Prior to last month, I had no real idea what poverty and struggle looked like.
I thought I did – I grew up poor, volunteer with Red Deer’s homeless population and have seen the effects of a lack of resources. By our standards.
This October, I joined 21 other Albertans on a humanitarian trip to the Dominican Republic where my eyes were opened to what a poverty-stricken, third world country really looks like.
We travelled to the north coast of the island and volunteered with a feeding program in a poor village called Ascension. We saw people who eat a single meal a day or sometimes nothing at all. Clean water doesn’t come out of taps, and the standards of living are less than sub-par.
Regardless of these issues, I met some of the happiest people I’d ever met and that is what the true impact of this trip was.
Poverty is the trap of not being able to better one’s situation. These people genuinely do not have the resources – money, clean water, ease of access to food, medical care, proper housing – to better their situation.
But for everything they have, they are thankful.
The people I met in the Dominican Republic were some of the most beautiful, kind and proud people I’ve ever met. Children would come up to you, grab your hand and take you to their home to introduce you to their family. They were always proud of their homes, their families and their pets (often chickens). Many of the adults were more reserved, but also very genuine in their actions.
The language barrier was the least of our worries. Our group stumbled through interactions with children and adults, both parties usually ending up smiling or laughing due to the confusion.
In spite of the difficulties these people are facing, there is an element of community unparalleled to anything I’ve ever seen in Canada.
Children, teens, adults and elders all coexist with respect for each other and a reliance on each other. The people in the village were often taking care of each other’s children, moving seamlessly between houses and shops and were always waving or shouting greetings at those around them.
One of my best memories was on our last day in the village, where I asked my new friend Wilson to take me to his home so that I could photograph his family. I was welcomed by hugs, shown his prized pet chicken and his pigs and was offered water to drink. His family put on nice clothes for me to photograph them. I was welcomed with such kindness that I nearly cried.
It was amazing to see such a spirit in a village that is so obviously full of struggle. Ascension is actually one of the luckier villages – missionaries built houses for the people and the feeding program and baby program run by our friends helps to take care of the babies, children and elders. Most villages don’t have this kind of additional help, so the people there are in an even worse situation.
In North America, we praise entrepreneurial spirit. We have associations and meetings and think entrepreneurs are gifted, ambitious leaders. In the Dominican, the only way people can make a living – a very poor but passable living – is to create a business or service. Until someone pointed that out to me, I wouldn’t have realized. But after, it was all I could see.
There are over 400 villages – bateys – like Ascension across the Dominican. These villages were populated with Haitian migrants during a booming sugar cane industry – most of which was bought out and closed by North American corporations seeking to gain a bigger profit. To add insult to injury, most of the sugar cane fields were burned to keep the people from re-building the industry.
The result is thousands of unemployed, underprivileged people in poor living conditions.
But the other result is a community spirit unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. There is a beauty and simplicity to the way of life down there because most people are incredibly grateful for what little opportunities they have.
The biggest thing I brought home with me from this experience was gratefulness for my wonderful life, and I am thankful to have been shown that in a personal, humble and impactful way.