It was a typically hot day in the Dominican Republic. Dressed for modesty, not the weather, in a T-shirt and shorts, sweat was already beading on my face and dripping down my back. It was probably 90 degrees, with the sun still relatively low in the sky, but I felt ready to find a very shady place and hang out with a tall glass of anything cold. Unfortunately, this was not an option. I was on a work project/mission trip with a group from my church. Although the trip was a new experience, my visits to the small rural village of La Jaguita had the greatest impact on me. These experiences deeply affected the way I feel about society and my life in general.
We were scheduled to visit a childrens club in this poor village. Few of us knew what to expect. I clearly remember the experience as something like a World Vision child support commercial. I was walking down the dirt road and I had kids clamoring all over me. They were pulling at my clothes and urgently trying to tell me things in Spanish. Many showed signs of malnutrition, bellies distended and some even had abnormally red hair. A number of the kids had flies or insects living in their hair. At any other time I would have been disgusted, but I felt compassion for them. I wanted to hold and play with them. They were beautiful with their brown skin and dark eyes.
Our program was very successful and we ended up with more than a hundred children. It was painful to see some of the thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls carrying their babies. I could tell the way the children longed to be held and played with that they probably received little attention at home. I think this first experience was just preparation for what was to come.
The next day we returned to the church at La Jaguita to sing for the Sunday service with mostly adults. It was even hotter than the day before. One guy stood up and in Spanish accidentally told everyone his name was "Hyphen." The Dominicans had a good laugh at that. After the service our group split up and took a tour of the village, visiting the families who could not attend church because they lacked transportation.
I found that my original opinions of La Jaguita were misguided. Walking deeper into the village was a shock. It was basically indescribable, and I can only try to paint the picture. Probably the most revolting part was the stench. Trash, animals, and sewerage were everywhere. It was doubtful that most had any sanitation besides the river of waste running through the streets. There was one food store. I watched as a lady bought some meat. The man cut it on a board covered with blood, old meat, and flies. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of diseases these people carried. The houses were crowded shacks made of any assortment of materials. The rooms were tiny and had dirt floors. People graciously invited us in to sit on their only two chairs. Windows, doors, electricity, and plumbing were rare. People who lived on the hill faced the wrath of the rainstorms which washed their houses away at least once a year. The homeless then had to pick up the pieces and rebuild their shelters. Peoples' clothes were the ones they wore. Children in large families went naked.
I wanted to cry after seeing these people who had nothing, absolutely NOTHING! It made me feel so guilty that I spend money on brand names and clothes I don't need, that we waste so much food and water, that I have a small house that is so much bigger than what these people have. Then I wonder what if it was me instead of them. Is life fair at all? I think back to the woman we met who said, "I am rich because I have Jesus." Her words are so true. I don't think I can ever forget my experiences at La Jaguita and I don't think I will live the same life because of them. fl
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.