When I signed up for Pre-Med Club’s Alternative Spring Break, I never imagined that I could change, but from day one in the Dominican Republic, I knew that I had been completely wrong. When someone told me this trip was going to change my life, I did not anticipate what was going to happen.
By the time we made it to Neyba, a community on the west side of the country, it was pitch black outside and you could see every single star in the sky. We had been crammed into a small bus-van for four hours, and we came to a stop. Eventually, our directors told us that the bus would not make it up the mountain where our living complex was because there was no real road. So instead, we had to sit in pick-up truck beds, with six or seven to a bed. The ride was an hour long. As we rode, feeling every rock, pebble and boulder on our butts, we had no idea what was beyond the blackness that surrounded us.
The next morning, all of us were in complete awe. The complex we were staying at was the most beautiful place. We were literally staying on a mountainside, surrounded by forests, small makeshift homes and a breathtaking view. After having a meal that was prepared by Dominican women, we were divided into three groups, two of which would build latrines in the community. The third would stay in the community and talk to residents about sexual health and teen pregnancy. On the ride down the mountain, we finally found out where we were, how amazingly beautiful the area was and how we were in paradise. We could see off the side of the mountain three feet to our left, and with the wind in our faces sitting in those trucks, we all just smiled as we bumped down the road.
We worked all day in 90-degree weather; we were always dusty, dirty, sweaty and warm; we dug holes for trash; we mixed and laid cement; we built latrines; we worked with people who lived on $350 a month. That’s what we did, and it isn’t. As we arrived at each worksite, we were always swarmed with kids who wanted to see and meet the “Americanos.” We always had toys and candy to share. That meant that our work was always mixed with playing catch, photo shoots, jumping rope and eating candy. Once, a little girl came up to us wanting to play, and we noticed a large burn about the size of a post-it on her leg. Her mother told us that it was a motorcycle burn, a bunch of pre-med kids jumped into action, patching her up and helping her. All the time, she was smiling, saying it didn’t hurt and thanking us. It was moments like these that reaffirmed why we were there.
As a Spanish-speaker, my experience was different, and I had the opportunity to talk with the families about things that seem so simple to us in the U.S. — things like washing their hands before and after preparing food, after using the bathroom and before eating a meal. I got to share with people that things were covered in ice and snow in Michigan. People asked me if all the water was frozen solid, if we could wash our clothes and asked how we bathed. Something so simple seemed so foreign to them. Even being Asian was a foreign concept. The other students in our group were called “Americanos,” but not me. I was “un chino” or “Jackie Chan,” one that could speak Spanish nonetheless. They were so surprised.
On one of the days, I had the opportunity to go to the schools and talk about teen pregnancy. In this school, we had around 70 kids, ranging from ages of 8 to 18. As we talked with the students, I translated for the others with me. At one point, a girl stood up and spoke. She was 28 years old, had her first child at 13, had three other kids, and more amazingly, she was in school with her eldest son. She wanted to share with the other kids about how it changed her life and what she had to sacrifice in order to be a mom at 13. As heavy as that was, as emotionally draining as every day seemed to be, each day seemed better than the last.
The best day of the week involved a random hike through the woods with three incredible people in my group, one of our facilitators, Raudo, and two local kids, Rafelito and Carlos, who knew the mountain and it’s glory. As we hiked, Rafelito disappeared, and then it started to rain toronjas (grapefruits in Spanish). Carlos began picking them up one by one and started to peel them with his machete. I just about died of happiness. And then, it started to rain oranges and when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we were hiking down the side of a mountain chomping on fresh-off-the-tree fruit.
So on my spring break, I went to different bars and built latrines. I went swimming in the most beautiful beach, played catch with little kids, I kicked it on a catamaran and learned how to speak Spanish like a Dominican. I hiked a mountain and talked about condoms and saw some of the most resilient people, all while meeting and getting to know incredible students from the University. Contrary to my prior beliefs, I changed. I changed in a way that I couldn’t even explain, that I still can’t explain. But most importantly, I want to go back. I want to be like the people we met in the Dominican Republic, people who love the people of their country, who give up everything to better other’s lives, who dedicate their lives to a seemingly impossible cause, who are making a difference. For them, what they do is little and small, but for us, for the people they help, they are a blessing. They are role models. They are who we aspire to be.