Dominican Trip Changes Lives

Church Volunteers Share Strength and Faith

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC —Dust so thick you can see the wind twirl, barbed wire and naked babies.

Each is abundant in a colorful little barrio called Villa Hermosa, seated on the outskirts of the Dominican Republic province La Romana.What’s in short supply there are some of the day-to-day comforts Butler County residents sometimes see past, like safe drinking water, garbage collection and a toilet that flushes.

“It’s sad, but it’s beautiful,” said Santiago Gil, pastor of a tiny church in the heart of the community he now calls home. “This is my passion.”Nineteen volunteers, hoping to improve the quality of life in Villa Hermosa, left their families in Butler, Allegheny and Armstrong counties to travel there Feb 19.

The journey was supposed to last a week, but unexpected events forced most of the group to be away for 10 days.

Among the volunteers was a nurse, a student pastor, several construction workers, high school students and Butler Eagle reporter Kim Paskorz. Inspired by Butler County physician Dr. William DiCuccio and led by Barb Schworm of Saxonburg, the group had a plan to construct a building that will house generators and create a dependable source of electricity. The mission was to bring hope

Far Away Land

Wild palm trees, salty blue waters and the lure of year-round golf weather have in recent years hoisted the Dominican Republic to the top of must-see places for Caribbean vacationers and cruise-line stops. But in the community impacted by this effort, generations of poverty and overpopulation have left what the tropical island naturally offers marred with trash and deterioration.

In Villa Hermosa, population 45,000, residents mainly rely on community outhouses, locally grown food, each other’s company and the grace of God. They also have come to know this particular group of “Americanos,” who visit twice a year, as helpers.

As the group’s bus pulls into Villa Hermosa, excited children — many shoeless, a few naked — race alongside, waving and batting at the side of the moving bus. When the bus stops, the wide-eyed travelers are greeted by community leaders with hugs and tears of gratitude. Different incarnations of this group, based at Dorseyville Alliance Church in Allegheny County, have been visiting for a half-dozen years. Already the group has repaired and expanded the local church. It constructed a school that serves about 265 children.

And it built a water purification plant capable of producing 2,300 gallons of drinkable water in two hours. The group’s effort is assisted by World Servants of Minneapolis, which rents the camp that the group lives in and hires a staff to cook, guide and translate.When all is said and done, the cost per person to make the trip will tally more than $1,000.

So, one might ask, wouldn’t that same money go further donated in one large check?

“Money brings aid,” says DeLise Kroening. “People bring hope.” Kroening, 47, of Minneapolis has been working as a community specialist for World Servants for four years. This is her second trip accompanying this group to Villa Hermosa.As part of her duties, Kroening also engages the group in nightly sessions of faith-based fellowship training.

“We call it cross cultural orientation,” Kroening says. “We talk about different cultures and team building. We tell participants to go into a new culture as a learner, a servant and a story teller.”

Getting ready

Lisa Hilss of Armstrong County said it has been in her heart to make this trip for some time. She was accompanied by her daughter, 13-year-old Shannon. “It’s important for children to serve and to experience other cultures,” Hilss said. “I hope Shannon takes from this trip a stronger sense of what God can do.”

Most of the group members, like the Hilsses, are members of the church and have been contemplating the trip for years. They signed up months ago, and have planned since. Each person was to pack a flashlight for electricity blackouts, work gloves for the construction site, a water bottle and insect repellent. The group also carried 16 suitcases and duffel bags filled with donated shoes, school supplies and vitamins for the children. One suitcase was filled with little promotional Frisbees. Most group members also brought a stash of chips, nuts, licorice and powdered drink mix.

Culture change

The group assembled at the church at 3:15 a.m. Feb. 19 to depart. It was the last snowy morning they would see for more than a week. Flying from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, the group then traveled to the Dominican Republic’s capitol, Santo Domingo. At the airport, other groups on similar missions were eager to share tales.

A group from Ohio said it has been visiting the Dominican Republic for years, building small houses for one family at a time. Another group, dental workers from North Carolina, treated more than 1,000 patients before traveling home a week later. Also noticeable were groups of aid workers flying in to help earthquake victims in Haiti.

The Dominican Republic shares the island, Hispaniola, with Haiti. The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern side, about 75 percent of the island. Although residents of the Dominican Republic felt tremors during the quake, the nation suffered no casualties or damage.

Once out of the airport, the Dorseyville group traveled in a private bus to a camp, about 1 ½ hours away. All but four members were newcomers to the Dominican Republic. Through dirt-streaked bus windows, group members got their first glimpse of the community and culture: Workers burning acres of sugar cane for harvest: underfed wild horses roaming between rushing motorists and brightly colored buildings; vacant fields spotted with litter and rancid piles of dirty diapers and dead animals.Kites often flew overhead. Bare-wired electric lines were often tangled with them. The Dominicans explained that kites are easy to build. They can be assembled from readily accessible bits of plastic shopping bags and wood. And they use the natural and free energy source: The constant, warm breeze.

My people

Latin-based music, dominoes and baseball, baseball, baseball are all popular.Passing children cheerfully shout, “Machoca!” (to pound) and lightly pound fists. “People are people … a smile is universal,” says Schworm, 45, the group’s leader and de facto mom away from home. This is Schworm’s fourth visit in two years. “This is my calling,” she says.

Schworm says she has seen many group members return to Pittsburgh changed. “They come back and simplify their lives,” she says. In addition to calculating the group’s agenda and keeping it moving, Schworm also supplies sunburn lotion and mosquito repellent when needed.”People have different skills,” she says of the group members. “Leadership comes naturally to me.” At home, Schworm is a cardiac nurse at Allegheny General Hospital and mother to three children: Amanda, 21; Jessica, 20; and Malachi, 7. She documents her travels for her son by taking a series of pictures of Rascal, a small toy, that she poses in each shot, like riding a donkey or spinning on a ceiling fan.”I fell in love with the people here,” she says. “The kindness, gentleness and the love for God.”

The project

The group visits the work site for the first time Saturday and is schooled on building the Dominican way. The group will construct a building, attached to an existing building, around a lot littered with bricks and debris. Using string as a level, concrete blocks are bound together with mortar, and rebar is cemented inside.Both cement and mortar are thrown, dry, in piles on the ground. Workers carry buckets of water to mix them on the ground, then they haul the wet product in smaller buckets. The walls will be built for a 20-by-20 roofless room before the group leaves. Instead of framing doors, they’ll be pounded out, later, by a strong arm and a hammer.

Paid Dominican construction workers oversee the job, and the American crew is reminded not to question the methods. There are reasons they do what they do, Kroening says, and it works. Similarly, most homes in Villa Hermosa are made of block and topped with corrugated metal sheets as roofing. Flat, concrete roofs proved unreliable in hurricanes and earthquakes, residents said. There are no glass windows in Villa Hermosa. Many homes have no windows at all or open window frames. The nicer homes have wrought iron designs in the window frames.The lesser homes are complications of scavenged boards, blocks and bits of metal, reminiscent of multicolored backyard sheds.Buildings that contain valuables, including the school, are topped with rolls of barbed wire to deter intruders. Rebar sticks out of every building. It is common to build until you run out of materials, leave it be, then return and continue later when you have more money.

The mission group will, before it leaves, construct only the three walls needed to attach the new building to the existing water plant. Eventually, the new building will house two generators. One to service a planned medical center. The other generator will provide electricity to the water treatment plant. People in this community, apparently, have no control over when they have electric service. On the days the mission group visited, the town had electricity for as little as three hours one day.

Inside the water plant, which was built by last year’s group, water is pumped from the earth into a holding tank, then run through more than a half-dozen filtering tanks. It’s stored in two 1,200-gallon tanks, then filtered one more time before it is sold at a service window. Residents carry or haul in wheel barrels empty jugs to the window, which is similar to the drive-up window at fast food restaurants here.Jugs are cleaned by a machine in the water plant before filled and returned to customers. Sometimes, though, customers are turned away because, until the generators are in place, the lack of steady electricity slows the water making process. Instead, people could pay nearly triple the price at other water providers or buy questionable water from trucks that haul giant storage tanks through the community.

The volunteer group is provided coolers of clean drinking water and ice. “Drink water,” Kroening constantly reminds the Americans, some of whom still suffered from dehydration carrying block in the burning afternoon sun.

Relationship building

With construction under way, members of the group take turns entertaining the school children with activities, including a daily craft and skit. The skits include re-enactments of popular stories of faith, including, “The Good Samaritan” and “The Judgment of King Solomon.”

At the same time, other group members visit homes in the neighborhood. “I’m seeing firsthand what I already suspected,” says David Lovic, 39, of Springdale. “Our culture is extremely spoiled in the United States.” Lovic, who temporarily left behind a wife, daughter and son to join the group, says the sacrifice was worthy. “Especially in seeing the children … the smiles despite their circumstances. … I came here to help them, but I’m benefiting more than they are.”

In Villa Hermosa, it’s not uncommon for a half-dozen people to live in a home the size of the average American living room. Instead of walls, rooms are partitioned by curtains and sheets hung on rope.Some homes have outhouse-style bathrooms inside, others use public restrooms. Others walk deep into the tropics.” We call that the ‘boonda,'” says pastor Gil.

Inside, the homes are tidy. Beds are made and there is a sense of pride. “They happily welcomed me into their home and offered me their best seat to sit in, and proudly showed us their diplomas and beautiful children and grandchildren,” said Trista Reppermund, 15, of O’Hara Township in Allegheny County. “This trip has really challenged me to be more grateful for what I have, and not to focus on what I don’t have.”

Small stuffed animal toys with “Beanie Babies” tags still attached, are displayed prominently in some Villa Hermosa homes. They were gifts from previous mission groups.” This is your home too,” Anna Jen, 61, says in inviting a handful of mission members into her home. Anna Jen tells the group she has not been able to properly use her right leg since she was a child. And her left leg, broken three months ago, still is swollen and without medical treatment. With both limbs in pain, she struggles to get around. Still, she said, she’s happy for what she has in life. An aged refrigerator, a crock pot bubbling with a fragrant, root-based stew and a standing fan all are employed when the electricity is on. “God is good,” she said.

Camp and church

By Sunday, the mission group is acclimated to life at camp.There’s no hot water for bathing, and no shower head on the water outlet. It’s like showering under a garden hose. Group members are instructed to take “military showers” turning the water on only when needed.

The building has flushing toilets, but the rule is: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Used toilet paper does not go into a toilet because that will cause the septic line to clog, Kroening says. Instead at camp, at the airport and in all places this group will visit, used toilet paper is deposited in a trash can.

On the flip side, the group enjoys a swimming pool, a well-manicured courtyard and endless rounds of card games in the evening. This camp is owned by a local family court judge. In addition to renting it to visiting groups, he uses it as a retreat for healing families. Each meal the group is fed buffet-style and the menu includes a generous helping of native fruit, vegetables or cheese: Fried yucca with lunch. Flan for desert. Pineapple and mango accompany pancakes.On Sunday evening, the group reloads its bus to attend church.

The church, “Iglesia de Dios” is small and dusty, but packed. Overhead fans can be seen cooling the crowd, but the sound is blocked by singing voices, as the Domincan’s worship builds to a near frenzy of excitement. Then Domincans and Americans take turns reading, preaching and singing for about two hours. A translator sees to it that both groups of people understand what the other is saying.But the message is universal, and one the group has heard before: “God is good.”

This is the first of two articles documenting an outreach group in the Dominican Republic. In Monday’s Eagle, the group finishes its project and returns home to begin planning for the future