Okay, I’m finally sitting down to write about this summer and to be honest, it’s a daunting task. I feel like I lived a lifetime in the past six weeks, and to come home and find everything the same (even my car keys were still sitting on my desk, exactly where I’d left them) is jarring. But now is the time to step back and thank God for the rich blessings He gave me this summer…
After a few days of training in Jarabacoa, I headed off with the other interns on my team to Constanza, a little farming town nestled in a valley and surrounded on all sides by mountains.
The place where we worked, the Ark, is both a school (open to community and orphanage kids) and an orphanage. The Ark is very unique in that the orphanage is made up of four separate houses, each of which has house “parents” and several children. That way, each child feels like he is part of a real family. Each child has a place to belong.
I was placed with four other interns in Constanza: Grace, Mac, Erin, and Augustyna. All of us except Grace and Mac, who were younger, lived in the director’s house (the old director had left, so the house was open) inside the Ark compound, which enabled us to be a part of the orphanage community. Erin was a mother of three children (adopted from Guatemala), so I had three little siblings for the summer!
I helped teach second grade in the mornings, which was a difficult but also a beautiful and rewarding job. The curriculum we used focused on a different Asian country each week, with coloring pages and activities to go along with each country.
The community kids came from difficult home environments, which meant that we had several discipline issues; there were days when it was extremely difficult to maintain any degree of calmness in the classroom, let alone actually teach. However, it was encouraging to see the way God softened their hearts as the summer progressed.
One little boy in particular, Feivi, could be very difficult to work with and sometimes displayed aggressive behavior. One day he was having so many behavioral issues that I stayed in the classroom with him while the others went out for recess. At first, he paced the room knocking over chairs and kicking things aside, refusing to look me in the eyes and pulling away from me when I touched him. Eventually, however, as I spoke to him gently and let him sift through his frustration, he calmed down enough to read a simple picture book describing God’s love with me. That time with him, when he calmly listened to me explain how much God loved him, when he looked at the sweet drawings in the book, was a beautiful moment for me. After that day, he was more open to building a relationship with me and more open to physical touch. Even though he eventually was kicked out of summer school for violent behavior and so I was no longer able to reach him, I know he’s in God’s hands. The seeds that have been sown will continue to grow and hopefully will bear fruit some day. As Vick and Lesley, a missionary couple in Jarabacoa, explained, it’s hard to let go of those kids, but you have to recognize that God has them even when you don’t.
Another of my students, Yorlenis, was a sweet little girl who always listened and who sat quietly while the others misbehaved. Twice I walked home with her after school was over, which showed her I was invested in her as a person, not just as a student. That act of friendship strengthened our relationship and enabled me to understand her, and other kids, better. When a relationship extends beyond the school walls and into a child’s personal life, that relationship has a great deal of power.
It was hard to see the more difficult kids wasting time and preventing good students like Yorlenis from learning, to spend so much time addressing behavioral issues that there wasn’t much time left to teach. But God views productivity differently than we do. What really mattered to Him wasn’t memorizing facts about China and Japan, but instead pouring into each child’s life day in and day out, even when it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere. What God really cared about were the relationships I formed with each of those children, relationships in which each child knew he could trust me to discipline him in love. When a child realizes that you’re dedicated to helping him change his behavior for the better, he trusts you more, even when discipline hurts.
One of the little boys I worked with, Kirobe, was simply a bundle of love. He was what the Dominicans call “special.” That is, he didn’t relate to others like a normal child or necessarily understand what was going on in the same way that other children did, but he constantly looked for an affirming smile and a warm hug, even when he misbehaved. That little boy showed me so much about gentleness and patience this summer; he was the kind of boy who picked the little fruit growing on the tree by the gate and offered it to me with a huge smile, just because he wanted to give me something.
In the afternoon we offered different workshops to the older kids depending on their interests: sports, cooking, sewing, etc. I volunteered to help with the dance class, not knowing that I would actually be the one teaching the class! Teaching ballet in another language was a challenge, and we faced some attitude issues along the way, but by the end I had become very close with my girls. What struck me was that one of the more difficult girls, Yennery, wanted me to take a video of her thanking me for teaching her…It was such an encouragement to know that all those days of pouring love into each beautiful girl payed off. Of course, I couldn’t have gotten through the summer without Keila, my faithful Dominican friend and assistant. Her patience, gentleness and humility kept our class together. At the end of the summer, my class had a “recital” and presented the dance to “Océanos” (“Oceans”) we had choreographed throughout the five weeks, and it was beautiful to see everything come together.
Outside of teaching, we developed countless rich relationship in the community with other young people, with adults, and with kids. Our nights were filled with ice cream outings, worship nights, youth group, and just sharing life. For me one of the big differences between going to Constanza for a week and going for an entire summer was the ability to integrate fully in the community. Rather than being tourists, we were living in the community and taking part in community life: buying fruits and vegetables at the colmados (little stands on the side of the road), going to the salon with Dominican friends to get my nails done, rushing out to buy soda before having people over our house… Whenever I walked along the streets, there was always someone (or several people) I knew who I could greet. Constanza was my home, and the people of Constanza became my family. I even attended a wedding during my time there! I also celebrated my 18th birthday in Constanza, so I invited several of my Dominican friends over and we all gathered in a circle to play guitar (or listen) and eat fried plantains. What a special birthday!
One of the biggest things God taught me this summer was the value of community – of simply being, rather than doing. If I entered the school each day with a mindset of productivity, I was quickly disappointed by the kids’ lack of attention and by their behavioral issues, and quickly discouraged by how little we got done. But when I entered the school with relationships as my top priority, I had the freedom to focus on the needs of each individual child rather than worrying about how little we accomplished.
But as much as it’s important to build into the lives of other people, you also need to let others build into you and help you when you’re ready to give up. We can’t do this alone, and as much as we Americans like to be strong and independent – to utilize our talents and resources for a good cause – sometimes we just need to learn how to receive.
Hopefully this post gives you a glimpse of what my experience was like this summer, but of course there were so many things I wasn’t able to say here, and so many things I’m still trying to process. I would absolutely love to go back to Constanza (on the next plane!), but we’ll have to see what God has in store…