This entire life changing experience started many months ago. I was home for Christmas break, scrolling through Instagram, when I saw an ad to go to the Dominican Republic to teach softball with a program called Outreach360. I was bored so I decided to look into it. The more I read about Outreach360 the more I started to believe this was something possible for me.
I mentioned it to multiple friends and luckily my teammate Emma Colegrove was crazy enough to say she would go with me. We talked about it for a little while but then put the idea aside and ended up forgetting about it
A couple months passed by when the idea was brought up again. We talked to our coaches about it and they thought it sounded like an amazing opportunity for us. So that night we made it official and signed up to go. We picked what week we’d go, we set up Go Fund Me accounts, and posted on Facebook letting all our friends and family know about our trip. We booked our flights, got our passports, and not-so-patiently waited for June 25th to come.
What felt like forever passed, and it was finally the big day. We got an Uber to the airport at 4:00 a.m., and our flight departed from Nashville at 6:00 a.m. It wasn’t just our first flight of the trip. It was my first flight ever and first time out of the country, so I was extremely excited to experience flying.
We flew to Miami, then to Santiago. We arrived in the Dominican Republic at 2:30 p.m., just in time to wait in line for an hour for customs. We finally made it out of the airport but our travelling still wasn’t over. We had a two-and-a-half hour cab ride to the Outreach 360 house in Monte Cristi.
It was by far the craziest car ride I’ve ever experienced. Traffic laws aren’t really enforced, speed limits are more of a suggestion and the roads are paved but very bumpy.
We arrived at the house just in time for dinner. Right after we were taken up to our rooms to settle in. Emma and I were lucky enough to have a room to ourselves. It was much like a dorm room, small with a couple bunk beds. It wasn’t long before we were ready to go to sleep, but not before putting our personal fans next to us in bed.
This was one of the biggest adjustments we faced while being in the Dominican Republic. It’s hot and humid, much like Tennessee summers, but air conditioning is RARE! I’d like to think I dealt with the heat pretty well thanks to spending nearly every summer of my childhood in it playing softball. Not everyone handled it as easily as I did though.
This was a big day for us. We came downstairs for breakfast to be greeted by about thirty new faces. These were all the multi week volunteers. Saturdays are travel days, but for the volunteers that stay for multiple weeks they are excursion days where they travel to different parts of the island for fun activities. This is one of the huge perks of staying longer, because one week is nowhere near long enough!
After breakfast we had a lot to do. We all played a game to get to know each other better. Then the new volunteers had to go through orientation. We learned all about Outreach 360, what to expect throughout the week, and how to make the most of our time in the Dominican Republic. We also took a walking tour of Monte Cristi led by an Outreach 360 leader, who was originally from the Dominican Republic, and two local teenage girls.
We got a better understanding of where everything was in the town while also learning some interesting facts and history. Later that afternoon was time for lesson planning for the week. Most of the volunteers teach in the school. They come up with fun activities to help the children learn English. Emma and I had completely different jobs though. We worked with Meghan, a volunteer who was there for the entire eight week program, and led the softball camp. We planned different drills to do with the girls at camp which was nothing new for any of us. Each of us is a college athlete so we all had gone to or worked a camp at some point in our lives. We had it all figured out and couldn’t wait to see what camp would be like the next day.
Camp consists of a morning session and an afternoon session. Monday morning we didn’t have a single girl show up for softball. It was discouraging since so many boys showed up. Since we had no girls to teach we played with the three neighborhood children that were too young to participate in camp. After the first session we went back to the house for lunch. When we returned to the field later that afternoon, we still had no girls. One of the volunteers, who was a local teenage girl, and another volunteer who knew Spanish walked around looking for girls to come participate. They returned with two girls who had never played before, but were eager to learn. We worked on the basics of catching and throwing and at the end let them hit. After camp we told them to come back the next morning and bring their friends. We were unsure if they’d bring anyone or if they’d even be back, but we tried to hope for the best.
TUESDAY and WEDNESDAY
The two girls showed up and they brought four more girls! Six girls may sound like nothing to be excited about for a camp. Camps I would go to growing up had more like fifty to a hundred girls. But in a male dominant country where baseball is life, girls do not have the opportunity or the confidence to play softball. THAT is why we are there.
It was not to train these girls to compete at a high level like camps in the U.S. We wish they had those kinds of opportunities, but they just don’t. We are there to break down gender stereotypes and give these girls confidence they will carry throughout life. And since we are coaching them in English, we are also giving them the chance to learn a little bit of a new language.
This was by far the best day. We had confidence in our girls and believed they could compete with the boys. So we split them all into two teams and had them play a game.
I’ve never been so proud of anyone before. These girls came to camp not knowing how to even throw, but had a strong desire to learn and get better. They not only competed with the boys, but I personally think they did better than a lot of them.
We played an inning of baseball, then an inning of softball. Some of the boys complained because they didn’t want to play with the girl’s ball. They really hated trying to hit a ball being pitched under hand. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life to witness Dominican boys and girls playing together. That just doesn’t happen there and I’m so glad I got to be a part of it.
It was the last day of camp and time for us to say our goodbyes. The girls were so excited to come back to camp the next week, which made leaving even harder. I hated having to tell them I wouldn’t be there anymore. The hardest goodbye of all was the little neighbor girl that was too young to even participate.
Her name was Casey and she stole my heart. I held onto her and hugged her for as long as possible, trying not to let myself cry. I looked her in the eye and pointed at her and said “I’m coming back next summer just for you. I love you sweet Casey”. Did she understand what I said? Probably not, but I’d like to think she did and will remember me when I go back next summer.
We got the chance to do so many cool things in our spare time outside of camp. I tried to spend as much time as I could in the park playing with the kids. One night I did Zumba with the local women, which was one of my favorite memories of the trip.
We took a walk to the pier to watch the sun set then early one morning hiked up a small part of the mountain to watch the sun rise. Both were truly breathtaking views. We went to a local restaurant where the food was amazing, plus they had air conditioning! Bon, the local ice cream shop, quickly became my favorite place. We went on a tour of the salt flats and learned about all the steps it takes to make salt.
Today was by far the most eye opening day. We took a trip to the Haitian border to a market that opens twice a week. The border is opened on these days and people go back and forth across the river to buy, sell, and trade goods. It is fairly well known that Dominicans and Haitians do not like each other. But for a few chaotic hours twice a week they put their differences aside to do business. It was sad to see how hard these people were working and knowing they were making nearly nothing. It really made me appreciate how easy I have it.
After the market we visited a local baseball stadium and took a quick walk through a cemetery. Later that afternoon we went to a beautiful beach which was the perfect ending to an amazing week. That night was the last time we would all be together so it got a little emotional. Saying goodbye was hard but I will always treasure the friendships I made. The next morning we left for the airport at 3:00 a.m. to begin our long journey back home. The town and people of Monte Cristi will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Since I’ve been home I think about the Dominican Republic every single day. I think about the amazing people so much. I miss the friends I made in my short time there. Some are still there and post pictures showing what all is going on. Others are home and post pictures of the trip wishing they could go back.
I miss the kids more than anything. Whether it was the little boy, Francis, who would yell my name nonstop until I came outside to play, or my sweet Casey whose precious laugh still runs through my head, I can’t help but get sad occasionally and wish I was there with them right now.
There was one boy though, who forever changed my life. A picture of him is set as my screen saver on my phone as a constant reminder of my experience with him. The first time I saw him was at the beginning of the week in the ice cream shop. His clothes were ragged, he looked very sad, and he was carrying around a little wooden box.
He asked one of the volunteers if she wanted her shoes cleaned. He only charged 25 pesos which is about $0.50. She said yes, even though she was wearing tennis shoes and figured he typically cleaned leather shoes. He took his supplies out of his box and propped her foot up on top of it. He did such an amazing job and made her shoes look like new. This was the first time I had gotten upset over anything I had seen so far. I tried not to let anyone see that I was fighting back tears. I told Emma that I wanted to find him on our last day and give him my leftover money.
Days passed and I didn’t see the boy again. I was beginning to think I never would. After dinner on my last day I was sitting outside of the house with some local boys showing them snapchat filters. This was by far the easiest way to entertain the kids. A curious little boy walked up to me and wanted to see what I was looking at... I couldn’t believe it but it was him! He hadn’t been around that part of town all week, but on my last day he managed to walk right up to me.
I truly believe God wanted me to see this little boy again. I showed him my phone and it quickly changed his face into a puppy. Seeing that sad little boy smile made my heart so happy. Eventually the other boys ran off and it was just him left. I told him to wait there and I ran upstairs to get my money. I only had 63 pesos left but I wanted him to have it. He was so grateful for it and insisted he clean my shoes. I had no intentions of making him, but he persisted so I let him clean my Nikes.
I had been wearing them every day to camp so they got filthy from playing in the dirt. He made them look like new though. I was so impressed and will never look at that pair of shoes the same way. I praised him for his good work, which brought on another smile. A local girl tried to translate but said his Spanish wasn’t very good. That led us to believe that he was Haitian, because they speak Creole in Haiti.
It is a lot worse there so some people try to escape to the Dominican Republic for a better life. It was known by the kids that he was Haitian so they treated him like an outsider, not allowing him to play with them. He didn’t talk much but one word I understood clear as day was “volleyball”. I rushed inside to look for one but could only find a soccer ball. We attempted to bump and set with him but he wasn’t very good. None of that mattered though because we were showing him attention which made him so happy.
He got tired of volleyball so we started to play soccer. He kicked the ball under a bench and said “goal”. He wanted to play a game, him against Emma and me. We were wrong to think he wasn’t athletic just because he was bad at volleyball. Once he started using his feet we realized he had some true talent. He was incredible and made Emma and I look silly while he faked us out and kicked the ball between our feet. To make the story even more impressive, he was playing in a pair of cheap flip flops that were falling apart.
I wanted to take this boy home with me and give him everything he deserves. He was such a sweet kid who just wanted someone to show they cared about him. At just ten years old he was treated like an outsider and had to work unlike most of the Dominican children. He shouldn’t have to worry about those kinds of things. And that is when my life was changed forever. I want to help kids like him that have nothing, because I have been given so much. I hope I made a difference while I was down there, because it definitely made a difference in me.