Immigration processes have been a mess here since the nationalization issues between the Dominican Republic and Haiti came to a head over a year ago. Though we are guaranteed residency as Peace Corps Volunteers, we have not been able to renew our green cards since the beginning of 2015 (they expire after 6 months). Despite not having my Dominican residence card, immigration issues occupied the least of my thoughts as I passed through security and arrived at my airport gate. I was on my way to the States for one more brief visit before touching back on the homeland for good as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.
It was May 5th and I was headed back to Annapolis, Maryland for my grandpa’s memorial service at the Naval Academy. My shoulders were light since my workload had lightened up immensely just days before, so nothing else was on my mind except the excitement of reuniting with family and the opportunity to finally try Maryland crab.
Most of the workload that I refer to is the National Conference of Construye Tus Sueños, one of the largest projects we undertake annually as the Community Economic Development sector. Over 45 Dominican Youth and 20 Peace Corps Volunteers and Dominican facilitators participated in the three-day event that took place the 27th-29th of April and focused on entrepreneurship, micro-finance, and professional development. 15 contestants presented their respective business plans to a panel of judges in the hopes of winning one of the three prizes of RD$50,000 to start their businesses. This was the fourth CTS conference that I have attended, but it was the first one that I coordinated.
The conference consisted of two guest speakers, four professional development workshops, two rounds of presentations critiqued by 12 judges, a panel of previous contestants, and a micro-finance fair involving five financial institutions. Given all of the moving parts, the conference concluded without any regrettable hiccups and the youth left informed and motivated. The youth responded positively to the presented advice and activities and the three winners were well-deserving individuals who now have a greater opportunity to generate economic activity within their communities.
Experiencing the event as it unfolded from the perspective of coordinator rather than participant was stressful but enlightening. The participants portrayed such bravery, fighting for their dreams while representing their communities’ desires to progress and prosper; the resilience, creativity, and readiness of the people that I am able to collaborate with on a daily basis has always fueled the best feelings and moments of my service here. I thank the Community Economic Development team in particular for their support and guidance – without Michael or Alejandra, I could not be celebrating the event’s success. Having recently secured a new strategic partnership with a local bank, Construye Tus Sueños continues to strengthen its influence on young entrepreneurs who are looking to improve the economic wellbeing of their families through the creation of micro-businesses in marginalized communities throughout the Dominican Republic. I couldn’t be happier to have experienced the ins, outs, and impact of this initiative.
Just three days after the conference finished, the CED team informed all of the new trainees where they would be living for the next two years – their site placements. To read about how I felt when I received mine, take a trip down memory lane by clicking here. Matching a Volunteer to a community is a tedious process that takes over 6 months of work. It was through this procedure that I have been able to travel this country, reconnect with my favorite aspects of this culture, solidify the working relationships I have with Michael and Alejandra, and analyze communities’ needs to develop problem-solving skills. Having a say in essentially two years of someone’s life is a powerful feeling; seeing the trainees become bright-eyed when we told them their assignment brought me both nostalgia and peace. All 16 trainees visited their sites and have now sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers, prepared as they can be to begin two years of service in their respective communities.
With the two most trying elements of my extension finally completed, I was set to board the plane and enjoy a long weekend with my family celebrating my own accomplishments as well as the life and legacy of my grandfather. To my dismay, the flight from Santo Domingo to Ft. Lauderdale was inevitably delayed for over four hours. It finally dawned on the employees at the counter to pass out meal vouchers to the impatient passengers who immediately perked up at the offering and seemed to forget about the inconvenience. No longer than 5 minutes after half of the passengers had scattered around the airport to look for free lunch did the attendants decide to stop handing out vouchers and instead announce that they were ready to board the plane. I sat dumbfounded as a group of people protested that they had not yet received their vouchers and that the plane couldn’t leave yet because there were still people eating. Anxious to board and hoping that I wouldn’t miss my connecting flight to Baltimore, I stood in line behind the people that were in fact ready to fly while contemplating the curiousness of cultural priorities I had just witnessed.
Once in Ft. Lauderdale, I realized that my connecting flight was also delayed. Feeling both relieved that I had made my flight and impatient to see my family, I sat down at a bar to enjoy a State-side IPA. I began chatting to a young man that had decided to celebrate his birthday by flying himself to Colombia for the weekend. Another man joined us, who happened to be from Colombia. Despite how long my day had become at this point, our conversation was effortless and a good reminder to continue accepting (and therefore creating) serendipitous experiences. In the end, the Colombian gentleman footed the bill and I made it to Baltimore with a barriga llena, corazón contenta.
This anecdote, while trivial compared to so many other experiences I’ve had here, encapsulates how much the Dominican Republic has taught me about faith, expectations, and human connection. I couldn’t be closer to the team that I work with – Michael, Alejandra, and I refer to ourselves as the “tres cafeteros” (the three coffee-drinking musketeers) – and it’s intimidating to think that we only have one month left to collaborate on these efforts that we’re all so dedicated to. Certain aspects of this culture and vein of work continue to surprise, amuse, delight, and touch me; I wish there were a way to bottle it all up – the warmth, faith, camaraderie, and spunk Dominicans have taught me – and drink down when stressful moments overwhelm the peaceful ones. Here’s to satiating these last few weeks with everything this country has to offer those willing to accept, appreciate, and embody it.