Sunday, February 1, 2009

They are Back!

The Bement School 9th graders returned last night around 9PM from their service trip to the La Suiza orphanage in the Dominican Republic, only 2 hours or so late, after an unplanned delay at immigration at the JFK airport since one girl's passport and papers were being challenged. Given numerous stories from colleagues and friends about their misadventures at immigration at JFK, the parents of the travelers breathed a big sigh of relief, when we were finally notified that the student group of 20 and their teachers and coaches could proceed through!

When the 9th graders arrived back to Old Deerfield they were welcomed by parents and the excitement of all at the reunion was palpable. What the "Bementers" accomplished in less than a week is amazing -- they built bookshelves at the orphanage, painted what has now become a library and study area, and designed and painted a big mural. Most importantly, they played with the orphans (45 boys in all), carried the younger ones around, since they blossom with the attention, and organized games of basketball, soccer, and baseball. They played checkers with the children, shared books and toys with them, including hula hoops, climbed mango trees, and communicated with one another as only children can -- with hugs and laughter. They also accompanied the older ones to their school down the hill. The Bementers also helped the staff with dish washing and volunteered to do so since the orphanage is so short-staffed.

The fact that few of the 9th graders knew much, if any Spanish, did not matter!

As my daughter said, upon her return, "We had no TVs, no radios, no Internet, and no watches - time just stood still and it did not matter. It was so wonderful!" The food was delicious - pineapples, eggs, chicken, and rice -- the chickens ran freely there!" "We would help putting the little ones to bed and they even prayed for us." "Every night we collapsed to sleep in our large dormitory rooms, girls in one room and boys in another." "There was no hot water in the showers and sinks and we had fun brushing out teeth, sometimes outside." "Mom, you must do something about the traffic in the Dominican Republic, though, since there are no double yellow lines on the roads and the bus rides were interesting."

When my daughter entered our home late last night she ran up to the bathroom and said that she needed time to just stare and appreciate the bathroom amenities, and especially the shower stall.

One wonders whether $$$ sent to such an orphanage might result in physical improvements but, at the same time, the human contact and shared experiences among the students of the US and those at La Suiza may inspire dreams, which may be more fundamental and lasting. Clearly, a way in which to improve and sustain both the physical and educational infrastructure at the orphanage along with more face-to-face support and kindness plus enriching experiences would be ideal.

Such a trip that the Bement 9th graders experienced, with some associated possible risks, builds not only character, but also empathy, discipline, and appreciation. We hope that it is just the beginning of helping to construct an environment in which those who need it most can enjoy their childhoods, knowing that others care, and the process of growing up.