You were enthralled with the scenery, the beaches, the glorious weather, the adventure. Yet your holiday memories also include a certain sense of uneasiness: It bothers you that the luxuries and amenities available to tourists in developing countries are well beyond the reach of most local citizens. If thoughts like this have entered your mind, you may be among a growing number of travelers who wonder: Is there anything I can do?
Recently, I encountered several individuals who responded to that inner voice with a positive "yes" that dramatically transformed their lifestyles.
My rendezvous with life on the other side of tourism began when I met Tom Eklund in Atlanta, Georgia. I had joined his Professional Singles of America (editor's note: now named Orphanage Outreach) team and volunteered for a week of work at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. I had been intrigued by the idea of a "singles" humanitarian society ever since discovering PSA through its affiliation with Atlanta based Flying Doctors of America, a volunteer organization whose founder, Allen Gathercoal, had initiated correspondence with Connecting, several years ago.
Gathercoal had also been instrumental in sparking a transformation of Tom Eklund. After hearing an inspirational talk by Gathercoal, Eklund began taking PSA members on Flying Doctors medical missions in the D.R. During one of those trips, Eklund visited a Dominican orphanage in Monte Cristi, and there he heard his personal call to service.
The transformation of Tom Eklund was still in progress when I arrived in Atlanta. Rallying "singles only" to his mission had proved restrictive. Eklund wanted to appeal to anyone - singles, couples, seniors, teen-agers - anyone who would support the cause. So PSA had a change-of-life too, and was born again as "Orphanage Outreach," an organization which, as the name implies, is dedicated to helping out two orphanages, and contributing to the work of one most remarkable French-Canadian woman.
Anyone who doubts that travel can be transforming hasn't met Pauline Tremblay. About 13 years ago (as of 1996) she went to the D.R. for a beach holiday, and when a Dominican woman asked her to look after a child temporarily, Tremblay agreed, although reluctantly. She worried about catching lice.
But that was then, before something inexplicable and extraordinary happened to Pauline Tremblay. Now she lives in the D.R. at El Gardin Por Los Ninos, (Garden for the Children), a home she established for orphaned and abandoned children. Eklund related her story to the team: (John Frances, a Delta Airlines pilot and myself) as our rented van lumbered up a steep, deeply rutted road into the hill country near the north coastal resort town of Cabarete. All at once we came upon a clearing high on a lush, green ridge overlooking a clear, meandering river.
Sounds of hammering and children playing greeted our arrival, then suddenly, the startled shrieks of Madame Tremblay whom we had rudely surprised right in the middle of a major hair job: You don't let yourself go, just because you've managed to hack a home out of the jungle, mother 15 adopted children, and build and supply a school for 80 students. Unannounced or not, dripping hair or not, visitors are a welcome sight, and a laughing Pauline Tremblay joined us for a short chat, which we all jointly conducted in smatterings of French, English, and Spanish.
We looked around, met the school-age children studying in their open-air classrooms, and younger children playing on swings made from old tires. We admired the view and the works in progress: two volunteers from Québec, busy hammering together a volunteers' lodging. After exclaiming over the wonder of it all and acknowledging Pauline's wish list, we left.
"It's amazing what one person can accomplish," remarked Tom as the van jounced onward cross-island towards our final destination: the nondescript little town of Manzanillo on the northwestern coast. By the time we reached the small, simple, Flying Doctors house that would be our headquarters for the coming week, my heart and mind had already boarded an emotional roller coaster that would give me a run for my money long after I waved a tearful goodbye to the children at La Esperanza de un Nino (The Hope of a Child orphanage).
Around 20 children lived at La Esperanza de un Nino when I was there. Brought to the home through unfortunate circumstances, they seemed to have found a happy refuge there. The orphanage was in need of everything from daily foodstuffs to building improvements of every kind. Materially, the children had little beyond the most basic necessities. Yet, they had an abundance of smiles and hugs to give to strangers like me who regularly pop in and out of their lives because of Tom Eklund.
My thoughts bobbed between joy and doubt. I fussed: What good could I do - I have no teaching skills, mechanical, carpentry, or plumbing skills. I'm no good at sports. I worried: Do we do more harm than good by dropping into the lives of these children, cameras clicking, only to drop out again before even properly learning all their names.
Easy-going Eklund calmly endured my vocalized misgivings while team-mate, John Frances summarized his philosophy, saying "You can't worry about all the possibilities. You just have to decide, yes or no. If yes, do what you can and let it go at that."
Within months after my visit I heard that money had been raised for a fence, and later teams had put it up. They also replaced the battery, air and gas filters on the orphanage pick-up. A new wheelbarrow, ladder, books, t-shirts and pillows had been donated.
Wow! It really is amazing what one transformed person can do, isn't it?
Note: Orphanage Outreach has come a long way since I was there in 1996. Visit online to see latest news.
Volunteering your vacation time won't be any holiday in paradise, but it might lead to a new improved you. While I grappled with intellectual qualms about the long-term value of short-term volunteering, John Frances, my fellow volunteer, warred with biting insects, which his bug offensive arsenal could not allay.
We both had difficulty sleeping in the breezeless confines of our dorm style rooms (one for men and one for women) at the Flying Doctors of America house.
We were lucky the water supply lasted through our daily showers, but Betty, the volunteer house mom, cautioned about water preservation. "If it's yellow, don't flush," she said. "If it's brown, give it a try, then try again later if need be."
Each day, after breakfast, and "thanks" given in the Christian way, Tom, John and I, accompanied by a few eager Dominican helpers, piled into the van and headed for the orphanage at Monte Cristi. Tom would confer with Pastor Ramon (our liaison at the orphanage) about what needed doing, then we would set to work. We painted, planted shrubs, and did some clean-up.
But hey! This volunteer vacation wasn't all work, worry and no play. Far from it. We also spent joyful time with the kids doing nothing special, just whatever seemed amusing. For leisure time, Eklund gauges the tenor of each team, and extra-curricular activities go by general consensus. Our little group of three (eight is typical) was more into nightly strolls rather than local cantina crawling, although a tall cold one before dinner was always on, as was a cooling swim at a gorgeous beach, and regular afternoon icecream breaks.
With the exception of one evening out at an excellent seaside restaurant, we ate hearty and substantial meals at the Flying Doctors house. We spent a lot of time just sitting on the front porch engaging in world-view discussions with Charlie, the volunteer house-pop and any interested passers-by.
After five days at Monte Cristi, I hadn't resolved all my "volunteering" concerns. But I had decided that Tom Eklund and Pauline Tremblay have changed things for the better, including me - I hope.
We went for a stroll by the ocean. A woman and a girl were there with a small dog. The girl kept hurling the dog into the sea, with the idea, I suppose, of bathing it. The dog cringing and seemingly terrified, kept trying to escape. But the girl, laughing, would catch it by one leg or the scruff of the neck again and again and fling it with all her might back into the sea. I'm afraid my horrified reaction did nothing to further inter-cultural relations.
One of the Dominican men called me over to a circular pen made of scrap metal sheeting. "The Christmas pig !" he exclaimed with a proud grin. Inside, in a cramped, stinking slop-wallow, the pig looked so forlorn, I had an almost irresistible impulse to sneak back later and turn it loose.