By Sarah Rutkowski
Traveling to a Caribbean island in January sounded like a dream come true. At home here in Alaska, it’s cold and dark with another winter of little snow. Sun on my face and toes in the sand would undoubtedly help cure my seasonal depression.
That’s exactly what I thought when I decided to use my vacation time to join a group of volunteers for a unique project in the Dominican Republic. The country is the second-largest Caribbean nation and is well known for its beaches, resorts, and golf. For many friends and families, the Dominican Republic is a vacation destination of choice.
Choosing where and how to spend a vacation can require some tough decisions. It can be stressful. What’s the right location? The best hotel? The right activities? We invest time in the planning process. And there are costs. There’s possibly time out of school or work. And we might need to use those precious, saved vacation days. There is an investment of money, and we weigh how to spend it best. The pressure can be overwhelming and exhausting.
What if vacation time meant more than getting a tan and relaxing on a beach?
What if the investment you made was in a community in need, or investing in your personal growth? We often don’t associate vacation time with giving back, so when I had the opportunity to do just that, I wasn’t sure what was involved. The project I chose to invest in was a Memory Mission to build a school in a remote area of the Dominican Republic, far from the beaches. I was excited to help but worried that I wasn’t qualified. My experience serving others had only revolved around my children. It was donating canned food, clipping Box Tops, or shopping for requested school supplies. And I engaged in PTA meetings and helped with the Girl Scouts, but that was the extent of my experience in sharing my time and talents.
I have always focused on children, education, and school, so when I learned that the goal of the mission was building a school, I knew that I wanted to help.
So in early January, I traveled to Constanza, Dominican Republic, to help build a school for the Rio Grande community. I joined more than 40 educators, superintendents, school board members, and Lifetouch/Shutterfly employees from across the US and Canada. We came together as strangers and left as family. We educated ourselves about the culture, and we prepared for the physical labor of building a school. What I didn’t anticipate was falling in love with the most generous, kind, humble, and beautiful people I’ve ever met. Mixing mortar and laying cinderblock was only a part of the building work we did. We built relationships with the families and community members. We played basketball, drew pictures, jumped rope, sang songs, and gave lots of hugs. The children spent time holding on to us, never wanting to let go.
I wanted to capture these moments and never forget them. It was essential to all of us that we preserve these memories not only for the volunteers but for the community as well. As a photographer, I knew the best way to accomplish that was through the power of pictures. We had dedicated Lifetouch photographers with us to help tell the story of our mission, and of course, we had a Picture Day! Although a tradition for families in the US, it was a rare opportunity for this rural area. We photographed every aspect of the trip. The excitement of photography is always rewarding to experience. Still, even more powerful is being able to watch your subject see themselves in a picture for the first time as they receive their printed images. Many of the families photographed had never seen a portrait of themselves. Tears were falling as they held and kissed their photos.
The gift of photography allowed the community to capture and tell their story.
I thought I was going to the Dominican Republic to give back to a community in need, but they gave me so much more in return. I gained a better perspective of what is most important to me. I learned I have so much love to give and accept. I learned that the Rio Grande community is a truly blessed place- not because we built them a school, but because they are making a loving community. They watched us invest in them but had no idea what they were working inside of each of us. That week they trusted us to build a school for their children. I like to think we made more than that. We built relationships, and most importantly, we shared hope.