Dominican Republic Guest Blogger: Reflections from 12 Weeks of Volunteering at the Comedor Infantil

Mayrenes Figuereo is a student at Norfolk State University and an ISA guest blogger. Mayrenes participated on the ISA Summer 2 2014 program (Study + Service-Learning) in Santiago, Dominican Republic. The reflective essay below was submitted to ISA Service-Learning as part of her service-learning Portfolio and is being republished with permission.

Photo courtesy of Mayrenes Figuereo.
Photo courtesy of Mayrenes Figuereo.

Somebody asked me about what I do at the Comedor Infantil (Dining Hall for Children). Basically, here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Well.. I just kind of watch them and make sure they don’t fight, and I play with them and stuff..
Cara (a very good friend I met in the Dominican Republic, who was also a service-learning participant): She’s being modest. She’s kind of like Steve from The Jerry Springer Show… except for she’s breaking up fights between little kids.

This pretty much sums up the position I had at the Comedor Infantil. I’m going to miss the children despite their behavior. They were extremely sweet with me and they show so much potential because they are both smart and creative. I learned so much from them and feel grateful to have had the opportunity to volunteer there.

I volunteered for 3-weeks at a Comedor Infantil in Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos, (the literal translation is ‘100 Fires’) is one of the poorest [and most dangerous] barrios of Santiago. Whenever I told one of the concho drivers, or anyone who asked me where I was volunteering, that I was working at Cienfuegos, they were not really receptive to the idea of a student working there, especially an American student (which some of them did not figure out until I told them I’m from the US). I honestly saw it as an adventure, as a new environment to expose myself to. If I want to work with children of all ages, from different parts of society, I have to know at least something about where they are from that did not involve just research or word of mouth, but an experience with a more personable understanding.

Photo courtesy of Mayrenes Figuereo.
Photo courtesy of Mayrenes Figuereo.

The children were extremely energetic. There was always a fight at the Comedor, and I was always prying little fingers off of little arms and out of pigtails. From the outside, they seemed unruly and rebellious and uneducated, which is not fair. These children simply mimic what they see and hear at home and on the streets. I was talking to one of the youngest ones on the last day (I considered her my mini-me), and she told me that when she grows up she wants “big boobs” “to be skinny” and “change my name to Crystaaaal”. I freaked out on the inside, and it might have shown on my face too. The first thing I thought was, ‘wow, she must have a crazy mother or aunt or something.’ But I noticed, in observing her as I did the rest of the children, she was the quietest one. She kept to herself (or was always around me), and she did not want to participate in the chaos of play fighting and such. When I would speak to her, she would have a very vivid imagination about the things she ‘has’. For example, the pool and the very large river in her backyard. She would draw flowers and dolls–she was also, by the way, the only girl who did not ask me to draw her a doll or a flower because she wanted to show that she could do it herself. She is very creative and imaginative, as most children are at this age, and she is also very precocious and quiet, always under the wing of her older brothers who also attended the Comedor.

The children are just as creative as they are intelligent. Two of the boys were playing with a hacky sack ball. They were kicking it up in the air various ways with their feet and had asked me to come over and help them keep score of their game. Of course I did not ask what the point system was because I assumed every kick was just one point, until they corrected me. If it’s a front kick, it’s worth 1 point, side kick is worth 2, and back kick is worth 5 points. I asked them who taught them how to play, one of the boys answered : “I just made it up.” They would kick and change their way of kicking to gain as many points as they could, but they went adding as they kicked: 1,2,3,5,10.. I was impressed that they were so quick to keep score and remember the rules of the game all at once. (Not to say that they could not do it, but I suck at numbers so when an 8 and 11-year-old are doing quick math and I could not keep up, I have no room but to find that impressive.)

Photo courtesy of Mayrenes Figuereo.
Photo courtesy of Mayrenes Figuereo.

The [few] times they did have class while I was there, the teacher would read a short Bible story to them and then follow the story with questions they would have to answer verbally. Although it always seemed like they were not paying any type of attention, most of them – especially the older ones –¬† were quick to answer-and answer correctly. Their reading or listening comprehension was definitely up to par. One of the older girls has picked up a science workbook that was left in the classroom one day by another class, and spent the majority of the time reading it. I went up to her and spoke to her about what she was reading and she explained. I asked her if she likes to read, which she enthusiastically replied “yes!”

The low-income children (from everywhere) are always given the short end of the stick in everything, especially education. Society then judges them and puts them in a box because they are deemed uneducated. It was hard to leave the children knowing that they all have so much potential, but not being sure if they were going to make it due to their socioeconomic position. I left concerned for them, for their safety, for their health, and well-being. I hope they continue to grow, push through the societal stereotypes and opinions and become people who can continue to inspire hope, energy, change, and love, as they did in me.

That was all last week. This week, my last week in the country, I was moved to another Comedor because the one in Cienfuegos let out for the summer. This Comedor is in a much more tranquil and peaceful barrio, but just as impoverished as Cienfuegos. When I went for orientation there, I was amazed that they have 2 classrooms and actually separate the children by age. They have a playground area that was built by some volunteers. They have a greenhouse and beautiful garden in the back, growing different vegetables and fruits. I was astonished at the difference between the two dining halls. The children were just as sweet but were more calm. It was different, but nonetheless, I was delighted to start working there.

Yesterday (Sunday) I sat down with my host mother, who was telling me how she wanted me to go to Constanza with her, where she had to go visit a client as part of her job. (I have been wanting to see this town for over 2 years and I had not had the opportunity to do it.) [At first, I told her that I could not do it because I started at the new Comedor that day-Monday. She told me that I had not missed class nor did I miss a day of my internships at both the Comedor and the School for the Blind]. I knew that it was my only chance to go and see the mountainside and the get to know the town that I have been dying to know more about. [I made the decision to play hookie for this one day.] I went and I fell in love. I felt like a child again, on a field trip!

Ok so Constanza itself was no big deal. But the mountains, the vegetation, the pastoral scenery and, of course, the flowers are all so beautiful! Hearing the waterfalls and the seeing the rivers and farms, it was all I imagined it to be on the road up to Constanza. She took me through the mountainside of Jarabacoa, which is the opposite way from Constanza, which was just as breathtaking! Enjoying the view and the time with my host mom, there were certain things I could not help to think about, and one of them was how so many people in the DR say that they have never seen or been to certain parts (very famous and beautiful parts) of their own country.

I thought about the children at the Comedor and how they may miss out on certain experiences in their own country because they do not have resources to enjoy them. I do not believe that it is fair. I am not completely sure what the dining halls do during the school year, but if free field trips are not a part of that itinerary, it should be. A monthly or bi-monthly trip to a museum or well-known landscape or even something where they can all let out energy would not hurt the organization nor will it hurt the children. A bus, a bus driver,and packed lunches and snacks for the road and the children are all set. The more positive experiences you can provide for a child, despite their situation, the higher the chances are that the child may make positive decisions and live a positive life, finding positive role models and interests.

I’m sure it’s probably all too idealistic, but when it comes to the education of a child outside of the home, anything is worth at least giving it a shot.

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