Oilers Serving Abroad: Truly a life-changing experience

Bringing compassion, gratitude from the DR to the States

By Sarah Stubbs

The routine, stressful college realities are beginning to set back in after a much needed week off. I’m running on just a few hours of sleep and my to-do list is longer than it has ever been; but, I can honestly say that I have never been happier, more grateful, and relaxed than I am in this moment.

Over spring break I had the privilege to travel to the Dominican Republic with a group of students and staff to serve through the student-led organization, Oilers Serving Abroad (OSA). This is the seventh time that Oilers have gone to the Dominican to serve and my first time completing a mission trip and traveling outside of the country.

Dallas Smith, a fifth year pharmacy major and major leader on campus, is one of the founders of Oilers Serving Abroad. This was his last trip to the DR as a UF student and I had the privilege of going with him. I cannot thank Dallas and the other founding members of OSA enough for the wonderful opportunity that they have created for students at UF to experience a whole other culture and make a difference in the world.

To say that this trip has changed my life is an understatement. I feel rushed writing this column, as I returned to UF at 4:30 a.m. Monday morning and am sending the paper to print Tuesday night, and I wish that I had more time to better articulate how truly amazing my eight days in the DR were, but this recap and initial reflection will have to do for now.

On Friday, Feb. 26 the spring break OSA team traveled to Detroit. Early Saturday morning we flew from Detroit to Newark and then landed in beautiful Santo Domingo, DR, that afternoon. After spending Saturday and most of Sunday in the capital, we took a four hour bus ride to Barahona where we spent the bulk of our week.

In Barahona we stayed at an all-boys orphanage that is run by a man named Pastor Pedro.  We got to spend a lot of time with boys, mostly in the morning and nighttime, getting to know them and playing with them. I got to practice my Spanish skills (and learn so many new words), watch Tom and Jerry, take silly selfies, and dance the Salsa and the Bachata with all the boys.

For the first two days in Barahona, we traveled with Pastor Pedro in his big, red truck out to the bateyes where Haitian refugees are living in the Dominican Republic. Pastor Pedro goes into these communities in and around Barahona every day and is preaching and getting to know the people and what they really need. That is how our service projects were determined. On Monday, we mixed concrete by hand and created a cement floor for a family of four. We also built a latrine (a communal outhouse) so that we might help deter some of the pollution going into their main water source. On Tuesday we returned to the same batey and gave another family a cement floor in their home.

The best part about serving in the batey, for me, was playing with all of the children. They were so excited to see us, play with us, and love us. My heart was so full when we returned to the batey on Tuesday and all of the kids just swarmed the red truck and wanted to play or just be held. A lot of them remembered my name and wanted me to hold them or play with them right away. There were very few moments where I was not either holding a child, giving a child a piggy back ride or ride on my shoulders, holding a child’s hand, or getting my hair done. I played tag, had conversation with them, let them try on my work gloves and hat and sunglasses, and played a game of baseball with a water bottle as our ball.

The next two days were spent at UCATEBA, a private university in Barahona with a student enrollment size comparable to Findlay. This was a blast because we got to teach each other a little bit about each other’s’ cultures and serve alongside one another.

We went to the other orphanage in Barahona (yes, there are only two) to spend time with those children. A lot of these kids were victims of neglect or abuse, or were there for extended daycare because their parents have to work long hours and cannot care for them. Serving in the orphanage is another one of my favorite memories from the trip. When I set foot in the playroom in that orphanage, little girls and boys immediately welcomed me with hugs and kisses and just wanted to be held, tickled, chased, or danced with.

When our group had our reflection that night, we discussed how a lot of those children either don’t have parents at all or their parent has neglected them or can’t care for them. For the most part, these kids cannot crawl into bed with their parent whenever they want. They’re not being held and rocked to sleep every night. They’re not always being read bedtime stories or even sitting on an adult’s lap and being talked to. I loved that I was able to give a few little boys and girls that attention and affection even if it was for such a short period of time. It’s amazing how these kids who have nothing will accept you and love you right off-the-bat. The little girls I’m holding in the picture included with this column didn’t know me until that day – but they immediately trusted me loved me. The laughter and smiles that filled that orphanage that day will leave my heart feeling full for a long time.

The rest of our trip was full of beach trips, karaoke, delicious seafood, mini-Spanish lessons, a little shopping, a lot of playing, and the most intense hike I’ve ever been on in my entire life. I could probably write an entire column about just the eco hike itself, but let’s just say that every member of the OSA spring break team is now a qualified candidate for “Survivor.”

Leaving the orphanage Saturday morning was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever done. I cried like a baby. I felt like I just was beginning to know these people and then I had to leave. We’ve only been back a couple days but I already miss Barahona and all of the wonderful people I met so much.

On our last night in the Dominican, we had a final reflection and everyone was honest and forthright about how much the trip meant to them. Everyone was changed in some way by these eight days and even though we went to the DR to serve and give, we received more than we could have ever imagined: one-of-a-kind experiences in a new culture, new relationships (with our new Dominican friends as well as the new friendships that were built among UF students and staff on the trip), and a desire to continue to serve and bring the love and compassion of the Dominican culture back into the States.

I truly have never given, received, or witnessed more love in my entire life than I did in the Dominican Republic. Through our experiences, reflections, and my observations of the selfless individuals who made this trip possible, I am reminded that there really is no such thing as a small act. The world is so big and it’s easy to feel small and unimportant in our day-to-day lives, but one act of kindness has the power to create a domino effect that can ultimately make waves in making the world a better place to live.

We are each so powerful and capable of making a difference in this world and we don’t have to travel abroad to begin to make that difference, either. A lot of the times just saying hello and genuinely asking someone how they are can go a long way. Give someone a little of your time. Give them your full attention and energy. Don’t hesitate to show sympathy or compassion – you might find that when you give, you receive.

I’m beyond grateful for this experience that I was privileged to have, and I cannot wait for my next travel and service adventure.

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