International island trip ‘opens the eyes' of students

March 17, 2014

Twenty-three orphan girls line the living room of the 2,800-square-foot building they call home in the village of Bona Chica, Dominican Republic. With tattered, dingy floral print sleeveless dresses swaying around their bare and dirty feet, the girls smile their broadest smiles and bellow songs in their native Spanish about how blessed they are.

It is a moment like several others in a week that has surprised the group of Indiana State University students for whom these girls perform. Several students struggle to hold back tears as they witness the crude island drums and hearty voices of the impoverished Dominicans, some as young as three years old, boasting of love and kindness through a repertoire that turns from Spanish to English. When the impromptu mini-concert concludes and the visit comes to an end, the girls swarm and hug tightly the students they've met only two hours earlier, pleading for them to stay.

This scrapbook of moments the students collected through their five-day visit to the country of 10.28 million impoverished people has left lasting impressions.

"When those girls began singing 'Open the Eyes of My Heart,' something clicked and this all came together for me," said Emily Price, a senior social work major from Terre Haute.

"It opened my eyes that when I leave, what I've experienced can go with me. It doesn't have to be temporary," Price said. "Sometimes with events like this the high wears off ... but that moment changed things for me. They have nothing and yet they felt so grateful and blessed."

The gratitude of the Dominican people was a thread that wove together a variety of activities during the first internationally focused Alternative Spring Break service trip sponsored by Indiana State's Center for Community Engagement.

The trip introduced 25 students and two faculty sponsors to the culture and customs of the people of the Dominican Republic. With the assistance of Score International, students were based in Juan Dolio, a small seaside community and tourist destination east of Haiti on the southern coast of the island of Hispaniola. Throughout the week, the students visited the orphanage as well as a preschool, childcare and nursing home facilities; passed out food to needy families in the village of Quisqueya; and organized a kickball game with the children of the village of El Penon.

Sharing food with needy families in their homes gave the students an intimate glimpse of the poverty that is rampant in a country where the average annual income is $5,470. Students saw one-room dirt floor huts without running water or electricity, the equivalent of a tool shed in the United States, that housed single-parent families of five or six.

Mattresses positioned in the dirt outside the homes served as playgrounds for infant children and stray animals alike.

"This is phenomenal. Life-changing," said sophomore biology major Erin Sluyter of Terre Haute. "You can learn great things through the experiential learning opportunities offered on campus. But it's when you remove yourself from the comfort of what you know, and campus, and immerse yourself completely in service that you really understand that mission to serve."

Of the 25 students who spent their spring break week serving Dominicans, only 12 had been out of the country before, three had never before traveled on an airplane and four had never before worked with the university's Alternative Spring Break program. Despite the language barrier, and only one fluent Spanish speaker in the group of travelers, the students communicated throughout the week with assistance from an interpreter but also through their acts of service and their time.

"You learn very quickly that when you're giving and showing love to other people, those things are accepted without words," ISU senior Gabi Roach said.

Roach, an art major from Terre Haute, said her time studying abroad in Florence, Italy heightened her interest in travel because learning about others and increasing her understanding of different cultures helps her better understand herself.

"You don't have to know someone's language in order to speak love to them," she said.

At the conclusion of the week, all 27 of the travelers said if given the opportunity, they would do it again.

David Shafer, a junior marketing major from South Bend, said he particularly connected with the elderly Dominicans he met while visiting a nursing home, some of whom sang and shared stories about their children, their travels off the island and their once successful careers.

"It's a moment I'll never forget," Shafer said. "When we sang with them, I watched one of the women give (senior finance major) Keith (Parker of Brazil) a hug, and then she danced with him."

"It reminded me of my grandparents and their days in a nursing home and how much our visits meant to them," he said. "That was pretty amazing."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Trips/Dominican-Republic-Alternative/i-PfSK53V/1/L/SpringBreakDR_Village-L.jpg - During an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic, Indiana State University students delivered food to the needy in the village of Quisqueya, home to nearly 25,000 people. (ISU/Rachel Wedding McClelland)

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Trips/Dominican-Republic-Alternative/i-fgxKdrQ/1/L/SpringBreakDR_PhilipUlrich-L.jpg - Indiana State University student Philip Ulrich of Franklin shares his sunglasses with a boy and gives the youngster a ride during an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic. (ISU/Rachel Wedding McClelland)

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Trips/Dominican-Republic-Alternative/i-qjQCkVL/1/L/SpringBreak_CityHiking-L.jpg - Indiana State University students visiting the Dominican Republic wind their way through the streets of Santo Domingo's colonial zone toward Colombus Square where they later toured Catedral Primada de America, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, completed in 1540. (ISU/Rachel Wedding McClelland)

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Trips/Dominican-Republic-Alternative/i-srNjbRL/1/L/SpringBreakDR_GabiRoach-L.jpg - Gabi Roach, a senior art major at Indiana State University, shows two boys their photos she shot with her smartphone during an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic. (ISU/Rachel Wedding McClelland)

Writer: Rachel Wedding McClelland, director of student publications, Indiana State University, 812-237-3028 or rachel.mcclelland@indstate.edu