Saturday, March 20, 2010

A beautiful break

The snow lay heavy as Spring break reached Pittsburgh. Luckily, I and the 14 other students who were travelling with “Carnegie Mellon Alternative Break” had no reason to care: We were going to the north-western Dominican Republic to volunteer for the organization Orphanage Outreach.

My heroes from Carnegie Mellon
Orphanage Outreach (OO) is organizing western volunteers to serve in two different orphanages, local schools and an English institute. Carnegie Mellon, among other groups of voluenteers, was going to stay at the newer of the two orphanages for a week, in Jaibon (a small village along a highway of dirt connecting the major city Santiago and the town of Monte Cristi located at the north coast almost next to the Haitian boarder). “This is it.”

Volunteers improving the facilities one small step at a timeAs opposed to countries like Norway and the US, “newer” is not always better, bigger and more shiny. While in the west we tend to complete buildings and facilities before we “open” them to be worn down, Dominicans use what they have even though it is not yet complete. In fact, using is not so much a process of tearing as it is a process of building. It was beautiful to see how OO adapted to this culture, teaching us how to build one block at a time and appreciate small steps of improvement. “Poco a poco.”

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

–— Edward Everett Hale

Spring break is volunteer season, so quite high numbers of beautiful people eager to serve was available to OO that week. About 250. In comparison, the Jaibon orphanage was at the time housing 27 kids. It was obvious that numbers were out of proportion – so OO asked the local schools if they’d like some “Americanas” to teach English to the kids. The schools were incredibly enthusiastic, since English educators – as valuable and appreciated as they are – are a rarity in the area. It turned out 250 volunteers wasn’t nearly enough to fill all the requests from the schools. Kids from the Jaibon orphanageBut it was still beautiful how OO served their community not by imposing some outside idea on them, but by assisting the community with competence the community were calling for. “Serve, don’t help.”

OO has the same attitude towards the orphanages – which are not ran and organised by OO, but supported by OO. Beautiful local Dominicans run the orphanages, and OO was careful to respect their ideals and the principles by which they ran them. The application of this attitude included an over average strict dress code and a ban against any non-Christian music. But it was beautiful, precisely because of these sacrifices. “It’s not about you.”

Our group was sent to teach 6th and 8th graders in one of the schools not affiliated with the orphanage. I hoped the kids would know some English to start with, especially since these were pretty high levels. But no. Me knowing no Spanish whatsoever, except “gracias” and “la factura, por favor,” I was going to hang out with kids speaking only Spanish for a week. Luckily, fun is a language of its own, and we could play volleyball, catch, frisbee and something that vaguely reminds us of football (a beautiful sport you play with your feet, in case there was any doubt) without any worries as far as language was concerned. The kids even made me play baseball with them, which must have been pretty entertaining, judging by the laugh I received as I waved seemingly purposeless with the bat (I was actually trying to hit the ball, but I’m not sure how well I managed to communicate that message). “Communicate love.”

But anyhow, our mission was to teach English. With my teaching group of fellow CMU students, we planned out some ideas for how to communicate with the class using body language, games and drawings. And with three of five team members above an intermediate level of Spanish fluency, we all found a useful role to play. Even when we split up into groups and I was alone with the kids, I did fine – the kids indeed got the message, because they really tried to get the message. OO says you do not need to know Spanish to communicate love. I found you neither need to know Spanish to communicate English. It was cool to see how excited many of the kids, especially my group of 8th-graders, were to learn. Students from other classes would even listen in on the teaching from the open windows; it was beautiful to see that we made a difference. “Acknowledge yourself.”

This is just a small fraction of what I experienced. I could have dedicated pages to every one of the ten, I must say beautiful, principles Orphanage Outreach is run by. They were all means by which OO was trying to fulfill its stated goal for the week: “Release the Hero within.” And so they did; OO facilitated heroism in the volunteers, the volunteers inspired heroism in the kids, and we all supported and cherished the heroism of those running the orphanage. And as we were fundraising for the trip, we also released the hero in everyone who chose to support us financially or with food or school supplies. I got many new heroes during this trip.

Now we hope to bring that sunshine from Jaibon to Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. At the very least, we successfully brought the actual weather with us, because now summer is almost all over the place here in Pittsburgh; little is left of the thick winter coat we left behind. But more importantly, we want to inspire new generations of Alternative Breakers and spread the Alternative Break mindset across campus – ultimately releasing the heroes within many more.

Read more:
OO: Orphanage Outreach
Carnegie Mellon: Alternative Break
YouTube: Happiness in the Jaibon schools (DR)
veoh: Nathan and Liana's video
Our awesome trip leader: Nathan Frank


  1. Torstein, this is so well said and inspired. Thanks for this.

  2. Great post, I really liked how you related each point back to one of the goals of OO.