by fellow missioner Jim Ellis Fisher specifically for this 2014 mission trip.
During the week, the team stayed at the Dominican Episcopal camp located in the village of El Pedregal, and they finished about half of the construction of a concrete-block house for a village resident and also half of the construction of playground equipment for the Episcopal K-8 school on the grounds of the camp. A youth mission team from the Diocese of Nebraska arrived on June 23rd to complete both the house and the playground projects. Both the Georgia and Nebraska teams had been planning these mutual projects since February, 2014, and had raised funds to share the costs of both.
The Christ Church team also conducted five afternoon classes of knitting and crocheting for 25 women and teenagers of the village, continuing a project that has been going on annually since 2006. On the last afternoon they were at the camp, the team sponsored a “splash party” for around 200 village children, complete with wading pools, a slip-and-slide, and a hot dog & ice cream lunch.
In addition to the knitting and crocheting and other project supplies that had been transported in duffle bags for use during the trip, the team also brought several other items and presented them to the camp administrators for use in the camp or in the community. These items included clothing for babies and children, t-shirts for teenagers and adults, school supplies, bath mats for the Gordon dormitory, several types of hand tools, a portable public address system, and 15 copies of the Spanish Book of Common Prayer and the Dominican Episcopal hymnbook.
One of the many highlights of the trip was the presentation of a certificate for 30 scholarships for students in the Episcopal K-8 school for the 2014-2015 academic year. Each scholarship costs $350. These scholarship funds had been donated both by team members and also by members of the “home teams” in the churches that had sponsored one or more of the “go team” members. After the team returned to the United States on June 14, additional scholarship funds were received that made it possible to increase this donation to 35 scholarships for the next academic year. This is the largest number of scholarships the team has donated in the 12-year history of trips to El Pedregal.
In consultation with the Rt. Rev. Julio C. Holguín, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Dominican Republic, the leadership of the Georgia and Nebraska teams decided to use the funds remaining after the completion of the playground and home construction projects to help furnish the second floor of the main dormitory building and to strengthen the camp’s perimeter security.
The work of the 2014 team was greatly assisted by two representatives of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic: Karen Carroll, the missionary in charge of the diocese’s mission team support office who coordinated all of the team’s in-country travel and housing arrangements; and Charlie Nakash, another missionary in the Dominican team support office who supervised both of the construction projects. The team also enjoyed the hospitality of Padre Álvaro Yepes and his wife, Ángela, who jointly administer the Episcopal camp and its associated programs.
Several team members contributed their reflections on the trip for this report, and those statements are available below.
REFLECTIONS BY INDIVIDUAL TEAM MEMBERS
Our mission this year has been to build a 600 sq. ft house for a family of nine occupants. Most of us in this country could not imagine living in such small quarters with nine family members. It’s hard to express how joyful this family is to have our help and financial support, it is truly a dream come true for them and worked diligently daily along side with the mission team to contribute to the build.
What is most touching is their gratitude for us being there and their excitement when they see us drive in. I am always in awe when I see their beautiful smiling faces arrive to knitting classes spotless and well dressed just to later visit their homes and see that some barely have a roof over their heads, others with no running water or electricity. I am always amazed at how they do that.
Our second goal was playground equipment for the children at the school who currently have 3 x 3 ft cube to play with during recess and these kids were thrilled to watch the equipment being built. There is such an innocence in these young lives, they all want to be loved and hugged. A big treat for them is to have their picture taken with you and to immediately see their photo in a digital camera or IPhone. Yes they bring far more joy to us then we do to them. When your eyes welt up with tears as you drive pass the smiling faces waving good bye as we leave the village you know that you have accomplished your goal, to bring joy into the lives of women and children who only want a hug and know that you care about them and you came back to help. Thanks be to GOD for these beautiful people of El Pedregal.
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It’s all about relationships…a woman who is the friend of a relative decides to go on the mission trip; a priest friend recommends a parishioner to join our team; a bilingual woman who hears a presentation about our trip decides to go with us; 32 friends, church members and Episcopal Church Women donate scholarships, and many others come together for a 15-member team. Despite our differences, we worked together to accomplish four goals: build a house, construct playground equipment, provide school scholarships, and teach knitting and crochet. But most importantly, we continued building friendships in the village of El Pedregal for the 12th year.
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The partnership with Nebraska brought a welcome new dimension to our 2014 trip. In the past, other teams had continued some of our projects, but these were chance developments. The fruitful partnership with the Nebraska team began in October, 2013, with a fortuitous meeting at a Dominican Development Group event in Omaha. That meeting led to joint planning, fundraising and completion of both the playground and house construction projects. Neither project could have been funded or completed by one of the teams alone; but by the teams working together with DDG and Dominican diocesan support, both were accomplished.
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On my first mission trip, my first trip to the Dominican Republic, my goal was to serve Christ through good works but I also wanted to observe first hand people that had nothing and yet managed to maintain a sense of optimism. People who could find joy in a very hard and Spartan existence. I wanted to contrast this to the people I see daily who have everything and yet continually complain. I found this building a house side by side with local Dominicans, two of whom would live in that house, Jaclyn and Darlen. Side by side we worked everyday, shared stories, got dirty, laughed, cut up, sang, danced, and little by little we built not just a house but relationships. They were sad to see me go the last day and they will look for me when the group returns next year. I will look for them as well.
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We got more than we gave, as usual. Yes, we spend a good bit of time and money on travel, and we deliver funds to support the school kids, but our experiences in El Pedregal trump all that. Although our short stay prevents us from seeing our projects to completion, we leave with a sense of accomplishment, friends made and lives changed, including our own. In exchange for our humble labors on a house, a playground, and a fledgling knitting ministry, we gain a church family that now extends to a beautiful place in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. What a deal.
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I spent some time at Colegio Episcopal Monte de la Transfiguración, and was greeted by the school secretary, who also doubles as quartermaster, guidance counselor, school nurse, and Padre Álvaro’s right hand person! She is highly educated and organized, and very personable.
I also met the Preschool and Kindergarten teachers, who were wonderful! They talked about how much they enjoyed working with the staff, children, and parents, and that it felt just like family. They shared that many of the children’s parents could not afford to purchase textbooks, school supplies, or even provide a daily lunch for their children, and the teachers would print/share materials, and routinely purchase items using their own personal funds, to ensure that every child had what was needed to be successful in school. One of the teachers also shared that last year she was unable to continue her studies at the university, and that Padre Álvaro intervened and found a sponsor who is presently providing tuition for three semesters towards completion of her teaching degree. She was ecstatic, and praised the efforts of Padre Álvaro on her behalf, and of others as well. She also shared that due to new government initiatives, many of the teachers at Transfiguración are continuing their education in the masters program at the university in Jarabacoa!
I also spoke with some of the eighth grade girls who were transitioning into high school this year. They were very complimentary of the school, having been enrolled there since the first grade! One girl stated that due to family hardships, she had withdrawn from Transfiguración, and enrolled in the public school system for one year. Now that her family was doing better financially, she was happy to be back at this school, even though they were lacking a computer lab (teachers use the office computer for Science videos, movies, etc.), a school library, and even mirrors in the girls’ bathroom!!
Other teenagers I spoke to mentioned that they were enrolled in English language classes in Jarabacoa, in hopes of traveling to the United States to continue their education in the future.
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For me there wasn’t a singular standout moment this year, but every year I’m astonished that these people still look for ME, and remember ME and call me by name. They throw open their arms and welcome me with the warmest, heart-felt hugs. So I know I must be doing something right. Every year I feel blessed when we come home, and I can tell my friends what we have done. To know that my presence in their community helping them understand what we are trying to teach so that they can turn around and develop an industry for themselves. A mission of presence! My presence helped this summer.
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It was a privilege to go on this trip and be of service. It was a pleasure to help. I felt many times that it was they helping me. Sometimes this was literally true, as when the 6 year old in front of me at church made sure I knew the page number in the song book and in the Book of Common Prayer (next year I will know more Spanish!).
Beyond the many practical construction related lessons I learned from my team mates, I learned more about living. The people of El Pedregal showed me through their practice how they leave a door open to joy. They may welcome joy through worship. They may welcome joy through a swim in a river. They may welcome joy through song or through dance or through a simple gift. They have many needs, certainly, but many have joyful hearts.
I am so grateful for this lesson. We all have our trials. Our trials may be different from theirs or they may not be, but I want to remember what they showed me: Throw open your arms to joy and smile.
DAY-BY-DAY DIARY OF THE MISSION TRIP – Friday, June 6 through Saturday, June 14
(Originally posted on the Facebook page of Christ Episcopal Church during the trip; edited for this trip report)
Friday, June 6, 2014
Fourteen team members met in the lobby of the Sheraton Suites Hotel at 6:30 p.m. to go to supper at TGIF restaurant about a mile away. As we didn’t have reservations, we split up at three tables to avoid a long wait for a large table. After supper we continued sharing news with former team members and getting to know the new ones. One team member who lives in North Carolina is scheduled to meet us in Santo Domingo tomorrow.
Saturday, June 7, 2014
The team met at 9 a.m. in a hotel conference room for the team briefing by team leader Fred Richter, and practical details by Julia Ariail. A hotel van transported the first 7 members to the Orlando airport at 11 a.m. and the second load of 7 at 11:30. After check-in and security check, those who wanted to ate lunch at the airport restaurants. The two-and-a-half hour flight to Santo Domingo left on time at 2:10 p.m. and arrived around 5:30 p.m. We were met at the airport by missionaries Karen Carroll and Charlie Nakash and DDG Executive Director Bill Kunkle. The team boarded a bus to the city while Karen, Bill, and Charlie waited at the airport for another team’s arrival and our 15th member on a later flight. The team checked into the Hostal San Francisco. At 7 p.m. the team, now all 15, ate a pre-arranged buffet dinner at the Villar Brothers restaurant, a block from the hotel.
Sunday, June 8, 2014
Another long but rewarding day. Up for 7:00 a.m. for breakfast in the hotel, then a two-block walk to Epiphany Cathedral for the 8:45 a.m. English Eucharist. Dean Ashton Brooks greeted us warmly and gave us an overview of the significant parts of the cathedral. As in our home churches, it was the Red Day of Pentecost at the Cathedral, and we enjoyed the readings and the sermon about the apostles being commissioned to go out on missions.
Then we walked back to the hotel to pack up and then board our bus to El Pedregal. We left around 10:30 a.m. and stopped along the way at the Jacaranda rest stop for lunch. We arrived at the camp at 2:15 p.m. and were warmly greeted by Ángela, the wife of the camp’s vicar, Padre Álvaro. She got us all settled in the Gordon Dormitory, which has eight bedrooms, each with a private bathroom. Two of the bedrooms will also hold our 14 fourteen duffle bags of knitting and other supplies.
At 4:00 p.m. we had a brief walk through the village, checking out the two houses we worked on last year and the house site we will work on this year in cooperation with the Nebraska mission team. Rain interrupted our walk, so we returned to the camp and had a planning meeting to schedule the events of the week.
Then it was a delicious supper at 6:00 p.m. (BBQ chicken, boiled potatoes, plantains, beet salad, and chocolate pudding) and then compline at 7:00 p.m.
After compline, the knitting crew sorted the supplies we brought in the 14 bags to make the 23 student supply kits for Monday’s class. The total number of students is smaller this year, but the lessons will be more focused with more emphasis on quality.
Monday, June 9, 2014
First day of work completed; solid progress on all three projects.
The house construction project workers laid 200 concrete blocks in place. The house had three rows of blocks when we arrived, and now it has five. Goal by the end of the week: 12 rows. This will raise the blocks to the height needed to support the roof beams. Plenty of work will be left for the Nebraska team, including finishing interior details, erecting the roof beams, and painting and installing the metal roofing sheets. The construction workers enjoyed interacting with the Dominican work crew, led by Euclides, a longtime friend of our team over the years; Ivan, one of his sons; Carlos “Picarene,” another longtime old friend; and also Jackeline, the homeowner who worked side by side with us and the other Dominicans.
The playground project got off to a good start by erecting most of the framework for the structure. This included digging postholes in very rocky, dry ground that proved more difficult than first thought. One extra complication was that a layer of old chain link fencing was discovered buried in an area where a critical posthole had to be dug. There was no way to dig through or around the buried fencing material, so tomorrow there will be a run to the local hardware store for a set of bolt cutters.
The knitting project ran from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. with two initial projects: an Episcopal shield and a lace pattern scarf. Both proved a little more difficult than expected for the 19 knitting students, and the knitters have come up with a Plan B for Tuesday’s class to restart with a simpler project and then work up to the more complicated projects. The students did enjoy the class and left with an unfinished project in hand to work on at home and being back on Tuesday.
After work concluded around 4:30 p.m., we enjoyed another delicious supper (rice, lentil soup, BBQ chicken in the “pulled pork” style, bread, and something else that looked like baked slices of potato.
After supper we had a planning / debriefing meeting about the events of the day. As part of the meeting Padre Álvaro spoke to us about his impressions of the day, and applauded our team’s organization and steady work.
We then sat in a circle for Compline, followed by yoga relaxing exercises.
Second day of work coming up.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Another long day. But all projects continue to move forward.
The house now has seven rows of the goal of 12 rows of blocks. Work is getting harder because the blocks and mortar have to be lifted higher and higher. However, we are working with a great crew of Dominicans and each missioner is matched with a Dominican to work side by side.
The playground has almost all of the vertical posts installed and also has two of the platforms in place. Work will go quicker tomorrow once the team gets some new equipment from the local hardware store, including a new blade for the circular saw and a 100′ extension cord that reaches from the nearest outlet in the school building to the playground work site. The costs of this equipment are included in the budget for this project that our team plus the Nebraska team have funded.
The knitting project went better today but is still running behind schedule. Some of the knitters grasped the concept of the projects well, while others needed more help. The class teachers intend to divide the class on Wednesday into four groups to be able to focus on the needs of the students more directly. Several students did complete two projects very well, and those students might form the nucleus of a group that could teach the others after we leave on Saturday.
After supper we had a team meeting to review the day, then participated in Compline service. After that, Padre Álvaro briefed us on the status of the Episcopal K-8 school here, where the greatest need was scholarship support in the face of increased expansion of the public school system. We presented him with a certificate announcing our team’s intention to donate 30 scholarships for the 2014-15 school year – and perhaps more once we get home and check to see if any last-minute donations might have come in. Last year our team gave 25 scholarships, which was a record high for us. But thanks to the generosity of the “home teams” in several churches sending members to take part as the “go team” this year, we now have at least 30 scholarships to give. Each scholarship costs US$350.
Wednesday morning – we start it all over again. We are tired, but happy to be here and helping where we can.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
In a reversal of progress reports, the knitting crew achieved a solid success in this afternoon’s class by adopting the strategy of dividing up the students by age and knitting / crocheting skills, and assigned one teacher to each group with a translator. Thus the skilled people were able to move forward, and the less-skilled receive detailed instructions. The end of the class saw the first milestone reached – one of the students finished three scrunchie hair bands and was able to place them in a plastic bag marked with a tag that said “handcrafted in El Pedregal” with the Campamento logo – and the crafter’s signature on the tag. This is to let them see what it is like to make and then package something that they could sell to another person. We hope to establish a “Campamento” brand of hand crafts as the project moves forward.
The playground work moved slower because it took until noon to go to the hardware store in Jarabacoa (4 miles away) and buy needed equipment such as a long extension cord, a set of drill bits and a new blade for the circular saw. Still, the playground workers did what they could in the morning and then swung in full action in the afternoon.
On the house – alas, not much progress today. We ran out of most concrete block yesterday and the new shipment did not arrive until almost quitting time today (4:30 pm). The Dominican crew worked during the day with the remaining blocks, setting the vertical corners of the house up nine rows. Most rows remain at seven, however.
At 6 we gathered in the Episcopal church at the gateway between the camp and the village for a service of Holy Eucharist. After the service, we presented Padre Álvaro with 15 new Spanish copies of the Book of Common Prayer and 15 Dominican Episcopal hymnbooks. We had brought the prayer books from the US, and had purchased the hymnbooks from the Dominican diocesan office in Santo Domingo when we arrived on Saturday.
Our missioner MD, Dr. Bill Querin, had the opportunity to treat a member of the church for a skin burn after church. Using medical supplies he and the team had brought, he and two other missioners and Padre Álvaro treated the church member for the burn she had suffered while riding on a motorcycle.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Happy to report solid progress on all three projects today.
The house project had another delayed delivery of concrete block today so our missioners helped the Dominican crew to work on the house’s septic tank pit using what block remained. But a delivery of concrete blocks right after lunch and then a second delivery around 3:00 p.m. got all hands at work again, and by the end of the day the house team thought that all of the goals for our mission team would be met by noon on Friday. This basically means that the walls will be as high as had been expected for us. When we leave, the Dominican crew will continue working to place wall supports on the upper levels and prepare the wall for the roof beams. Then the Nebraska team will come on June 23 to put on the beams, the roof panels, and lay the concrete for the floor as major tasks.
The knitters also worked well with the students on a doll project; or better said, students and teachers all worked together to help the skilled knitters advance rapidly while the ones who needed more help received it from our instructors and their peer group. By the end of the day a few dolls had been completed, and we expect several finished dolls will come to class Friday afternoon. After the class, the knitters will be invited to set up a marketplace for the missioners to buy items to take home.
The playground project also received a supply of needed lumber today that will allow that team to complete all anticipated tasks by the end of Friday. The regional power grid was down briefly this afternoon and the team thought they would have to work on camp generator power as they had on Wednesday, but the regional power came back on after a 30-minute outage and stayed on the rest of the day. These rolling power blackouts have been a regular daily occurrence, but thanks to the camp generator the team’s drills, power screwdrivers, and circular saw keep on operating.
The knitters enjoyed a morning’s shopping excursion into Jarabacoa to purchase souvenirs, coffee and vanilla to take home. They went in two taxis and Padre Álvaro’s car, and enjoyed seeing the city – quite a contrast to the village of El Pedregal.
Tomorrow: our last full day here, filled with more work on all three projects plus a swim party for the children and a fiesta party with the church congregation in the evening.
Friday, June 13, 2014
All three projects successfully completed. House and playground to the states where we are comfortable leaving them for the Nebraska team, and the knitting classes have demonstrated the idea of packaging and branding crafts for sale.
Animated splash party conducted for village children.
Walk to river for some missioners, while others rested in the camp.
Active market at the camp where villagers brought their crafts to sell, including the first ones that were labeled using the “Handcrafted in El Pedregal” logo tag we brought (each tag in both Spanish and English).
Festive supper and dancing tonight with villagers and school personnel.
All in all, a very good day, our last full day in the Dominican Republic. In Saturday, a bus ride to the Santo Domingo airport, and then back to Orlando.
Saturday, June 14, 2014
After breakfast at the camp, we packed up and said goodbye to Padre Álvaro, Ángela, and the other camp staff members. Our chartered bus arrived promptly at 9:30 a.m. and we went to a grocery store in Jarabacoa for more coffee and vanilla to take home. Then we rode down the mountain to the interstate highway that would lead to the Santo Domingo airport. Along the way, we stopped once again at the Jacaranda rest stop for refreshments and then continued on to the airport. We arrived at the airport too early to check in for our flights, so we stacked all our luggage in one area to wait. During this time, several missioners enjoyed exploring the “departures” area of the airport that we don’t usually have time to see.
After checking in for our flights (14 of us to Orlando, 1 to New York City and then on to North Carolina), we reassembled in the gate area and had another waiting time of several hours before we could board our flights. The Orlando flight departure was delayed for about 30 minutes, but the NYC flight left on time. Both flights arrived safely at their destinations. Upon those arrivals, our mission trip was officially over. We were happy to be back in the United States, but also happy to have been able to participate on the 2014 mission trip to the Dominican Republic.