Students pioneer winter service trip

by Erica Clark
Campus Life Editor

While many spent the days after Christmas lounged on the couch recovering from festivities, a group of four Transylvania University students and one dean took the opportunity to give back in the Dominican Republic.

“I thought a week couldn’t make a difference,” said junior Will Bryant, one of the students to make the trip. “But living at an orphanage and getting to know the kids, you can put a face to poverty.”

In the Latin America and Caribbean region alone, there are over 9.4 million children who have been impacted by the loss of one or both parents. There are 8.8 million children who are malnourished, and about 40 million people lack reading and writing skills needed for daily life and work.

Joining Bryant were juniors Hannah Johnson and Natalie Jones and first-year Elizabeth Hardt, along with the group’s faculty adviser, Dr. Kathleen Jagger, associate vice president and associate dean of the college, whom Johnson described as “just one of the kids for the week, completely treating us as equals and trusting in our abilities to plan and facilitate.”

Since the summer, Johnson had wanted to do a service project during winter break. She looked for a reliable program to join, but soon had the idea to start an organization through the university.

After talking to Bryant, who had an experience in Cambodia the year before, both students met with Karen Anderson, coordinator of community service and civic engagement, who helped them through the process.

“We wanted to give people who couldn’t find a service opportunity on their own to have a good bonding experience,” said Johnson.

The group looked to travel to a place where Transy had some ties to make the group’s first trip run smoothly. Jagger had been to the Dominican Republic before, so they agreed that it was a good place to start.

Domincan Republic

While in the Dominican Republic, the group stayed in an all-boys orphanage where they had camps, promoted English and Spanish literacy, and had fun with the kids through arts, crafts and other means of recreation.

“The kids just wanted to read,” said Johnson. “They picked reading over games and crafts. I think people here (at Transy) take learning for granted. They just loved it there.”

Bryant, who was in charge of the recreation station, said many kids brought books to the station to read instead of play.

“They love Clifford and other animal books,” said Johnson.

Despite the language barrier, both described having the ability to communicate well, especially through nonverbal messages.

“We just wanted to communicate love,” said Bryant. “You can do that through actions.”

“You could tell it meant a lot to the kids,” Johnson said. “You could go all week without talking to one of them, but they could come give you a hug at the end.”

Johnson talked about the attachment to the kids she developed.

“It was impossible not to want to adopt one and give them a good life in America, but the goal was to help the kids learn to help themselves,” she said.

Both Bryant and Johnson described the level of poverty that surrounded them as “eye-opening.” One aspect of the trip that made an impression on Johnson was the amount of stray dogs.

“They don’t have animal shelters. They can’t afford to feed their people; they’re not going to feed their dogs,” she said.

One day the group went to the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti for “Market Day,” where the citizens of the different countries were allowed to trade with one another. Even there, poverty from Haiti was evident.

“You could tell the difference in those from Haiti and those from the Dominican Republic,” said Johnson. “The best way to describe it was it seemed like everyone went into ‘survival mode.’ The Haitians were just wearing whatever they could find.”

“And there were five-foot Haitian men carrying 200- to 300-pound carts of rice,” said Bryant.

Though the experience was “fun but upsetting,” Johnson believes trips like these are necessary because they make people “better world citizens.”

“It was so humbling and it helps you to see the bigger picture of the world. Lots of times it’s hard to see outside of the Transy Bubble, but a trip like this helps you to realize things are still going on, and problems still are pressing issues,” she said.

“It was such a personal experience and it really changes the way you see things, even in such a short amount of time,” said Bryant.

“I remember when I got home, I walked in and saw my dad and my dog and our big-screen TV, and I just started crying,” Johnson said.

In the future, they hope to possibly extend their stay, wherever they may be.

“But even if we’re only there for a week, we’re a link in a bigger chain,” said Johnson.

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