The following entry, submitted by Kelsey, speaks of independent volunteer opportunities available to our students, and does a great job at puting into words the ups and downs, and internal and external conflicts that often challenge students as they really start to experience life in the DR.
Limpieza para Salud y Belleza
“Limpieza para Salud y Belleza”: that’s what we titled our project in Barrio Cañada de Lourdes. Three other girls and I noticed after taking a tour of a local barrio that there was a lot of garbage in the canal that ran behind the houses. We asked Aidee, who ran a local organization to help the nearby barrios, (disadvantaged neighborhoods), if we could do something about it. She told us to come up with a slogan and a project. So we did. We wanted to create something accessible and sustainable that would have a real impact. We went simple: we came for two hours every Tuesday afternoon and picked up trash with the neighborhood kids in and around the canal.
Besides a lot of weird looks and curious inquiries our first day, we got about 8 helpers, all of them neighborhood children. We came armed with trash bags and gloves, and a good sense of humor. Over the next two months we found countless bottles, wrappers, plastic bags, tires, and a ridiculous number of mismatched shoes. We filled around 250 large black garbage bags with our findings. More than the items we were collecting, we unearthed a wealth of stories and relationships, and a realization that we were in over our heads.
Trying to tackle even a small issue turned out to be a very large project. Trying to promote a cleaner barrio went hand-in-hand with promoting the environment, an issue which is largely untouched in much of the DR. There is no formal recycling system, and although the city picks up trash in nicer neighborhoods, many of the barrios are neglected, so they pile up trash wherever they can, or in La Cañada de Lourdes, they throw it in the canal. This is a country-wide issue, and it is not uncommon to see streets littered with Styrofoam boxes, orange peels and plastic bags. We didn’t realize we were tackling an entire cultural norm when we set out to stop people from throwing their garbage in a 100 meter stretch of water.
Our first month showed significant improvement, the canal looked cleaner, the neighborhood kids, whom we now knew by name, were still excited, and we felt like we were getting somewhere. After the first four Tuesdays, however, the river stopped looking cleaner, and we recognized that there was new trash in the areas we had just cleaned last week. When we asked Carlin, our biggest advocate and most adamant helper why this was happening, he shrugged his shoulders. He pointed out to us that Anita, one of our regular helpers, threw her trash in every week. This made absolutely no sense to me. The same people who were picking up the trash were throwing it in the river. Even Carlin carelessly threw a wrapper off the side of the small bridge while talking to us about it. I could explain this away with the argument that humans are creatures of habit, but I think it’s more than that. We are creatures of culture, and in addition to there being relatively little knowledge about waste disposal, there is no real access to it. It is more than just a habit, but a combination of social and cultural factors that we found ourselves up against. And we thought the language barrier was going to be our biggest issue.
That being said, our time in the barrio consisted of more than just picking up garbage. It became an activity that the kids looked forward to every week. The families of the children knew us and although I think they secretly laughed at our efforts, they appreciated that we were trying to help, and that we got their kids out of the house. Perhaps the most important part of this whole experience was the relationships we made. Just to provide a glimpse into the lives of the people we worked with:
Carlin is nine years old. He was our main helper and advocate in the barrio and one of the most genuinely loving individuals I have ever met. Whenever he saw us coming he would run towards us with a smile that covered his whole face. Brilliant kid, full of ideas, and honestly wanted a garbage-free home. When one of the others asked if they got a prize for cleaning, he immediately responded with, “Isn’t having a clean barrio enough?” He cannot read or write and has been in and out of 4 different schools. When I asked him why, he looked at me and said earnestly, “Have you even gotten in a fight?” I told him I hadn’t, and he said, “Well, if someone hits you, are you just going to stand there?” I thought about it for a moment, and he must’ve seen my thought process, because he interjected with, “You’d hit them back wouldn’t you? Me too.” His mother, Morena, explained to us over lechosa batidas (papaya smoothies), that they didn’t have the money to send Carlin to a private school, and he couldn’t go back to the others. His younger brother Darlin is still in school, and the youngest, Daniel, is only three and full of personality.
When we started our Wednesday morning English “class”, we tried teaching Carlin the alphabet. The truth is we just didn’t have enough teachers for all of the people who wanted to learn, and we didn’t have the skills or resources to teach so many people at different skill levels. Audrey turned to me as we were hiking up the impossibly steep hill out of the barrio and said, “What kind of future do you think Carlin has? He can’t read or write, there’s little work as it is in this country, and without those basic skills, it’s going to be so difficult.” I didn’t have any sort of definite answer, but I have no doubt that Carlin is going to be somebody. He’s too full of life not to become something amazing.
Marguerita is around 50. She is a little crazy, but certainly amiable. Wednesday mornings were spent sitting outside of Marguerita’s house as we taught basic English phrases, reintroduced Carlin to the alphabet, and did a lot of laughing. The words that Marguerita wanted to know in English were all words that described a farm. What was the word for goat? Cow? Chicken? Field? She told us that she had been living there for over 20 years, and when she first moved to Cañada de Lourdes, it was all one large farm. Others built around her to accommodate those moving from the country to the city, and the neighborhood now resembles a maze.
The engineering is really incredible: houses constructed around each other, little streets zigzagging between cement walls, and stairs leading to second stories that are hidden from the road. There are electric wires hanging haphazardly from rooftops of the few houses that have electricity, strung across walkways and supporting the morning wash load of sheets and jeans. There are chickens in cages, and chickens roaming free in the canal and the steps of casitas, some friendly, mangy-looking dogs and a multitude of surly cats. Also plenty of lagartos, which was the first word Margarita wanted to know in English: lizard. She also asked us how to say a lot of dirty words in English, which we did not translate for her, but made us laugh all the same. What kind of life had Margarita built for herself and her children? Is this the future she thought she would have? It was Margaritas grandchildren, after all, who were helping us clean.
The children were the key component that made our project work. They came out every week to pick up trash, laugh and talk with us, invited us to church, community events, and helped us understand their lives. Through them, we got connected to the rest of the community, and really, as every educator exclaims from their soapbox, they are the hope for the future.
At the end of all of our cleaning, we took the limited CIEE funding available for projects such as this, and bought paint, brushes and sandpaper, as well as galvanized tubing to repair the railing around the canal. The whole neighborhood came out to help, and we ran out of brushes before we ran out of volunteers. The merengue and reggaton coming from Juan Carlos’s speakers fueled a dancing, painting flurry of children and adults and laughing teens. An intense discussion over the latest baseball game at the local colmado added to the noise, and for the afternoon, we were surrounded with joyful, colorful purpose. Painting the railing a cheery yellow was the icing on the cake. The canal really did look cleaner that when we started, and a fresh coat of paint did wonders.
Ultimately we did not accomplish what we set out to do. We thought that we could change their minds, educate them about throwing trash in the canal, and really clean it up. There was still trash in the canal when we left. I watched as an old woman walked down from her house and threw a full bag of trash over the railing we had just painted. Sigh…what could we do, tell her again? Maybe we have to leave that to Carlin.
What we did do, however, was shower love on the children and make a lasting impression on the neighborhood. As we were saying our goodbyes, Carlin looked like he was going to cry. He asked us for our phone numbers and addresses and email addresses, and we made him promise to write us when he learned how. Even though we really didn’t make a sustainable solution, we still felt like we did something. Our minor successes have not made me want to give up, or even say that what we accomplished was good enough, but instead have motivated me to learn how to implement a truly sustainable method of community development.
I told my good friend Forrest Wells about how alternately frustrating and wonderful this experience was, and this is what he said: “Yeah, projects like the barrio clean-up are real good at being both the cloud and the silver lining at the same time. I can't really speak to your frustrations as I live thousands of miles away in a land where we have a bin for trash and a bin for recycling and where someone paints the fire hydrants, but from what I have seen of the world I think you should leave the cloud and take the silver lining. So much of what we do has to be motivated by the desire to make the world a better place rather than the expectation that we'll actually be successful. I'm not sure if trying to do the right thing just because it’s right will make things better, but I'm pretty sure that if we stop trying things will get a whole lot worse. It's kinda like playing tag with children: you can never really win, but the act of playing makes the world a better place. Maybe you won't clean up the riverside, but you might give Carlin a sense of purpose that doesn't need schooling. We have to plant the seeds and just hope and pray that they grow.”
I can’t say it any better than that, and I’d like to believe that he’s right. Relationship is more important than regimen, spending time is more impactful than spending money, and more often than not, listening is more important than being heard. Even though it sounds cheesy, Cañada de Lourdes will definitely hold a place in my heart, and my experience was truly a blessing.