In 2009, Amanda Oakes curled up on a couch to read in her swanky Midtown Manhattan apartment neighboring the Empire State Building – all expenses paid through her summer internship.
She had no idea that within a year she would be sleeping in an open-air shack in one of the poorest regions of the Dominican Republic.
But when Amanda reached page 31 of Three Cups of Tea, a story of one man’s effort to establish schools in Pakistan, she read a moving description of a group of poor Pakistani children gathering on frost-covered dirt next to the K2 mountain range, conducting their own school lessons. Amanda was inspired.
The next year she arrived for spring break at the Monte Cristi Orphanage in the Dominican Republic. There, she was greeted by ominous barbed-wire walls, a militaristic four-minute shower and a net-draped bunk bed in a muggy shack. She was allowed to make one phone call.
At night, Amanda lay awake to the sound of barking dogs and to the weight of unrelenting humidity. One evening, Amanda and 150 other volunteers from across the U.S. were jolted awake by a Magnitude 5 earthquake. To distract herself from the challenges of her isolated environment, Amanda wrote in her diary only of the good things from her trip.
Those good things came with her volunteer work. Assigned to teach public health to young students, Amanda feared how the children might react to her limited Spanish, lack of cultural knowledge and even her light complexion. But as she stepped into the very first classroom, Amanda and her fellow volunteers were ambushed with hugs and squeals of “Los Americanos!” from the ecstatic class.
She was also assigned to volunteer at a health clinic and was surprised to see that the Dominican patients, despite their gruesome medical conditions, calmly and gratefully waited in line for up to three hours to receive basic medications and treatment. She found it challenging to see infants struggling with scabies and adults nursing badly broken limbs but was inspired by their ceaseless smiles.
Amanda was also struck by the strange disparity of natural beauty next to utter poverty.
Tropical flowers grew over dismantled buildings; vibrant birds and lizards moved across trash-littered mud roads; and sickly, frail dogs trotted through luscious plantain fields.
Every morning, Amanda watched the sun rise over the picturesque mountains and thought of her friends who were on spring break in the same country, staying in a touristy resort. Amanda and her fellow volunteers laughed at the irony.
“It’s just crazy to think of people who are on vacation, and the ocean and mountains are all they see. They don’t see that right next to it, children are starving.”
- Meg Hughes
To learn more about volunteer opportunities through Orphanage Outreach, visit www.orphanage-outreach.org.
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