DR398   (Our Dominican Vision Trip in 398 words)

a toddler peers through slats in a window to see visitors to her rural Dominican Republic home

Day 1
On the plane, drifting over clouds
And so it begins. We will play in unfamiliar settings and take in all the smells and textures that make up the tiny portion of the Dominican Republic which awaits us.

Day 2
On my bed, beneath a creaky ceiling fan
Sweat. Drips. Sopping wet. H-U-M-I-D is how you spell Dominican Republic.

Day 3
On the bus, heading to our first community
The intern announces, “It’s Terrible Joke Tuesday!”
Later, he says our gang of 6 participated more than last week’s group of 18. We attribute that to Senor Tim.

In a school room where the Village Savings & Loan members meet
A woman says, “We are grateful a thousand times a thousand – grateful for so many things. If we were to share them all, it would take days.”

Merengue musicians, with guitar and drum and guida.Day 4
On a balcony, surrounded by Dominican people, food and music
The Merengue starts, with guitar and drum and guida. They sing about the hard work of coffee growers. We clap and dance.

In a one-room church building, where children line the walls, eager to engage
The teacher leads a lesson on a familiar story: the birth of Jesus. Her emphasis is on a detail maybe we’ve missed before: “Jesus was born into nothing.”

Day 5
On the patio, while roosters call and shoo away the morning gray
Doves embark on playful races and the chants of a dozen birds are muted by the scuffing of tired feet. Morning has broken.

On a thickly forested mountaintop
A young boy and his father drive the oxen to haul logs – carefully selected trees removed for the health of the forest. 

Rosa, a most impressive farmer, shows the diversity of plants she has tended. Watching the chatter between gringos and her neighbors, she wraps her arms around a tree and smiles.

lush green farmed hills in Dominican RepublicDay 6
On a restaurant deck, over the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea
We eat breakfast: four weary Americans and a cheerful Dominican named Chico.

How quickly bonds are made. With or without a common language, there is joy and understanding.

Day 7
On a bench outside Denver’s Union Station
Three new friends reflect on their good fortune: they have seen poverty and richness redefined by Dominicans. And they forge ahead as apostles of a gospel that blends care of the earth with care of those who inhabit it.


Written by Kate Vanskike, 
who journeyed to the Dominican Republic
with Amber Smith and Tim Busse to experience the work of Plant With Purpose, August 2016.
For more on how planting trees has helped diminish poverty, visit
www.plantwithpurpose.org.

My 2015 Review, by the numbers

10 Firsts

biking the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago

Attending Zags basketball games
Vegan cooking
Taking a college class as an adult (critical thinking)
Producing Gonzaga Magazine from start to finish
Joined the board of Healing Hearts Northwest
Biking to work, and along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago
Hiking the Avalanche Creek trail at Glacier
21 miles in Spokefest
Serving as parent advisor for student council
Pneumonia

6 Firsts with Emily

10940586_10204726065966079_597742440051006259_n
Tubing at Bear Creek needs to become a yearly thing.

Nighttime sledding at Mount Spokane
Participated in a MLK march
Attending a college lecture on racism
Volunteering for SCRAPS (animal shelter)
Serving with Blessings Under the Bridge (homeless ministry)
Haunted Houses

5 Top Activities for Em

Students from Spokane International Academy at Washington Capitol

Started 6th grade at Spokane International Academy
Second season of softball (shortstop, slugger, All-Star)
Serving on Student Council
A weeklong trip without family to Olympic National Park
Trip to the capitol building in Olympia

5 Traditions Kept

water over rocks in crevasse

Family Camp at Camp White
Spending my birthday at Glacier National Park
Fall harvest at Green Bluff
Halloween
4 weeks of Christmas activities

1 New-ish Tradition Kept

Hosting an international visitor.  And I just have to say more about this.  Last year, we had a 14-year-old student from Japan for 3 weeks and she was delightful.  This summer, we had two medical students from Guatemala for a month, and they were so much fun and wove their way straight into our hearts.  We are somewhat leery to do it again, only for fear that our next visitors won’t be as wonderful as Saori, Ale and Julia.

Guatemalan friends at Spokane park

 

4 Fun Trips

Home by Kate Vanskike

Philadelphia – living history
St. Louis – all my parents’ favorite stomping grounds
Chicago – work and reflection, and biking downtown in the rain
San Francisco – Christmas road trip

5 Books Finished

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (John Berendt)
Travels with Charlie (John Steinbeck)
Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
A Jesuit’s Journey through the Tumultuous 1960s (Paul Swift)

7 Books Started

Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything (Fr. James Martin, S.J.)
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimmage (Kimberly Meyer)
Another Roadside Attraction (Tom Robbins)
In the Company of the Poor (Paul Farmer)
Tattoos on the Heart (Fr. Greg Boyle)
Just Between Us (Meredith Jacobs)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Stieg Larsson/David Lagercrantz)

1 Big Wish

Peace, in our hearts and in our world. Courage to defend what is right. Finding God in all things.  Assuming the best in people.  Laughing more. Drinking more spiced tea, eating more veggies, buying less crap, enjoying more music, saying thank you more, celebrating all that is good. Peace, in our hearts and in our world.
a metal sign reading Peace is covered in snow

What I learned in 90 minutes at Las Obras

Or: My “failure” at serving severely disabled kids

Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala
Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala

Following a week of service in a rural Mayan village, our team headed to Antigua, Guatemala, for sight-seeing.  It wasn’t all fun and games, shopping and eating, though.  Our leaders wanted us to experience Las Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro — a hospital/home for the most severely disabled and deformed.

I thought to myself, “I used to take care of people with major disabilities.  I can do this.”  And it wasn’t so hard anyway, seeing how well cared for the patients are: impeccably clean and tended to with such compassion.

Then we entered a children’s unit, and things became a little tougher.  There were kids who wanted to be playful and others who were disfigured beyond belief.  Each one who reached out, Pedro touched compassionately and talked to them gently.  We followed his cue and begin interacting with the children as best as we could.  Next came the infant ward, where we were greeted by a tiny girl who was crying and holding out her hands to be picked up.  We wandered through the room, stopping at every crib.  Two with cleft palates.  One with cleft palate and additional disfiguration of his face.  One little boy lying contentedly, swinging his legs around in the air while lying on his back; he had Down syndrome, and nothing else “wrong” was apparent.

“Why,” I asked the Father,” would a child with something as simple as Down syndrome be in a place like this?  Where is his family?”

“He was abandoned,” said Padre.  “Like most of them.”

As we left that unit, most of us in tears, we turned a corner and there was a large piece of art depicting a person with severe deformities clinging to the feet of Jesus.  I could barely breathe.  Yes, that is the way they must feel – please Jesus, don’t leave me!  These are absolutely “the least of these” of whom Jesus spoke.

On Sunday, after my team departed for LA, I returned to San Pedro Iglesia where the residents of Las Obras join together for Mass.  There were more people in wheelchairs than in pews: people without legs; others with hands and feet turned to unnatural positions; some drooling.  Clapping, rocking, some with flies gathering at their mouths.  Some of them didn’t understand the homily any better than I, but we were together, sharing communion.

Three times, I returned to Las Obras, hoping to talk with the British doctor who volunteers there and to offer some time myself.  With limited Spanish, I asked the receptionist for Leslie, and she replied, “En la manana,” and so, I returned in the morning and went through the same routine.  Finally, on my last day in Antigua, I skipped breakfast and headed straight for Las Obras so I couldn’t possibly miss my connection with the English-speaking doctor.  This time, I didn’t even have to ask the receptionist — she asked, “Leslie?” and immediately got on the phone.  Leslie wasn’t available, but a Volunteer coordinator spoke English, and that was just what I needed!

(a photo from Google) Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths
(a photo from Google)
Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths

Soon, I had a volunteer badge and was escorted to the children’s ward.  There were several other Americans present who felt about as awkward and inadequate as I did, not speaking Spanish but trying desperately to do something good.  The children were all in their wheelchairs, lined up in rows around three sides of the courtyard.  Some appeared to be completely unaware of all reality, others were distressed.  I sat next to a teenaged boy, reclined in his chair, who was nonverbal but very alert.  I began singing, and without thinking about it, I was singing “Love in any language, straight from the heart, pulls us all together, never apart…”  He recognized the “I love you” in Spanish and smiled widely, looking at me as if to beg for more.

Then I went to Jessica, a beautiful girl with braids.  I touched her hair and I said “muy bonita,” (Very pretty!) and she gleamed with delight.  Perhaps they don’t often hear people tell them they’re beautiful, because by all means, some of them are difficult for many of us to look at.  I read part of a Dr. Seuss book to one boy and tried clapping hands with another, then one of the workers asked if I would take a crying boy for a little stroll in his chair.  He was so upset and she said the only thing that calms him down is being pushed around in his chair.  So we wandered through the garden and I rocked him slowly back and forth like you would a baby in a stroller and he became restful.

Confrontation with comfort

(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention
(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention

Eventually, some of the men from the American group came into the courtyard, and I made some quick labels in my head about them being straight off a corn field in Iowa.  It was somewhat comforting, in a twisted kind of way, to see others who surely were more out of place than me.  I had secretly named one “Cowboy Nascar” (yes, he was wearing a cowboy hat and a Nascar shirt) and soon was ashamed of my labeling and judgment, because he was WONDERFUL and so natural with these kids.  He made them laugh and soon had a gathering around him.

As much as I tried to feel that comfortable and relaxed myself, it never happened.  I continued to sing to different kids and take them for strolls, but at just an hour and a half into it, I had to leave.  And I felt guilty for that.  A whopping 90 minutes.  What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this longer?  Am I just selfish, unable or unwilling to face such difficult situations?

I was hungry, so that was my ticket out the door.  I turned in my badge, got my purse and left Las Obras with a heavy heart.

What did I learn—about myself—in 90 minutes with “the least of these”? 

Many things, but here are a few vivid lessons.

  1. In case I haven’t heard the old cliché enough: you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Cowboy Nascar was gifted, and he was willing, and he made a difference.  Guaranteed.  And I should do away with hasty generalizations.
  2. In truth, I went to Las Obras to volunteer because I thought doing something “noble” would make me feel better about myself.  Really?  There are so many things I can say about that foolishness!  It was clear that I forced myself to go.  The day before, I so desperately wanted to avoid it that I walked as far as possible and went into a resort where I had myself a spa treatment!  As it turned out, letting someone care for me felt pretty good, and I need to learn to accept that without shame or guilt.
  3. Everybody knows:  we don’t all have the same gifts, and we don’t have to.  The cool thing about Dr. Leslie, the British woman I never got to meet?  I’d heard that she had stopped by Las Obras for a quick tour like my group had, she loved the opportunity she saw, and she never left.  When my friend Mark said “Thanks for your service here,” she replied to him with all sincerity, “Brother, it’s no burden.”

Obviously, serving these vulnerable children and adults is her gift, her calling.  But that doesn’t mean it’s mine.  I don’t have to beat myself up for having only lasted 90 minutes in a place where she’s remained more than a year.

Let’s chat.

I think we could have some good dialogue about this experience, so I’m inviting you to chime in.  What about my vulnerability in this story did you connect with?  Did it remind you of similar experiences where you faced some tough truths?  Let’s talk.

Receiving more than giving

Thursday was our last day in Sehaquiba and we were sad.  In a few short days, these amazing and wonderful people worked their way into our hearts.  They have changed us.

IMG_20140519_130655693Our instructions were to focus on doing one stove installation per team and to do it with great intention and presence … to pay more attention to the family and enjoy their company.  We were quite happy to oblige.  We rode up the hill in the bus a couple of miles and then hiked in to Jose’s little house, which, interestingly, was the first little home on the hill I had noticed when we first arrived in Sehaquiba.  It was there I had seen two little girls watching the bus round the corner into their world.  Those two little girls stood atop their hill once again, and this time welcomed us up to their home.

When the stove was complete and the Monitoring Mothers had done their teaching about its use, some girls immediately set about preparing tortillas.  They pat the meal like pancakes, then add some spiced black beans, add more meal and pat into a perfect tortilla to put on the stove.  Kendra jumped in to participate, and then me.  You would think patting some black bean mixture into a tortilla would be easy, but I managed to make a mess of it, and they laughed when I put mine on the stove!

The room was rearranged and a table set in the middle, with a bench alongside for us to sit and eat the bean tortillas and drink the Moosh.  Fortunately for a corn hater like me, this was 99% warm sweetened milk and 1% corn.  Per our tradition, we gathered for a blessing, praying for the family and their health, and them praying blessings on our families and our safe return home.

DSCN0668Back at the community center, music was already playing and groups were gathering for our closing ceremony.  Like the welcoming ceremony just days before, the facility was decorated and the spirit was jovial.  Women were cooking stew in huge pots in another room, and the marimba men were keeping things lively while the kids danced with us again.

Jose opened the ceremony with a spiritual reflection and scripture, then Enrique (the mayor) gave his speech:

“Thank you for the love you’ve shown us and for your help in community development.  We’re so happy having you here working together with the people – your organization, coordination, empowerment.  We thank God for these Americans thinking about this community.  We have understood the need for these stoves – no more smoke in the house – this is important for our good health.”

The community council representative said “We don’t have anything to pay you back, but we are so grateful for what you’ve done.”  They presented Mark with a thank you note written in three languages.

The last Qiche speaker said,“We love Americans … because they become our friends.” 

They love us not because we brought them a physical gift but because we developed relationships with them.  And while they said they had nothing to give us as thanks, that wasn’t true.  They gave each and every team member a gift – something made with their own hands, for us to take home and remember them by.

After many speeches, gifts and dances, we made our way to the bus, where the Monitoring Mothers and their kids joined us for prayer.  The Mother who prayed (Josephina?) was sobbing, and then were the rest of us.  I watched Ophelia wipe tears from Olga’s cheek.   Such amazing women trying to accomplish so much for their community, and feeling powerless without the support of the Americans and MTI to back them up.  Ironic, really, as THEY are the ones doing the work, providing education and helping their fellow community members to see what must happen for them to experience improved health and wellbeing.

Saying goodbye was SO hard.  I am already dreaming of the day I can return and embrace them with a warm and hearty, “Masalachole!”  (How is your soul?!)

Back in Coban, we had dinner and MTI staff presented us with certificates that have the photo of our team with the Sehaquiba community, and a bag of Coban coffee, too.  More moving speeches, more thanks, more appreciation.

I don’t need – or deserve – all that, because truly, I have received more than I have given.

 

(If you care to hear any more about the experience working in Guatemala, send me a note!  If you want to learn more about the amazing opportunities with Medical Teams International, visit www.medicalteams.org.)

Royal guests in a Mayan village

Day 3 – First day at Se ‘aquiba.

I started the day off with a whopping 16-minute work out at the neighborhood gym, followed by a chai at a local coffee shop/bakery where I tried ordering all by myself.  My chai was SO hot, I proudly tried out my limited Spanish, by saying, “Muy caliente.  Una mas cuppa por favor?”  So the barista quickly set about making me another chai!  I pointed to my cup and said, “una cuppa por favor” and he gave me a sleeve.  Ah – relief AND 2 cups of chai.

… 12 hours later, all I can say is WOW.  The drive was amazing – reminiscent of the highlands of the Philippines and the jungle of Mexico.  The road was muddy and riddled with potholes and ruts, and at one point, we discovered the road ahead had washed out completely, so took a different route. It was an adventure and I was totally in my element.

When we rounded the last curve into the region of Seaquiba, there were women and children along the road, all walking toward the community center.  It was a true Guatemalan “red carpet” rolled out for us, as if we were the most important dignitaries they could ever hope to meet.  When we disembarked the bus, there were throngs of children ready to meet us and they led the way up a muddy pathway to the location of the day’s big festivities.  The women, most likely the “monitoring mothers” who help provide education to the community about the health projects MTI does, greeted us with warm hugs and kisses on the cheek.  All I could say was the one Qechi word I could remember:  Bantiox, and I meant my “thank you” in the deepest way possible.

wpid-wp-1400676681183.jpegGroups of men were playing traditional music on handmade instruments, including the marimba.  They had scattered fresh pine needles all over the dirt ground as a carpet for us.  A little girl all dressed in traditional Mayan attire was carrying a great-smelling incense in a pot.  The whole experience–in just a moment’s time–was humbling.  Several of us choked back the tears.  About half of our team was led into the community center building where the ceremony would take place, and were seated on a bench near the front.  The little girl all dressed in traditional attire (I later learned she was the “princess” for the year and would tend to these special events) took her position, knealing on her knees on a mat.  She kept herself poised for more than an hour while she doled out a chocolate type of drink to us during the ceremony.  Another little girl would take the cups she filled and bring them to us.  When we were finished (although not all of us finished them…not knowing whether the water had been boiled), those cups were refilled and passed to other team members, then to the community leaders, then to the residents themselves.  I’d say each cup was used by about 12 people without washing in between, so I was glad that Dominique, Kendra, Stacy and I were the first inside!

Eventually, all the others came inside and the community members crammed into the building and more stood outside with their faces smashed together through the open window.  About half a dozen community leaders — mayor, pastor, school principal and others — each had their turn at the microphone to deliver speeches about their gratefulness for our being there.  They prayed, read scripture, offered multiple blessings and talked about how excited they are to see every home end up with a stove that will help improve their health.

All the while, the children were either perfectly quiet on the floor, or visiting which each of us in a quiet manner.  No mother ever needed to reprimand her child, no adult ever “shh”ed them.  Several little girls had picked bouquets of hydrangeas and were decorating us with flowers.  Even the men got flowers stuck through their wedding bands, as the women got flowers tucked behind their ears or in the necks of their shirts.

Daisy, a darling little one who remembered some of the team  members from last year’s trip, crawled up on Mark’s lap and the community cheered that “Kush” as they called him, had returned.  Two little girls – Brenda and Blanca – sat next to me stroking my arm or taking turns holding my hand.  Staci was given someone’s baby to hold.  (She later said she thought this must be what it’s like to play Santa!)  Phil and Jean were surrounded by little kids who lavished them with love and attention: Jean appeared to be totally in her element and filling a role of every kid’s favorite gramma; Phil’s eyes continually glistened with tears.  Kendra’s heart jumped when she bonded with a little girl who happened to be wearing the same pajamas her own little girl has.

We didn’t understand all the speeches, but Jorge, (dubbed our Super Mayan!) interpreted them all, until he tired of doing word-for-word translation of these long messages and finally started ending with just “Amen!”  What I remember of his sharing was the emphasis the leaders had on recognizing that all we have comes from God and that God makes all things possible, including the visit of this team of Americans.  They prayed for us to be blessed and to know that we are all serving the same God.

Following all the speeches, we went outside where the little princess girl took the floor for a solo dance, demonstrating what we have dubbed “the old woman shuffle” for its slow movement and tiny steps.  Then the elderly women joined her and began pulling our team’s women out with them.  We were glad the “dance” wasn’t difficult!  When the men on our team came out, they were quickly showed by the community men that they must keep their hands behind their backs while dancing!  (Ha — maybe we should encourage this in the USA!)

It was a ton of fun and amazing and touching and overwhelming all at once.  By the time this was over and sat to have lunch, we were tired.  So much stimulation, physically, emotionally and spiritually, to take in.

 Visiting the homes

At long last, we split into teams and began the work we’ve talked about for months, going to homes and installing the stoves that would burn less wood, keep the smoke contained and provide a better cooking surface than their existing open fires inside the home.  We all headed the same direction, walking up the gravel road, and then split to go to different homes, some of which were close to the road and others which required more hiking.

On my team were Will, Phil and Staci, led by Gladys, the other “Super Mayan” working with our team on behalf of MTI.  She is amazing to watch … the way she communicates in both Spanisih and Qechi (sometimes at the same time) and knows all the details of building the stoves, using the minimal tools available to level the ground, lay the concrete block foundation, pack the firebox and cut the hole in the roof for the ventilation pipe.  Really, we weren’t any help on this project, other than fetching the pieces needed in the next step.  At several times in the process, the tiny room was filled with more than a dozen people: Marcielle, her daughters, several neighbors and their children.  Some of them would stand on little step stools to peer over the wall that separated this room from the former kitchen.  The minute the last piece was going on the stove, Marcielle had her kindling and matches, ready to learn how to make this thing work.  Gladys explained the placement of the kindling, how to clean the stove top, how it could be used for boiling pots or cooking tortillas, and the safety feature of the wire around the pipe to prevent accidental burns.  They were so intrigued and excited.  We shouted and clapped when it was all finished, and took pictures.

Gladys asked if one of us would pray, and I offered, but Marcielle had things to say first.  A stoic looking woman with deep worry lines and signs of hard living, she was amazingly moved (and moving).  Gladys translated for her:

“I want so badly to tell you in your own language how much I thank you, but I do not know your language.  I will speak through Gladys instead, to tell you how wonderful it is that you have sacrificed to come here for us.  That you left your country, your home, your own families, to come and help us.  We need each other.  And I thank God for you and ask his blessings on you.”

Needless to say, we were in tears.  I hadn’t thought that my trip was any kind of sacrifice … but SHE saw it that way, and everything she said and probably felt was based on that notion of great sacrifice.

wpid-wp-1400676899352.jpegMarcielle’s neighbor was ready to move us to her home next, but because the first installation had taken longer than expected (poor Gladys working with amateaurs!), we had to postpone the second stove for the next day.  Olga was there, nursing her baby, tired from having helped organize the day’s activities, when I snapped a photo of her that captures just how hard their lives have been.

We ventured back to the bus and waited for the other teams to return, then enjoyed our bumpy, beautiful ride back to Coban.  Dinner was at a lovely restaurant that served us by candlelight, and as usual, Mark led us in discussion of the day’s events.  Some people said the most unforgettable moment was the welcoming party, others said it was the reaction of the families getting the stoves, Jean said it was seeing a young girl yell, “I love Gringos!”  But we all agreed it was a day that changed us.  Changed our understanding of serving versus helping, of communicating without words, of knowing that for all our differences, we are really much the same: we all want our children healthy, we all want a sense of community, we all know that none of us can accomplish anything on our own: in a nutshell, we need each other.

I’m reminded of some words that our Super Mayan friends Gladys and Jorge have tried to teach us.  Unfortunately, I can’t recall the words themselves, but I’ll never forget their meanings.

The Qechi greeting literally means, “How is your soul?”  And the response means, “It is well.”

Indeed, it is well with my soul.