Several area students recently had a hands-on life lesson in service as they participated in a week-long mission trip to the Dominican Republic. The students were part of a group of area residents who took part in the trip, which was held through the organization Meeting God in Missions. While all eight are currently students at Elk County Catholic High School, they noted that the trip was not a school-sponsored function.
Sara Kucenski, Marissa Armstrong, Helen Danz, Anna Wingard, Jon Leuschel, Jess Franco, Lorenzo Dingcong, and Danielle Hodgdon all participated in this year's trip, with Leuschel and Armstrong making the journey for the second time.
During a recent presentation to their fellow classmates about what the trip was all about, Leuschel began by explaining where the Dominican Republic is located and why the people there need help.
"The Dominican Republic is on an island called Hispaniola, which is a major island in the Caribbean. It is near Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica. This island, Hispaniola, consists of two countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As many of us know, even before the earthquake, Haiti has been the poorest country on this side of the Earth. Many Haitians migrate to the Dominican Republic to escape this poverty; however, these people suffer from low incomes and poor living conditions. These Haitians are the people that we aimed to help during our mission trip. The leader of our group there wanted to remind us every day that we were there to serve the Haitians first, the Dominicans second, and the Americans last," Leuschel said.
Throughout their week-long trip, the students assisted with a number of activities, including Vacation Bible School, optometry, and construction.
Wingard was one of the students who helped with Vacation Bible School.
"We would go there and the kids would be waiting for us when we got off the truck. We would sing Jesus songs and dance. Whenever we were done dancing, they read a Bible scripture and it was all in Spanish. Then the kids acted out the Bible verse, and after that we would do a craft that was pertaining to the Bible verse," Wingard said.
She added that she also had a lot of time to interact with the children through activities such as jump rope, basketball, and baseball.
"Then, when we were done, we would get back on the truck and all the little kids would be saying goodbye to us and it was just really sad because then you were like 'wow, I probably won't get to ever see these people again,'" Wingard said.
Kucenski not only helped with Vacation Bible School, but also assisted with optometry.
"We gave patients eyedrops and glasses, and they really, really needed them. Almost everybody that went through there got either glasses or eyedrops, and their eyes were really yellow from the sun, so that didn't help at all either," Kucenski said. "If anybody goes down next year, or in following years, make sure that you bring some sunglasses for them because they were always asking for them. It's not just that they want those sunglasses, they really need them too."
It was challenging for many of the students to speak with many of the people during the trip because of the language barrier.
"They all pretty much speak Spanish down there, but a lot of people speak Creole, which is like French, and we really couldn't understand anything they were saying," Franco said.
She noted that Leuschel and Danz were the only two ECC students who could speak with the Dominican people well because they know a lot of Spanish.
"Probably one of the neatest things that happened was how easy it was to communicate with them even though you didn't know what they were saying and they didn't know what you were saying," Franco said. "I guess you don't realize until you're speaking with something that you can't understand what they're saying, it is almost like half of talking is just body language, smiling, tone of voice, and the way they say things. It's just really neat because there's just so many things that happen that even though you don't know what they're saying, you can still enjoy them. Everybody laughs at the same things and everybody can smile at the same things. It was just really neat because you become friends with them, and you don't really expect to make friendships down there, but you do," Franco said.
Even though they had heard about the living conditions in the Dominican Republic prior to the trip, the students were still affected by the living conditions of the people.
"The younger ones would always wait outside the compound every day and be like 'Clean shoes? Clean shoes? No money, clean shoes?' That's all they wanted to do. Even if you were barefoot, they'd be like, 'I'll clean your feet.' They just wanted to get anything they could for money. A bunch of girls would [also] be out there all the time to make bracelets for you," Franco said.
Danz noted that there were about 150 people on their trip and one evening they took up a secret money collection because they were going to be visiting some of the poorest villages in the area the next day and wanted to collect money to bring the people rice and a few other items.
"The village we went to was really, really poor, and it was really sad," Danz said. "The people really, literally, have nothing more than the clothes on their back and a tin house to live in."
Pick up a copy of the Wednesday, March 7, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.