Where I Left My Heart This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

      When my friend spoke at church last year about her mission trip to the Dominican Republic, she inspired me to spend a year raising money so that I could go on the same trip with Medical Ministry International. I spent hours serving at fund-raising dinners, making baked goods, and sending out support letters, which made the time before my trip go quickly.

Packing was difficult; we were only allowed one 30-pound bag and a small carry-on because we were transporting medicine and tools. I packed a week’s worth of clothes (I was promised we’d do laundry during the two weeks) and toiletries into a small gym bag, rechecked my packing list, and made sure I had my passport and ID - there would no coming back for forgotten items!

Before I knew it, I was on an airplane headed to a country I knew almost nothing about located 600 miles southeast of Florida. I sat mesmerized as our plane passed over the sparkling sea and pink clouds.

Some may be uncomfortable at the thought of spending two weeks in a country filled with poverty and disease, but nervousness was far from my mind when I stepped into the humid air of Santo Domingo, the capital city. I could barely contain my excitement and awe at being in such a beautiful place. During the bus ride to our base in Las Matas de Farfán, I watched with fascination as we passed colorful small towns and vast, green mountains. Women swept their dirt yards, and children shouted and waved as we drove by under swaying palm trees and a spectacular blue sky. Hundreds of mopeds sped dangerously by our bus, leaving behind the pungent smell of diesel. My senses were overwhelmed.

All of that was nothing, however, compared to the sight that greeted us at the small concrete building that would be our base. Seemingly out of nowhere, dozens of children tore across the grass shouting joyful greetings in Spanish. The children grinned and threw their arms around us. These cheerful companions would be my playmates and friends during my time there.

I quickly settled into the routine we would follow for the next two weeks. Every morning at 5 a.m., our mission team met in the dining room for a breakfast of fruit, strong coffee, and other breakfast foods, which looked familiar, yet had a unique taste. Then we’d take a bumpy ride to a school or church where we would spend the day. Medical Ministry International set up clinics with an optometrist, a pharmacist, a health center, a dental team, and a children’s health center. I volunteered to work with the children and with the dentists.

Helping people who had had little medical or spiritual care was a touching experience. I played with many adorable children, and my heart is still with those kids who wrapped their arms around me in an appreciative hug or wrote te amo (I love you) on the coloring books we shared with them. In the dentist’s office, I assisted the hygienists as they pulled teeth or filled the cavities of their nervous patients. After their appointments, many lives were changed physically and spiritually as we shared the love that God had for them through presentations, stories, songs, or just heartfelt caring. The Dominicans would lift their hands in praise or sing their gratitude. They saw God through those of us who wrapped our arms around them or held their hand in prayer.

When we returned to the base, we would eat dinner, which usually consisted of fresh pineapple or melon, spicy meat, rice, fresh bread, and peanut butter. Once, after becoming friends with a goat named Fred, I saw him carried away to be dished out that night. Needless to say, I wasn’t very hungry for that meal.

The few remaining hours of the day were our much-needed free time, during which we could relax, sleep, or explore the town. In town, mopeds sped by so fast and so close that if we reached our hands out, we would have been clipped.

Everything was so inexpensive that I found myself spending many pesos on clothing, gifts, and large glass bottles of refreshing soda. The vendors knew that los americanos would willingly spend money and called or whistled to get us to come to their stores.

When we returned from town, the children were always waiting on the front steps to play with us. They hugged and kissed us without hesitation. Although we often could not understand, they talked about their family, school, and friends. They showed us how to play their favorite games, like rhyming hand claps or tag, the words to simple songs in Spanish, and dances. I recall these moments fondly, and am very excited to see these kids next year.

To prolong our free time, my friends and I would stay up into the early morning hours talking, laughing, taking pictures, and making memories. Then, we would tiptoe to our rooms, check under our mosquito nets for spiders or other critters, and quickly fell asleep.

When it came time to leave all these amazing people I had become close with, I could barely keep from crying. I prolonged my good-byes as I reached for each of the children around me and held them close. Many of the kids cried and asked us to take them home with us. One mother pushed her daughter toward us, insisting that the child would be better off in America.

Once we were finally on the bus, we drove to the market in San Juan, where we shopped for an hour to help distract us from the sorrow of our departure. Shopkeepers yelled to us from their stands, some going to extreme lengths to get us to buy their goods. They held up jewelry, clothing, and Dominican memorabilia, insisting that it was exactly what we wanted and needed. The commotion was overwhelming, and we bargained for everything we bought. After I left many pesos with these shopkeepers who knew exactly how to appeal to Americans, we returned to our bus and left the city.

On the long ride to the airport, we all reviewed our purchases and memories, practiced our Spanish, and cried a few tears.

Back home, everything seemed dull and uninteresting. In contrast to the bright skies, balmy breeze and sun of the Dominican Republic, a cold rain and strep throat greeted me. There was nothing I longed for more than the place where I had left my heart. It was hard to get back to the pace of my very different world of school and work, but I was comforted by the thought that I could return to the Dominican Republic the next year.

All in all, my mission trip was an exciting and life-changing experience. I made many friends, not only on my team, but also many Dominican children and adults. My trip to the Dominican Republic was truly one of the best and most inspiring experiences of my life, and I cannot wait to return.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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Lily">This teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. said...
Jan. 9 at 9:18 pm
i love this so much!
theatregirl This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 27, 2013 at 2:18 pm
Wow, this was good. It's wonderful how you spent your time and money making life a little better for those kids. As far as the writing, it was descriptive, fluid, emotion, and well thought out. This piece made me want cry and go donate $50 to world vision or UNICEF. I glad it was published in the magazine. Keep up the good writing - and the good work. :)
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