El Mejor Trabajo del Mundo

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In the past week, I’ve felt immensely proud to be a part of the Hogar del Niño, or “the Hogar”. Last weekend was the 16th annual Hogar del Niño fundraising weekend, which is held at the internationally recognized golf resort area Casa de Campo. For those of you that watch Keeping up with the Kardashians, Casa de Campo is where they vacationed in the DR. A large portion of the funding for the school comes from people that live or vacation there. The Hogar is located about ten minutes away from Casa de Campo, and I often struggle with the stark contrast between two.

Getting ready for the bike race!

Students getting ready for the bike race!

Friday afternoon I worked at our Homes and Gardens Tour, where I saw four absolutely incredible villas. I’m not sure what classifies a mansion, but I would be surprised if these did not meet the criteria. They were like nothing I had ever seen before; picture the Fresh Prince pulling up in Bel-Air. By the time I arrived at the polo tournament, I was having one of those moments where I felt the weight of the disparity between the rich and the poor.  How could these villas be ten minutes away from homes that lacked running water? Each polo player had paid $225, which could pay the monthly salary of one of our employees.

After the match a new promotional video for the school was put on. As I saw familiar faces of children that I love and listened to our administrator speak about the amazing things that the Hogar does, I felt myself become a little emotional. That video depicted not just another inspirational non-profit making a difference, it was my hogar. I was there every day taking part in that mission, and I knew the kids in that video better than anyone else in the room.

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I am so grateful for our donors and their incredible generosity, which literally keeps our school functioning. However, I am even more grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to serve. In preparation for this year, I was asked to think about the difference between service and charity. Dictionary.com defines charity as, “generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless”, while it defines service as “an act of helpful activity; help; aid”. Although these words seem quite similar, they carry significantly different meanings. Charity identifies one party as giving to another party who is desperately in need.  Service recognizes that both parties have something to offer. In giving one also receives something from the party “in need”, although it may not be tangible. Perhaps both parties are in need.

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In my time here, I have by far received more from the people than I could ever give them: joy, perspective, love, faith, culture, appreciation. This past weekend I listened as one of our donors explained the Hogar to small group attending an event. She started off by saying, “La Romana has poor, poor children. They have nothing.” As she went on to explain how the school was more or less “saving” these kids, I couldn’t figure out why her words didn’t sit well with me. After all she had good intentions and what she said was right, our kids are poor and many would lack basic necessities if it wasn’t for the Hogar. The problem was the way in which this relationship between the donors and the children was depicted. Our kids are far from helpless and they have so much to give. They are happy, feisty, hilarious and loving. Some of the people I met this past weekend have more money than I’ll ever have, but because of my experiences at the Hogar I’m richer than they’lll ever be. After all, I have the best job in the world because these children are here giving me more every day.

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Waiting to sing the national anthem at the golf tournament

Waiting to sing the national anthem at the golf tournament

Here’s a video of their performance!

The Beauty of Imperfection

I am well known to be procrastinator. In the past it was always most notable in my schoolwork, as I would pull many all-nighters in Stanger fueled by Dunkin Donuts coffee and chocolate covered pretzels from the caf. Every finals period I would have my roommate change my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram passwords, and make her promise not to give them to me until I was done with all of my work. Zero self-control.  In a weird way my procrastination stems from perfectionism. If I can’t do something really well, I’d rather put it off until another day when I can. Then it becomes too late. I’ve found that this cycle often surfaces in many other parts of my life. In fact, it’s the very reason I haven’t posted on this blog in 3 months. At the beginning of something new I’m filled with hope and anticipation. I set big unrealistic goals and then feel badly when I don’t accomplish them. I will wake up at 6am and run every morning. I will do all of my reading for this class. I will post weekly on my blog. I’m setting myself up for failure.

312337_1675867089143_70473426_nUpon arriving here, I had some big aspirations. There were so many things at the school and clinic where I saw the need for improvement and I was filled with ideas on how to do just that. However, it wasn’t long before I felt like it was impossible to accomplish anything, let only the big ideas I had. Things run a lot differently here. Everything is slow, from checking out at the grocery store to the pace people walk. Organization is lacking in comparison to what I’m used to, and many times I feel as if things are made much more complicated than necessary. It drives me crazy! However, I’m finally starting to learn that I can take a lot from working in this environment. No work environment is perfect. In fact, nothing is perfect, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything. It’s important to understand the perspectives of others and learn from them. Maybe someone does something differently than you do, but there’s always a reason and it’s important to try to understand it. It’s still very hard for me to understand how our preschoolers  are not read to every day, however after I started reading with children in the library, I realized how difficult it must be for these teachers to maintain the attention of more than 40 young students.  I would love to do a huge reading program with all 600 children in the preschool and see that they are read to on a daily basis. However, the fact that Virginia and I are taking small groups of preschoolers to the library every afternoon and getting them excited about literature is something. The fact that for that half hour these children get individualized attention is something.

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One of the first things my host mom, Carmen, in Spain said to me was “poco a poco” or “little by little”. It was the first day I moved into her house and we were sitting down for a meal of foods strange to me. She and her daughter were explaining to me how to get around the city and about the new school I would be going to. I was struggling to communicate with them and felt quite overwhelmed.  Carmen put her hand on mine and said, “poco a poco”; poco a poco my Spanish would improve, poco a poco I would become accustomed to the food, poco a poco Sevilla would start to feel like home.  Since then I’ve carried this phrase with me. When I look back on my life it’s composed of small moments and many different people, all of which have made me who I am today. I often feel overwhelmed when I think about all of the needs here in the DR. But if I let the fact that I cannot meet all those needs paralyze me, I will never help anyone.  If I sit around and wait to speak until my Spanish is perfect, I’ll never speak. We often fail to realize that even our smallest of actions can leave an impact on the life of someone else and even on our own lives.

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Earlier in the year, I was able to work with group of Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists who traveled to Centro Médico to provide free surgeries for children in need. Upon arriving in post-op I felt inadequate and almost useless in comparison to the high school students from the bi-lingual school, who translated and communicated perfectly with everyone there. I ended up sitting down with a mom and her son before his surgery. I noticed that they had been waiting for a long time so I offered my iPhone for the little boy to play with. When he started listening to my Dominican music, the mom became curious who I was. I was clearly not one of the local bilingual students, but I also wasn’t one of the Americans visiting for the week. We talked for about an hour and played with her son. We laughed about how her lighter skin made Dominican men think she was a gringa. When it was time for her son to go into surgery, I walked her out to the waiting area where she burst into tears. I gave her a hug and sat with her, explaining that her son was in excellent hands and that these groups only performed low-risk surgeries. I told her that I understood and would definitely feel the same nervousness if I had a child going into surgery. She soon began to relax and we looked at the pictures we had taken of her son in post-op. She then used my iPhone to log into her Facebook and upload some of the pictures. To my surprise, the first one that she uploaded was a picture of me and her son and the caption said, “mi bebe con la tia Lauren”, “my baby with Aunt Lauren”. Soon enough it was time for her to go see her son in post-op.  As I helped her put on the scrubs and mask, she thanked me saying that she was very grateful that I was there with her that day.

iPhone 2012 Nov 27 120

iPhone 2012 Nov 27 115

When I look back on moments like that I realize that although I may have not had something concrete, like interpreting, to show for my work that day, I accomplished something very important. I was there for that woman in that moment and that had a much greater impact than any report I could’ve handed. Each day here I try to focus on what I can do to make a difference that day because the little things are the big things.  I’m learning that if I’m able to chip away at my big goals by focusing on doing little things each day, I will soon look back and realize I’ve already met my goals, even if it’s not in the way I had imagined.

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Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies is about the famous Dominican Mirabel sisters who fought for social justice during the time of Rafeal Trujillo’s dictatorship. Although on a smaller scale, I like to think that my efforts here are also working towards social justice. In the concluding note of the book Alvarez remarks, “Often when we read about brave women like the Mirabel sisters, we think that in order to advance the cause of freedom we have to do grand things. But in fact, if we look at the lives of these four sisters, we realize that all of them came to their courage in small incremental steps, little moments and challenges we all face every day of our lives. In some ways, we become brave, almost by accident. Something happens and we respond to that challenge courageously and compassionately. But really, all along the way to that something big happening, we’ve been cultivating a passionate heart, a listening and big-hearted imagination.” So as for now I’m trying to learn from the Mirabel sisters by making the most of every imperfect day poco a poco.

Hogar December 061

Thanksgiving

I must say I am really missing home lately. How I wish I could wake up on Thursday morning to the sound of Christmas music blaring from the kitchen and the delicious smell of my mom’s famous pecan rolls baking in the oven. This year will look a lot different for me. About the same time my family is getting ready to carve the turkey; I will be going to town on a plate of rice and beans. But this year I will be more grateful than ever.

Unfortunately, I often fail to fully appreciate the countless blessings in my life. However, there are many days here when I feel like I am being hit over the head with a reminder that I should be on my knees every night thanking God for all He has given me. By mere circumstance, I was born in a country that respects and values me as a woman, and into a family that loves and cares for me unconditionally. Much more than my basic needs have always been met, yet there are many people in this world who are not so lucky. I groan about eating my mom’s leftovers two nights in a row, while people that I work with every day are scrapping the leftovers off my lunch plate and putting them in a bag to bring home to their family. Reminders such as this not only make me realize how fortunate I am, but also show me what is most important.

Yesterday upon reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or Cómo El Grinch Robó La Navidad, to a group of students in the library, I thought of one of my favorite quotes from the movie. Lou Lou Who announces, “I’m glad he took our presents. You can’t hurt Christmas, Mr. Mayor, because it isn’t about the…the gifts or the contest or the fancy lights. That’s what Cindy’s been trying to tell everyone…and me. I don’t need anything more for Christmas than this right here: my family.” Yes, I am incredibly lucky to have a car, an iPhone and a closet full of clothes, however those are not the blessings that I cherish. I have no idea what I got for Christmas that one year, but I will never forget my little sister waking me up from the top bunk at approximately 5am, finding a candy cane on my pillow and running to wake up my mom and Auntie Celine. Nor will I forget the Thanksgiving where my Auntie Mary Ellen had to close the turkey with nails and we later had to search through the stuffing for a missing one.

Many of our kids arrive at school wearing the same clothes every day and return to homes that I couldn’t imagine living in, but that is not what matters to them. What matters is that you take the time to sit down and read a book with them, that you tell them how great their artwork is, that you give them a big hug every day. Seeing how little some people have here, yet the joy that they get from the little things reminds me that it is those same things that bring me happiness in my life. I can’t remember what the sought after gift was for last year’s Christmas Yankee Swap, but I do remember laughing until my stomach hurt watching my Grandpa come out of nowhere and steal it from my aunt. Likewise, I have no doubt that a year from now I will not be thinking about how sick I was of eating rice and beans, but that I will being missing long afternoon lunch breaks in the park with friends. So this year I will not only give thanks for my education, health and life circumstances, but also for the memories that I am making here every day.

Coco Loco

Two Saturdays ago we packed our bags and “Dominican Republic Adventure Map” (gracias Kris Silva) and headed off on our first road trip. And an aventura it was. Six of us piled into a small SUV: Ryan, Virginia and me, along with our friends Kris, Alex and Lebron. It was by no means a comfortable ride, as most Dominicans tend to be well-endowed on their backside and our friends are no different. Despite a few complaints from the backseat, off we went for Miches, a small fishing pueblo in the northeastern part of the country. The carretera getting there was a mess, dirt roads filled with enormous potholes; however the drive itself was breathtaking. We drove through miles of sugar cane fields, curvy mountain roads and small villages. For the most part it felt like we were the only ones on the road, but thankfully we had Alex who was our elected guía for the trip. I’m not entirely sure he knew where we were going but more so the general direction. We slowed down every once in a while to ask random men, who Alex generically called “Juan”, how far we were until the next town. We often stopped to take in a view of the green mountainous landscape or seize a photo-op with a random roadside donkey.

The pueblos we drove through provided a harsh reminder of the reality of poverty here. We live on the good side of town in La Romana and spend most of our time in the middle of the city; neither of which represent the living conditions of most Dominicans. Most of our kids at the Hogar come in from the barrios on the outskirts of the city, but because we don’t see their living conditions often it’s easy to forget what they go home to everyday. However, driving by homes composed of metal sheets and dirt floors with no running water, reminded me of the importance of our work here. Not only is education imperative in order for our kids to escape poverty, but without the Hogar they may not have their basic needs met. Although this is incredibly difficult to think about, I think that sometimes we all need these “wake-up calls” so that we truly appreciate how blessed we are. It certainly made me think twice about how lucky I was to go away on a trip.

We finally arrived in Miches and found our hotel, “Coco Loco”, which consisted of a restaurant and cabanas right on the beach. Nothing fancy, but it was perfect. We then ventured into town for some food to find that it was essentially a ghost town. Not the tourist season I guess. We pulled over to a man grilling on the sidewalk by his house and asked how much it would cost for some chicken. We brought chairs out onto the sidewalk and chowed down on communal plates of pollo, arroz, yuca and plátanos. Sitting on the street in plastic chairs, drinking and listening to loud music is the epitome of being Dominican.

Upon driving back to the hotel, we noticed many cars and mottos heading farther down the beach and immediately wanted in. We asked someone if we could go past the tide pool, she said yes and we were off; cruising down la playa in our 2-wheel drive SUV, windows down, blaring music, feeling invincible. There were mentions of, “I hope we don’t get stuck”, but the euphoric feeling of bombing down an empty beach set our worries aside. Sure enough we were a ways down the beach when the soft sand got the best of us. Our front tires were buried. Once the boys realized that simple efforts weren’t going to suffice, shirts started coming off and a search for something to put under the tires ensued. There was aggressive digging and pushing to no avail. I tried continuously to offer my suggestions, explaining that this has happened to me many times before. And for about an hour no one wanted to listen to the gringa; obviously women don’t know anything about cars. So I let them be and watched as they insisted on putting rocks under the tires. Finally, they decided to give my method a try. I had found some large parts of a palm tree; so we (Okay, they with my direction.) dug out the tires a little more, put the branches underneath, turned the wheels and pushed. It literally worked on the first try. I couldn’t help by laugh, dance around and tell them, “¡Tienen que escuchar a las mujeres!,” “You have to listen to the women!”. And the Cape Codder pulls through!

That night we headed into town to get dinner. Again this consisted of driving around, and the next thing I knew we were asking some random woman how much her pizza cost. I was a bit confused as we got out and proceeded to sit on her front porch, as she prepared pizza for us in her oven. Nonetheless, I set off in search of some Presidente. Upon returning, Lebron apologized to the woman because we didn’t even ask if she was Christian and here we were drinking on her porch. Whoops… In pure Dominican fashion, we sat there for a few hours chatting and learning all about her life. We even went inside her home to see pictures of her children. At one point, Alex and Lebron were reclined in deep conversation with her, when Virginia looked at me and said, “Woah, woah. Why are we getting comfortable here?” I laughed out loud because I had been thinking the same thing. We had finished eating, so it was time to move on to the next thing, right? But no, in Dominican time we were in no rush to get anywhere.

After hitting up “Lincoln Heights”, the only discoteca in town, we called it a night and awoke the next morning to spend a few more hours in Miches before heading home. The beach was filled with horses and I was dying to ride one, but didn’t think I would actually be able to without paying a tour company. Sure enough, a kind muchacho on horseback came along, like a knight in shining armor, except he was shirtless and wearing jorts. He offered me to go on a vuelta, or a ride, so I hopped on eagerly assuming he was to follow. To my surprise, he had every intention of me riding his horse solo. With stirrups that were way too long, I held on tightly and tried to remember what I had learned when I took horseback riding one summer. Unfortunately, this agricultural horse was not as well-trained as any horse I had ever ridden. Needless to say I didn’t take this caballo very far, out of fear she would take off along with me.

Later on, Alex told us all to follow him, clearly with a plan in mind. He told me we were going to get agua de coco, or coconut water. We started walking down the beach and then he stopped a man carrying a machete and asked him to chop down some cocos for us. We followed the man behind palm trees until he found the right one. He then proceeded to take his boots off, throw his machete into his back pocket and scale the tree like a monkey. I’ve never seen anything like it and I was cringing the whole time. The tree was very high and here he was at the top swinging a machete around. Thankfully, he made it down safely and then cut off the tops of the cocos so that we could drink the agua de coco. This was no Vitamin Water people, this stuff was legit.

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We headed home on what were  supposed to be better roads. In my opinion they were worse, but this route had many gorgeous views of the coast so it didn’t really matter. I experienced another reality shock when we stopped at a lone house on the side of the road. Three kids were outside playing Dominoes on a slab of wood which they balanced on their knees. We stopped and asked if I could use their bathroom, and then Kris led me out back to a wooden hut. I stepped inside and immediately reopened the curtain, confused. I looked at an elevated plank of wood with a hole cut out in the middle. Where was the toilet paper? How do I sit on this? Kris laughed and instructed me, “¡Sube!”, “Get up!”. I became even more confused, “¿Aquí?”. She laughed and told me yes, stand up on the plank, you have to learn how to be Dominicana. So I did, and Monday morning upon getting in the shower I’ve never been more appreciative of my running water. I am so grateful for spontaneous adventures and having the opportunity to truly experience the culture here. Whether it’s spending hours on a stranger’s front porch or learning how to use an outhouse, I am taking it all in and loving the unfamiliarity.

Operación Sonrisa

A few weeks ago I had one of the most impacting experiences yet; and that’s saying a lot considering all that I’ve seen and done here. A group of volunteers from all over came to Centro Médico in La Romana for a week long medical mission. Many of them were local, from Santo Domingo, while others were from the United States. Despite language and cultural differences, they all came together to accomplish the same thing. Each year more than 200,000 children are born with a cleft lip and/or palate. Not only does this birth defect carry with it significant cosmetic adversities, but it often results in ear diseases, dental problems, speech development issues and difficulty obtaining proper nutrition. [1]

Operación Sonrisa started on a Saturday when more than 60 children were screened for surgery. I arrived at 7:30 a.m. to a waiting room full of children and their parents, overflowing to the parking lot. I’ve seen pictures of children with cleft lips and palates, but actually meeting them was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Many had significant deformities, but all I could think about was that they were beautiful, happy children.

The screening was a scene of organized chaos. Each child had to go through about 8 different stations, which included legal documents, speech therapy and a pediatrician. These families had traveled from all over the country and waited for months, some even years, for this day. The screening ended around 6 p.m. and everyone was exhausted, including the children. However, the day was not over for the mission team, who proceeded to a conference room to develop a schedule for the week. Unfortunately, it was impossible to operate on all of the children with 3 operating rooms and 5 days. However those that would not be operated on during this mission would be given first priority for the next one. When the schedule was complete, the parents were called and told if and when to come in for the operation.

I arrived Monday morning expecting to be in a conference room helping out with administrative needs separate from the action. However, this was not the case. The team was given a large hallway area to serve as an office, as well as the surgery waiting room. Therese, the team’s child life specialist, made the area kid friendly with toys, games and decorations. I ended up spending most of my time with her, which was wonderful. Basically, our role was to make the children feel as comfortable as possible before heading into surgery. It is imperative to develop a feeling of trust and comfort between you and each child, so that when they leave their parents for the operating room they feel more at ease. For the most part this was developed simply by playing with them. For the older children, we used Therese’s hospital toys to explain to them what was about to happen in a way that they could understand. Something as simple as a child putting a miniature anesthesia mask on a doll helps them to be more relaxed when it is being done to them.

Down the hall were two large connected rooms, serving for pre and post-op. Filled with beds, the kids and one parent or guardian came and stayed at the hospital the nights before and after their surgery. They did about 12 surgeries each day, so most days there were about 24 children, along with their parent, staying in these two rooms. The IV bags hung on clothes hangers attached to the ceiling panels. It was definitely not the type of hospital room I was used to, but it worked. I spent a lot of time in that room, simply checking in with children and parents. There were a few babies who I didn’t even recognize in post-op because they looked so different. On two different occasions, I found myself talking to a mom who seemed to know me, and then told me that I had spent a lot of time talking to them on Saturday. Upon looking at their file with an identification photo, I knew exactly which child they were. The difference was remarkable.

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I was also struck by how simple most of these surgeries were. Although I never observed an operation, I spent time talking to the surgeons, who told me that this procedure was nothing for them. It’s amazing to think that so many children are living with significant deformities, yet they are so easy to fix.

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By far, my favorite part of the week was each morning seeing the group from yesterday’s surgeries leave to go home. I found myself tearing up saying good-bye to many of the parents and children I had developed relationships with. It was as simple as talking to them, learning their story and supporting them as they went through the process. Their appreciation was unlike any I’ve experienced. One mom said to me“ Te quiero mucho.” “I love you very much,” which is exactly how I felt about many of the children and families. They left with a hug, kiss and a big smile on their face. :)

For more information about Operation Smile please visit: http://www.operationsmile.org/.

[1] http://www.operationsmile.org/.

Antes

Después

      

Mi Hogar Nuevo

After checking up on Ellery and Kelly’s blogs, I realized how badly I’ve been slacking on mine. I’ve been too caught up on trying to think of something profound to write about; when in reality I have about 20 followers (okay, that’s being generous) who just want to know what the heck I’m doing over here.

This past month has been an overload of new things. This country is crazy and wonderful. A lot of times I feel completely lost, while others I sit back without a doubt that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. Above all, I am so grateful that I have wonderful people to share this experience with. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have Ryan and Virginia to laugh about how incredibly different life is here. Ryan is here for his second year as an Extension DR volunteer and has been honorably declared a Dominicano by the locals. Virginia was a surprise addition to our group. Originally, I thought I was coming down here with 2 Stonehill boys as my side-kicks, but here I am with an Auburn grad that says “ya’ll” and a gringuito that is constantly rapping; and I couldn’t be happier.

Ryan has done a great job of showing us around La Romana and introducing us to life here. It’s nice to know some of the insider tips that may have taken us months to learn. Everyone here has been incredibly welcoming, whether at work or at the club where we live. One of the best feelings for me was walking into the preschool class where I spent most of my week over my spring break. I cried leaving them, when they made me a book of their handprints, and hoped that I would one day be able to return. Walking into their classroom months later to 42 hugs, kisses and shouts of “amiguita” (their nickname for me) was amazing.

Outside of work, we’ve kept pretty busy. We’ve met many of Ryan’s friends from last year, most importantly Alex C. and Alex P., who have pretty much been friends with all of the volunteers proceeding us. It’s been really nice to just have instant friends who you know you can trust. Also, Diane arrived about a week after us. She was a volunteer for the Extension Program 2 years ago and has returned as a full-time employee at the Hogar, working in the Nivel Inicial (preschool) as well as teaching English classes to older students. I am so lucky to have her here.

In the past month, we’ve made many trips to la playa. The beaches here are gorgeous, exactly what you would expect from the Caribbean: crystal clear warm water, palm trees, fine sand.  I often cannot believe that I live here. It’s paradise. This past Saturday, we went on our first “boat trip” with the teachers from the local English school, who are from Great Britain and Ireland. We boarded a boat armed with Brugal and Presidente and set off for Isla Catalina, one of two off of the coast of La Romana. There was swimming, dancing and a great time had by all!

Playa Minitas

Along with very warm weather, we’ve also experienced a huracán. The buildup for Hurricane Isaac was almost comical. It’s all anyone talked about for a week, as they boarded up the windows. Work was cancelled on Friday, or so I thought, until I woke up to a beautiful sunny day and a phone call from my boss saying “gracias a Dios” I could go into work today. Needless to say I was not happy. Although the storm didn’t really hit us, we certainly got some of the wind and rain.

This first month has already brought about some unexpected changes, and at times I wonder if I’m crazy for doing this. I’m a broke college graduate who has a family, friends, job opportunities, a life in Massachusetts; yet I’ve packed up and moved to a third world country to volunteer for a year. My experience reminds me of a quote from a book I read a few years ago, Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert says, “I thought about one of my favorite Sufi poems, which says that God long ago drew a circle in the sand exactly around the spot where you are standing right now. I was never not coming here. This was never not going to happen.” As I sat at a bar the other night watching American football with a bunch of Brits, I couldn’t help but laugh. Never in a million years would I have placed myself in that moment, but I sipped my Presidente with certainty and comfort that I was right where I was supposed to be.

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