After a week working in the beautiful Dominican countryside, all the members of our small group of students agreed that a hot shower was the first order of business upon returning home. We all joked about how the showers we took during the past week were breathtakingly cold, how your feet were never clean for long because of the thick mud outside the shower area, and how we never had privacy in our latrine with the rats and spiders were constantly keeping watchful eyes on us. Despite these uncomfortable conditions, we took advantage of the latrine and shower as often as we desired. It’s hard to believe that the community in Vereda al Medio didn’t even have access to clean water before BLUE arrived. Yet there have always been people living there—even if they previously had to walk for hours to get clean water.
After taking my own hot shower today, I began thinking about what it really meant to help people living in places like the campo (country) in the Dominican Republic. We often think about how horrible the conditions are, how sad it must be not to have access to bathrooms and hot water, or how sick the people must be from their unmet sanitary needs. We swear that we would never be able to live in such conditions ourselves, and that we need to donate what we perceive as basic human needs to those who have not. Yet, whether we give them materials or not, people in the campo survive and life goes on.
The resilience and resourcefulness of humans never ceases to amaze me. One of the most amazing instances I had seen was one of the holes a Dominican family dug for the latrine we were going to build. BLUE asks that each family who wants a latrine must dig the pit for it themselves, as a personal investment into the project. The hole that this family dug appeared to be 15 feet deep, and it was dug with shovels and a bucket with a rope to pull out the dirt. As I looked down into this seemingly bottomless abyss, I saw the beauty of BLUE’s mission. Philanthropy is not about giving—it’s about sharing. There we were, laying concrete in the hot sun over a pit dug by a family who decided to accept BLUE’s offer for a latrine project. Our group’s work intersected with the family’s work, and both of us got something out of the end result. The family gained privacy and cleanliness from a latrine project, while our group gained a greater appreciation for our own access to privacy and cleanliness. We both shared in the work, and we both received something to be grateful for in the end. Such a fair transaction is rarely found in the world.
Looking back on our trip, I can easily say that the greatest gift I received was perspective. I now see service work not as “alms for the poor” but as “offering a helping hand to a neighbor.” A neighbor doesn’t really need your help, and he could often get by without it, but sometimes, it’s nice to have. The people of Vereda al Medio already have plenty in their lives. They love to dance, they have a strong sense of community and help one another daily, and most importantly, they are profoundly grateful people. It was a great honor to meet them, live with them, love them, and lend a helping hand to make their lives a little easier.
- Jefferson Overlin