Christopher Columbus, so the story goes, when asked to describe the island of Dominica to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, took a piece of paper, crumpled it up and threw it on the table. "That," he said, "is Dominica."
Columbus was referring to the mountainous terrain that characterizes much of Dominica. The most rugged of the islands, it is known as the “Nature Island of the Caribbean” due to its lush flora and fauna and spectacular volcanic peaks.
For all its beauty, unfortunately, the rugged coastline, lack of beaches and the absence of an international airport have prevented Dominica from capitalizing on the tourism industry as the rest of the Caribbean has done. Approximately 40 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line, a situation due mainly to the collapse of the banana industry on which the island’s Gross Domestic Product depended. Where once the island exported 250,000 tons of bananas, it now exports only about 60,000 tons.
The current situation there is dire. We were about to experience the poverty firsthand as my husband and I arrived to join the Le Moyne Dominican Service Project there.
We landed at Melville Hall just before dusk on a Tuesday to join the group of Le Moyne students on the second week of their volunteer project. As we waited for more passengers to fill up the van going to town, we talked to Moe, an American student at Ross University, the medical school on the island. He asked what we were doing there.
“Pleasure,” I said, not wanting to get into the volunteer aspect of our trip in case it proved controversial somehow. “Whoa,” Moe said, whistling under his breath. “Let me give you a little piece of advice. Get the first plane out of here!”
It was an ominous beginning to our stay, and later in the dark, as we tried to coax the driver into attempting the rutted, muddy two-lane path back toward a small light we knew was our B&B, I began to doubt the prudence of our decision to join students on this volunteer mission.
The students, all part of living-learning communities at Le Moyne, had arrived the previous week and were led by the Rev. Donald Maldari, S.J. (or Don “Show-Me-The-Money” Maldari, as he was known during the fund-raising portion of the trip preparations.) The stated goal of the project in a covenant signed by the students before they left was to “promote growth in the participants as well as in those whom they serve by working with the poor and marginalized.” The covenant asked participants “to live simply and in community with each other, to examine the causes of social injustice, and to experience, in the most real way possible, the reality of being a person rooted in a particular culture.”
Also accompanying the group was Patricia Schmidt, education professor at Le Moyne. In addition to volunteering alongside the students during the day, Schmidt met with them each night as a class to explore issues of multicultural literacy and to talk about the challenges of developing relationships with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
My husband, Brad, and I were along as alumni of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a program of prayer and reflection offered yearly to laypeople at Le Moyne. We had received an invitation from Father Maldari in December to consider participating in this service project and decided it was something we wanted to do. It was concrete, it was hands-on, it was more meaningful to us than just writing a check and leaving it in the offering plate on Sunday.
The students had spent the first week in the capital of Roseau, serving at a number of sites, including Operation Youth Quake, a temporary home for troubled youth; Alpha Centre, tutoring developmentally challenged students; and the Massacre primary school, tutoring regular students. They also partnered with Reaching Elderly Abandoned Citizens Housebound (REACH) to finish a project begun by last year’s students of building a new house for an indigent Dominican man.
Now they were in Portsmouth, a smaller city of fewer than 4,000 people.
That first day dawned bright and sunny, and we soon forgot the previous evening’s misgivings as we walked down the long road to town past fragrant lemon grass, cashew trees, flowering angel trumpets, coconut palms and the occasional tethered cow. Partway down we encountered our first student, Emily Dilzer ’06, who was on her way up to work at the Home for the Aged. Emily was the veteran of the group, having been to Dominica the previous year – all of the other students had just completed their freshman year. During the week I came to appreciate her unique insight into the Dominicans as a result of her experiences.
As we got closer to town, the traffic increased. Foot traffic, that is. Although there are cars in Portsmouth and the narrow streets seem frequently crowded with them, many people walk, and walk for long distances. We encountered a farmer on his way up to the jungle, a huge machete in hand, to cut vines for his livestock. And everywhere we saw people walking with bundles carefully balanced on their heads – carrying coconuts, or wicker baskets, or in one case, three heavy cinder blocks.
Portsmouth itself was crowded and noisy and colorful, with people calling to each other in patois, a French-based dialect commonly spoken on the island. Although there are panhandlers, as one might expect given the poverty, most people want to do something for you in return for the money. They don’t just want a handout; they want to show you where you can buy a pineapple or lead you to a grocery store or to the post office.
We saw children playing with old wheels and sticks or exploring under rocks in the stream, not seeming to miss at all what we would consider the necessary childhood toys of skateboards and bikes, computers and video games. Watching them, I was reminded that the most valuable thing you can possess on a hot summer afternoon is a good friend.
Over the next several days, we visited the students at their sites and volunteered ourselves. We found Suhura Bernard, John Doyle (J.D.), and Adrian Lindsay tutoring students and teaching classes at St. John’s Primary School; Ebe Osu and Emily O’Hara at the CALLS (Centre Where Adolescents Learn to Love and Serve) daycare center taking care of the babies; Marissa Citro and Nichole Nadermann working with children at the Portsmouth Preschool; Emily Dilzer serving at the Home for the Aged; Paul Biefeld-Kimm tutoring teenagers at the CALLS vocational school; and Dan Bayley working at the Northern District Progressive Women’s Centre. Their help was much needed; in some cases, students were totally in charge of classrooms because teachers were out and no other substitutes were available.
In addition to volunteering ourselves, we also sat in on one of the students’ evening class sessions with Professor Schmidt. As they sat around discussing issues of diversity and culture, I couldn’t help but reflect on the diversity of the group itself. There were several different cultures represented in this small group of 10 – Suhura’s mother is Panamanian and her father is from Trinidad, Nichole’s mother is Korean, Ebe’s family is Nigerian, and there were students from rural areas like Saranac Lake, N.Y., and students from New York City. To see them all in dialogue with each other, laughing together, discussing serious issues together, as well as to hear how their own backgrounds informed their experiences in Dominica, leading them to develop feelings of compassion for those less fortunate, was heartening.
One of the assignments Schmidt gave them was to interview a Dominican and write a biography from that, comparing it to their own life story. Dan had interviewed a man in a home for the elderly who had been abandoned by his family. Dan related how his own mother had been through cancer twice and how that challenge had brought his family closer together and how much that had meant to him. Talking to that man, he said, made him wonder if his children might one day abandon him and how he might feel if they did.
There were challenges to the work. We would plan to accomplish one or another project in a specified amount of time only to discover roadblocks along the way. For example, the Women’s Centre had received donations of computers, as well as two days of free Internet time in order to teach computer skills to women. Getting the computers online turned out to be a two-day project instead of a one-hour project as we had hoped because of problems with the hardware. My husband, Brad, and Dan volunteered to put up a fence that the Women’s Centre wanted, only to discover that there were no shovels. They dug post holes in clay-like soil in the intense Dominican heat with crowbars instead.
I washed dishes at the Home for the Aged; there was only bar soap and cold water available, and the water eventually stopped altogether because someone living farther up the mountain, closer to the source, was using it, I was told.
The preschool just needed some rope to fix its broken swings, so Brad bought it for them, and he and Marissa and Dan worked on those, putting up two new swings as well. Then a tire swing on a chain broke. The hardware store in town didn’t sell a C-clamp, so they improvised with a padlock.
If the challenges were supplies and money, the rewards were the people, all of them friendly and welcoming and grateful for what help we could give. Despite their lack of material things, or maybe because of that, the Dominicans seemed to have such spiritual gifts to offer us, an appreciation of the truly essential things in life, and we all felt that we gained as much from them as they did from us. As Emily Dilzer said in one of the class sessions, “I’ve always tried to view all people as equal, but now I’m beginning to see the importance of cultural differences.” We left feeling enriched by those differences.
Paul, who volunteered with the teenagers at CALLS, summed up the experience best. When I visited him there and asked him what he was doing that day, he said thoughtfully, “Teaching. Helping. Learning.”
— Pamela Ethington is an editorial assistant in Le Moyne’s Office of Communications.