Over spring break, a group of Deerfield students, faculty, and faculty children journeyed to the small neighborhood of Las Charkas, Dominican Republic, to build a house through a non-profit organization called Cambiando Vidas, or “Changing Lives.”
I can still remember how I received the email from Ms. Cabral, upon which I acted spontaneously, eager to travel and exercise my Spanish-speaking muscle.
A few weeks later I received another email from Ms. Cabral, expressing her desperate need for a complete team, and accordingly extending application deadlines, but again I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Yet, come spring break, I found myself boarding a plane headed to San Juan. After a long flight, we arrived at the work site the next day, faces already moist with sunscreen and thin films of sweat in the eighty-degree weather, and were told to go set our backpacks down inside a neighboring house where a smiling elderly woman greeted us. Relishing the opportunity to finally use my Spanish, I gave a quick wave, accompanied by a short “Hola,” to which the woman responded, her bright brown eyes sparkling; she smiled wider and exclaimed, “Hola, mi hijo!”
As I marched towards a pile of bloc, heavy rectangles cement blocks and men making mezcla, a mix of sand, water, and concrete, I was determined to make this trip mean some grand change to the elderly woman and her community; I never suspected that I would leave the D.R. as utterly changed as the family receiving the house.
Deerfield has an interesting way of expressing its lack of interest in serving the larger community. We manage to show how unappealing foregoing spring break is for majority of the student-body, through our unwillingness to take risks and reply to the adventurous emails that Ms. Cabral had to send multiple times before we managed to assemble a complete team.
Such situations express our utter indifference to the dire need of a family, who, without the aid of a full team, would have struggled to raise their three daughters in a scrap-metal hut, hardly worthy of being called a home.
Those students who wonder why they would want to take a week from their typical spring break are, in fact, the perfect candidates for Cambiando Vidas. In reality, the purpose of the program is not only to change the lives of the family members, who have gone from having little more than a stove and septic tank, to having full indoor plumbing, windows, and separate bedrooms for parents and children, but also to change the students who go on the trip.
I applied for the program, not knowing what to expect, and whispering to myself that the reason that the students who last year thought the program was life-changing was merely because they hadn’t lived their lives to the fullest.
Yet over the course of the program I got in touch with a more compassionate, empathetic side of me. I realized that adventure and culture were not rooted in merely traveling to a Hilton resort in Aruba, but immersing oneself in another culture, creating that emotional bond. I had been the one not living my life to the fullest.
On our last day of working, the heat was slightly more bearable, the buckets of cemento at the new working site felt lighter, and my conversational Spanish had never been better. But it was time to go.
As I grabbed my bag, for the last time, from the woman’s small, one-room house, I gave a resolute “Adios” and she just smiled and replied “Adios mi hijo.” Her eyes rested on mine and I realized that even though she might not remember my name she would always remember the Americano who hardly spoke Spanish, but who lent a hand in building a house for members of the community that she cherished.
I would remember the smiling, kind old woman who had inspired me to do it in my new vida cambiada. So I ask, Deerfield: are you living your life to the fullest?