Long before having kids, I dreamed of taking them on a humanitarian trip. I have always loved the idea of combining service with travel–two of my favorite things. This last January, that dream came true. After months of thinking and planning, I found myself with my husband (who would rather enjoy the comforts of home), my two boys (who do their best to support me in my adventures), and my sister and her husband (who thrive on adventure like me) on the island of Hispaniola. Through a series of fortuitous events, that I can only describe as being divinely orchestrated, we had the chance to meet up with two of my dearest friends, Liz and Marisa, on both sides of the island. With their guidance, we became partners with our global sisters for a few life-changing days.
We began our journey in Haiti where we were quickly introduced to the exciting intensity of Haitian traffic, delicious machete-sliced-while-you-wait coconut, and the beautiful opportunistic Haitians. We had joined an expedition with Empowering the One, an organization focused on helping youth prepare for life and provide for themselves. These youth are rescued from human trafficking or are aging out of orphanages. Our role was to show up and learn from these youth, allowing them to lead out in projects they had identified to teach us about their country and culture. As simple as that. It might not seem like a valuable way to serve, but as Liz, founder of the organization, explained it, “showing up is a powerful message that they matter.”
Our time was filled with futbol games, late night dancing, and space to give these youth an opportunity to lead and gain confidence. On a Saturday afternoon, a number of these teens organized workshops for us. We rotated through these classes prepared for us in Haitian dancing, Creole, and bracelet making. Language barriers notwithstanding, they owned this opportunity to lead us in learning something of their culture.
As we engaged with them, we experienced a beautiful symbiosis of give-and-take that brought us all a sense of accomplishment. Oftentimes Americans with great intentions of doing humanitarian work actually disempower those they are hoping to serve by prescribing solutions to perceived problems. Empowering the One works hard to re-empower the youth by letting them take the leadership roles, explore the problems, and find the solutions. The truth of Liz’s perspective on just showing up, was emphasized during a prayer offered by the sweet woman who had prepared all our food. Her words will stay imprinted on my heart forever as a reminder of the strength of showing up. She said, “Thank you, Lord, for sending these people. Now we know you have not forgotten us.”
After three too-short days in Haiti, with a longing to stay and connect more with these people we’d grown to love, we left Liz and took a quick flight with Marisa over to the other side of the island, the Dominican Republic. Marisa and her husband have lived there for the past year, working as volunteers within the community for Operation Underground Railroad. In the DR, we engaged with selfless nuns, resilient kids, and heroic men and women.
On one of the days, we worked with our global sisters at The Lily House. The moment I walked into that space, I sensed something very special. All of the women in that program have either left prostitution or have been rescued from human trafficking. They receive training and job skills and they are nourished by the good word of God. For privacy reasons, we weren’t allowed to take photos, but their faces are still fresh in my mind. Even though we interacted for only a few hours, I felt a deep connection with these women who are determined to rise above their past. They are overcoming incredible odds, and we were inspired by their fortitude.
One was a spunky woman, Carmen. We were paired up in a language class. She taught me the colors in Spanish. Most of them I already knew, but she would not let me get by with imperfect pronunciation, so I had to practice and repeat, over and over. I then taught her colors in English. She made great efforts but struggled to remember many of the names, specifically brown. We had just shared a brownie bite on the sly (when her friend brought a freshly baked one in), and she had asked me how to say that in English. So I used “brownie” to help her remember brown by pointing back to the kitchen and putting my fingers to my mouth as if eating. This inspired her to make an action for every color; and by the end of our time together, she had a rhythm down and remembered most of them. Again, it was a give-and-take, an attitude of, “I have something to offer and you have something to offer. We can combine our efforts and we are both lifted.”
The next few days in the Dominican Republic were filled with more of these simple, yet profound moments of “showing up” and give-and-take. And I learned that it’s these simple moments of reaching out and working with people of different backgrounds and strengths, whether in your neighborhood or across the world, that build community and dissolve the boundaries that separate us. Incredible strength comes in just being present, because the vitality of our communities is found in human connection. If nothing else, let’s show up.
**To support the children and help them have access to a weekly mentor and vocational training in the Empowering the One Transition program, visit empoweringtheone.org
**To support the women at The Lily House, check out their Etsy shop.