This past winter we learned that a student who had previously gone on a Service Learning Tour with us in the Dominican Republic, Lauren C., was back there volunteering with one of our non-profit partners, the Mariposa DR Foundation. The foundation, a center in Cabarete that provides young Dominican and Haitian girls with access to education and healthcare, had stood out to Lauren during her trip last March. While there, she and her classmates helped build a community center and assist teachers at the local school. Before leaving the DR they stopped by the Mariposa DR Foundation to tour the center and visit with the students who were volunteering there.
The foundation’s mission to empower young women immediately connected with Lauren and in the short time she was there she knew it was an organization she wanted to be part of. So that summer, instead of preparing for her freshman year at Brandeis University, she deferred her acceptance and took a gap year to do volunteer work and travel the world. Needless to say, the story grabbed our attention and after trading a few emails we lined up a time to connect over Skype. Below is our conversation with Lauren, covering her journey to the Mariposa DR Foundation and how it relates to her future goals and ambitions.
What specifically made you realize you wanted to go back to the Dominican Republic and volunteer?
The Mariposa DR Foundation’s unofficial motto, “I am the most powerful force for change,” really connected with me. I’m only 18, but I thought maybe I could help be a role model for the girls. There’s paintings and rooms dedicated all over the center to these unbelievably strong women who gave their lives to empowering young girls. It’s inspiring and really made me realize how important this place is.
So what’s your week like at the center? Do you have a planned schedule each day?
School here is only half a day, so in the morning the younger girls come to the center and in the afternoon the older girls will come here after school. I teach Math on Saturdays, but most of my time is spent in the homework room helping the girls. It’s similar to a study hall, so we’re there to help them with their work and answer any questions that they may have. A big part of the homework room is simply just being there for them and reinforcing how important education is.
If they don’t have homework, we’re always encouraging them to read. When I first started there were a few girls that never wanted to read and just the other day those girls were asking me if they could take a book off the shelf. Obviously my answer was, “Yes, of course!” It’s really awesome to see things like that happen because it was tough at first. I was very overwhelmed. Some of the girls really struggle and you start asking yourself “What can I really do?” But you push past that. You see progress on a daily basis.
Was it culturally a bit overwhelming too?
Yes! Dominicans are full of zest. They have this enthusiastic Caribbean spice. They’re very passionate and affectionate people. They could be arguing with someone, but still calling them “Mi amor” at the same time. They’ll visibly be upset with that person, but it doesn’t matter. They have so much love for each other. They’re yelling one moment and hugging the next.
They’re incredibly warm and friendly people. They’re always stopping to greet you and ask how you are. Culturally it’s not something you’d expect back home. They have such a love for life and it’s something I’ve really come to appreciate.Has volunteer work always been important to you or is it something you’ve naturally gotten involved in through school programs?
It was a bit of both. I’m adopted from China, and I realize how fortunate I am to grow up in the United States. China’s population has historically been a tough issue, so recognizing that I’m alive today, have food on the table and a family that loves me makes me realize that it’s important to give back. I did a service trip in China three years ago and that really made me realize how lucky I am…I know how different my life could have been if my parents hadn’t adopted me.
So with that “Pay it forward” type attitude have you thought about what’s next and what you may want to pursue in the future?
Definitely, I’ll be going to Brandeis University in September. I deferred my acceptance for a year, but I really don’t know what career path I want to take. That’s part of why I took a gap year. A lot of what I do here is centered around education and teaching is something I’ve thought about, so hopefully this trip will help make some of those things more clear.
After this I’ll head back home to Boston and while I’m there I’d like to do a short-term internship in healthcare. There’s an organization there that helps the homeless with medical care, so I’d like to volunteer with them while I’m home. It’ll also be important to spend time with my family, talk to them about what I learned here in the DR and reflect on that.
Do you think you’ve learned a lot about yourself because of this trip?
I’ve learned to be so much more patient. This is the first time I’m actually living by myself, so it’s the simple things too, like just learning how to live. Some of the things we’re teaching these girls I’m still trying to learn myself.
That’s funny, but interesting too. It really all comes down to gaining life skills, right?
Yea, absolutely – There are days where I’m talking to the girls about why it’s important to eat a healthy meal, but there I am eating junk food because I didn’t put aside enough pesos.
If a senior who was about to graduate from high school came to you and said they’re thinking about taking a year off to travel or live abroad what would you say to them?
Go for it! Don’t look back and regret it. You’re going to learn so much more about yourself and how to live. This is real life. I’m living real life right now. It’s kind of scary and challenging, but also amazing. I definitely feel like I’ve become more mature because of it. I have so much more insight into the world right now. It’s a great way to learn about yourself and figure out what you want out of life.