Each time a hurricane barrels through the Caribbean, I feel a tug of dread in my stomach. I feel that tug now with Hurricane Irma.
When I was a sophomore in college, I traveled with a group of Clemson students to San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic to build a hurricane-resistant home for a family.
The week was full of hard work, laughter and community. We all cried when we boarded the bus to head home, just in time to celebrate Christmas with our own families.
That next January I started my first internship at The Journal newspaper in Seneca, South Carolina. The editor encouraged me to pitch stories, and, with my trip to the Dominican Republic fresh on my mind, I mustered up the courage to start writing.
I drafted the story having no idea what I was doing. I was accustomed to MLA-style literary analyses. But I wrote it. And rewrote it. Then handed it in. After some solid feedback (like, what's a nut graf?), it went to press.
Sure, I cringe a little when I read pieces of it, now knowing how much better it could have been. But I'm still proud of the piece and am ever thankful for the sweet reminder of my experience with this community.
Don't judge... Here it is, published February 23, 2013.
'Las Americanas' Make a Difference
Subhead: Clemson students help build home in Dominican Republic
The Dominican children had huge grins on their faces as one of them said in Spanish, “I spy, with my little eye … something WHITE!” Their guesses ranged from the grungy T-shirts of the Clemson student volunteers to the lone dog lying in the dirt. Finally, the answer was revealed. Laudi, about 8 years old, guessed “Las Americanas,” and the group of children erupted in laughter. When “Las Americanas” realized what Laudi had said, they too could not stop laughing. Who knew? The “something white” was the Americans.
These Americans consisted of a group of 13 students from Clemson University who chose to dedicate a week of their winter break to building a home for a financially-troubled family in San Juan de la Maguana through the Cambiando Vidas program.
Cambiando Vidas, which translates to Changing Lives, is a U.S.-based organization that is devoted to building homes for families in the Dominican Republic. These homes are small, safe, affordable, concrete-block homes that are strong enough to withstand the prevalent hurricanes and earthquakes the country experiences.
“Cambiando Vidas is dedicated to the belief that every human being should have access to life’s essentials — shelter, food, clothing, education and the opportunity to realize one’s full potential and ambitions,” said José Abeau, the founder and director of Cambiando Vidas.
José Abeau has always been passionate about helping others, due in part to his unique story. José left his home country of the Dominican Republic to attend college in Canada. While at college, his mother’s house caught fire and burned down in less than 10 minutes. His mother wasn’t concerned with saving her worldly belongings — she was only concerned with saving her own mother.
After hearing news of the fire, he left Canada to help his mother. The community came together to take in his family while they were homeless. The community also supplied them with everyday necessities. Through the help of his neighbors, José family’s home was rebuilt in less than a month.
Seeing what the locals were capable of accomplishing when they worked together, José resolved to start a program in his hometown to help others in situations similar to his. He knew it could be done as long as the community banned together.
Fast forward to winter 2012 and the community was working with Clemson University students to place the final block in the 100th house since the program’s start.
Each family that Cambiando Vidas supports has a unique story, just as José’s family did. Clemson students helped the family of KiKo Guzmán, a father and grandfather, who has been married to his wife Elena for more than 25 years. He works as a farmer and a motoconcho — driving a motorcycle as a taxi.
The Guzmán’s have six children, two of whom live with them. Jadelin, who is 21 and a student at a local university, was forced to move back in with her parents when her husband unexpectedly left her. Her two children also live in the home. The Guzmán’s other son who lives with them is Juan Carlos; he is 17 years old and dropped out of school when he was in the second grade.
The average monthly income for the family is around 15,000 pesos, approximately $390, while the living expenses reach 10,000 pesos, approximately $260, per month.
When the group of Clemson students arrived on the jobsite their first day, they were stunned by the condition of the home that this family of six had been living in.
“They have so little compared to us but are perfectly content with what they do have,” said Clemson sophomore Taylor Cowan.
The previous home the family lived in was about 375 square feet and had a small living room, kitchen, two small bedrooms and an outhouse consisting of simply a hole. The walls were made of palm trees and concrete. The roof was a sheet of tin lamina, littered with holes. Each time it rained, the family had to cover their three mattresses with tarps so that they could sleep on a dry bed. There were no doors — just curtains. The floors were bare concrete. To cook their food, they built fires outside and used cast-iron pots.
As miserable as these conditions seemed to the Clemson students, by the end of the week they could easily see how this family and others in the community were happy.
“I will always remember the continuous joy the people in this community have,” said Cowan.
When it came to building the home for the Guzmán’s, everyone in the community came together. The men would wake up early to tend to their crops and livestock, then banned together by 8 a.m. to continue making progress on the home. The women cooked a huge lunch for the Clemson students and everyone on the jobsite, typically about 30 people. They also provided snacks and drinks throughout the day. The children were helpful in their own way. If they weren’t lifting cinder blocks, they were lifting the spirits of everyone on the jobsite with little practical jokes.
“By the end of the week-long build, this unique mixing of concrete, people and culture reveals that people are more alike than different and that a house is much more than a collection of concrete, metal and wood,” said José.
In helping build the home, the Clemson students certainly felt they were a part of the family.
“It’s unbelievable to see the relationships that formed throughout the week between a group of such different people. The bond that was created that week will always be present between us and the people of this community,” said Clemson senior Liz Johnson. “When we left, the family told us that we always had a place to stay in their country, that their house was always open to us whenever we wanted to come back to visit.”
By the end of the week the children no longer knew the Clemson students as “Las Americanas” — they were considered their friends. Eight-year-old Laudi disappeared behind a tree, trying to hide the tears forming in his eyes. He wasn’t alone. Everyone’s eyes welled up as the students hugged and kissed everyone goodbye before boarding the bus.
“They are a true community,” said Cowan, “and are one of the greatest examples of love that I’ve ever seen.”