Friday, December 31, 2010

Prep Senior reflects on service trip to the DR

Will Bankhead, Prep senior, made this presentation at the Senior Mother-Son Mass in December. He relates his experience as a member of a Prep service trip for the purpose of building houses in a rural area of the Dominican Republic.

Hello, my name is William Bankhead. I’m a senior here at the Prep and I’m here this morning to talk to you about one of the most important experiences of my life, my 10 days in the Dominican Republic this past summer.
When I was asked to speak here today, my first worry was at what point in my story I should begin. Well like many great movies and books, I’ll start at the end. What I read now is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent Ligia Bailand on June 21, four days after I returned from the DR, I wrote:
“It’s nice having all of those swell comforts of home back, but there IS something missing. If there is one lesson that I can take from this, it's that despite how much we all missed toilet seats and hot showers, nothing gave me the kind of satisfaction as my days in the DR. No food ever tasted as good as our meals after work; no sleep ever felt as good as our sleep after a hard day's work. I envy you and your current students because you still have those days ahead of you.”

With that in mind, let’s go back to the beginning. It all started when the wheels touched the tarmac at the Santo Domingo Airport. With me were close friends, kids I didn’t know, the head of the English Department and an old Jesuit. Most of us didn’t know what to expect, and minutes after landing, we piled into a large van and started out on a six hour drive to the retreat center. As we drove, the cities got poorer, the conditions rougher. Buildings went from large facilities to tenements to shanties, and eventually there were no buildings at all, and we all faced the beauty of the DR, the sprawling farms, the cascading mountains in the distance, and the endless horizon. It was like this for hours, and suddenly we arrived at the retreat center… where the electrical power promptly went out. Surprisingly enough none of us had a problem with this, we were all just so happy to be safe, with each other, and in close proximity to food and a bed. This was truly our calm before the storm.

The next day, it was out the frying pan, and into the fire, we awoke at sunrise and went down the mountain to begin our first day of work. There was no time for tutorials or learning curves; it was time to start pouring foundations and it was essential that all hands were on deck, willing and able. Work was back breaking, but satisfying. When things seemed bleak, or hands got tired, the realization that what we were doing made a difference was enough to help us push forward. At the end of the first day, the reality of our situation sank in. Chuck Palahniuk said in the preface of his book Fight Club, “Being tired isn’t the same as being rich, but often it’s just as nice.” On the way back at the end of each day, we’d look at ourselves and each other and see the dirt, concrete, and mud caked on our bodies. All we could do was smile and laugh. We were welcomed home by cold showers, and hot coffee. And to us, this was the lap of luxury. For the first four nights, we lacked electricity save that of flashlights. We went to bed when it got dark and woke up when the sun came up.

Around the fifth day, while laying cinder blocks, Ligia told us to drop our tools and follow her; she would take us on a tour of El Manguito. During this walk, the kids followed us, as they did everywhere during the entirety of our stay. At one stop, one nine-year-old boy following us at the time leaned against a motorcycle that had just pulled up. Little did he or any of us know, the exhaust pipe where he chose to rest his leg was still red-hot. When Ms. Bailand went to examine his leg, the burned skin was a sickly pink-white color, the smell haunting, the burn contrasting tragically against his brown skin. It was two days later that we found out this kid’s leg had gone unattended to in our absence; no one cared enough to take this kid to a hospital, or even wrap up the leg. The burn was becoming infected and had Ms. Bailand not given our driver $50 and told him to take the kid to the hospital, I doubt the child would still have that leg.

It was on the sixth day, Ligia took us to see a waterfall and the local beaches, to enjoy the paradise that is the DR. It’s this day however that rings as the most striking in my mind. From that day, the Dominican Republic was a terrible beauty. The entire country, beautiful enough to be a resort, but simultaneously stricken with poverty.

I’m not standing in front of you this morning to tell you that all the money in your wallet will solve all of our problems; all of their problems; it won’t plug up the wounds, cover the scars, or erase their history. But each dollar more we have is another vat full of concrete; another truck load of wood; more sheets of roofing; another entire house or two, or three; another DR trip all together. On July 11, the last day of the final DR trip, 10 more houses stood than at the beginning of the summer.

On the wall in my English class reads a quote, “At the end of my life, I’d like to think that I won’t be remembered for the size of my house, or the car I drove, or the number of toys I had. But by the things I left behind. The people I touched, and the difference I made.” Thank you.