Woods students gain much while giving in the Dominican Republic
April 1st, 2016 | SMWC
By: Betsy Elliott
"The students could barely fit into the two room rock-floor house. Two women and a few children called this structure – made of aluminum scrap and held together with wire and string, with no plumbing or electricity – home. I remained outside the house, holding the door open as it was the only source of fresh air and light. Soon after the students entered, I heard one of the most beautiful sounds fill the small space and pour into the dirt roads. The woman had asked us to sing for her. The students decided on a staple song within American Christian culture, “This Little Light of Mine.” While it may be a children’s song here, this song became a heartfelt prayer in that moment.
The melody spilling out of the house (on pitch and with harmony, nonetheless) drew other women and children around to experience the prayer that was so palpable it could be touched. Tears were streaming down the faces of many of the students, women and children. We then prayed with the family and continued on to the next house, carrying the family and the experience with us. God was surely present in that moment, and we could feel it. This allowed us to continue with the confidence that we were sent with a purpose and with much to give."
--Andrea Beyke, executive director of mission effectiveness
at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC)
“It felt like we were a light radiating in her home,” said SMWC senior accounting major, Haylie Davenport, Clinton, Ind. This scene is the epitome for why faith in action is one of the hallmarks of an education at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. For 11 years, the College has conducted Alternative Spring Break service trips. This year was a bit different, however. This year was SMWC’s first international mission trip. Twelve students and three staff members embarked on a trip to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, spending their spring break serving others.
"We chose to do an international trip because of our foundress, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin," said Beyke. "She urged her sisters to leave the nest, even to the farthest reaches of the globe, and so we follow suit in completing her mission today through the College’s mission. We even bore her quote on our trip shirts. “We cannot do our work if we all stay in the nest.” This is exactly what the students did. They left their nest of comfort and jumped into the uncomfortable so as to meet the local population where they were, allowing compassion to guide them."
The group stayed in Juan Dolio and rode a bus 30 minutes to the ministries. They served at Emanual House, a school for undocumented, special needs and deaf students, helping with deconstruction work and other minor maintenance; Monty Christy Nursing Home, where they interacted with patients; and Spring in the Desert Preschool, helping with and playing with children.
“We didn’t arrive with any set skills, such as construction skills or medical skills,” said Beyke. “At first, this was frustrating for the students because many believed they couldn’t make a difference without these hard skills. But as the week progressed, we learned that the ministry of presence was the most powerful skill we possessed. We came to know that our human sacredness was enough to meet and recognize another human’s sacredness. The poverty was unlike anything we had ever seen before, but the joy was pure and abounding – and it was contagious. While we were able to give the gift of presence, we received much more. We learned the value of human dignity, what it takes to practice happiness and achieve joy, and how God can be found in the most ordinary and unexpected places.”
Many afternoons, like the one described above, were spent walking through Quisqueya Village, meeting local families, learning the cultural norms, playing games with the children and praying with the people.
“When we arrived in the village, the children flocked to our bus before we even came to a complete stop,” said Beyke. “As soon as we stepped down, the children jumped in our arms and grabbed our hands, craving some sort of affection from us. Of course, we acquiesced. As we walked through the village, different women and children joined our journey, as if it was a prayerful pilgrimage. And in many ways, it was a journey of blessing, stopping at different houses, praying with the families, and hearing the stories of struggle and triumph through the translation of our lead missionary, Mignelis.”
For the students, the differences between the areas they visited and their homes were a bit of a shock. One of the chaperones, Jeff Malloy, dean of students, described the level of poverty that they encountered and how he thinks that students have walked away from this experience grateful.
“Grateful for where we live. Poverty there is different than poverty here,” Malloy said. “You can’t drink the water out of a tap. There was trash everywhere. The garbage system isn’t like ours, and their roads aren’t paved. All these little things that we take for granted, I think the students recognized those types of things.” Malloy continued, “In one of the schools we visited, we gave away flip flops. The children were excited and grateful about flip flops, things we take for granted. It was so emotional. There were emotional days. When you’re working with these children who are just so impoverished, but so appreciative and so happy. Despite the situation they were in, they were always so happy.”
This was something that all of the students noticed – that despite the environment in which these people were living, they were happy. The students realized that if these people could be happy with what little they have, then the students could return home with the intention of being happy with everything they have.
“I think a lot of it has to do with happiness,” said Morgan Patterson, senior marketing major, Terre Haute, Ind., as she described what she gained from the trip. “I also gained a lot of confidence. While there was a language barrier, we found so many ways to connect with people, whether it was through music or hand gestures, just something in common that we could all relate to that made the language barrier not so significant. While we may not feel like we have it all, we sometimes do.”
Many students made personal connections with the people that they interacted with on the trip. Each had a special story to tell about someone who made an impact on them while in the Dominican Republic. For Erin Harnett, senior elementary education major, Fishers, Ind., it was a man at the nursing home who she said reminded her of her grandfather.
“I talked to a man named Rafael and he knew English,” she explained. “He was so interested to get to know me and learn about where I was from. I loved that I was able to have a real connection with him. There was no technology to distract me. We had a genuine connection and that is something that I will never forget.”
Each night, the students reflected on their experiences that day, leaning on each other for support and encouragement as they served God by serving others.
“As the students authentically experienced each interaction throughout the week, I became more and more proud of them,” said Beyke. “We faced many barriers: a cultural barrier, a language barrier and an economic barrier. In order to fully enter into the experience, the students learned to rely on each other and make themselves vulnerable. Alone, this would have been a daunting and nearly impossible task, but together, they weren’t afraid to face something new, something uncomfortable, something different. They allowed the people, the culture and the experience to change them and mold them.”
For Patterson, this was her first time on an Alternative Spring Break trip and an experience she’ll never forget.
“I knew it was always important to give back, and I thought this would be a really unique experience. You think you’re going give them what they need, but they actually give you more than what you expect, and they give you more than what you brought with you.”
Alternative Spring Break Trip Participants
Haylie Davenport, senior accounting major, Clinton, Ind.
Morgan Patterson, senior marketing major, Terre Haute, Ind.
Kelli Seida, senior music therapy major, Traverse City, Mich.
Kirstin O'Rourke, senior human services major, Terre Haute, Ind.
Nyctasia Fitton, sophomore English major, Madison, Ind.
Stephanie McIntyre, freshman equine studies major, Greensburg, Ind.
Madison Brehob, freshman pre-school/grade 3 mild intervention major, Indianapolis, Ind.
Maribeth Allen, senior human services major, Carmel, Ind.
Erin Harnett, senior elementary education major, Fishers, Ind.
Alyssa Henson, freshman criminology and psychology major, Terre Haute, Ind.
Sarah Wichman, junior pre-school/grade 3 mild intervention major, Washington, Ind.
Madeline McCue, freshman human services major, Bartlett, Ill.
Christy Gunderson, associate director of student life
Jeff Malloy, dean of students
Andrea Beyke, executive director of mission effectiveness
Header Photo: Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) students volunteered at Spring in the Desert Preschool in the Dominican Republic. Back row (l to r): Maribeth Allen, Erin Harnett, Stephanie McIntyre, Madison Brehob, Madeline McCue, Haylie Davenport, Nyctasia Fitton, Alyssa Henson. Front row (l to r): Morgan Patterson, Kirstin O’Rourke, Sarah Wichman, Kelli Seida.