During a season where kids are dreaming of fancy new toys under the tree, junior criminal justice major Jason White created amusement from something a bit simpler — a nail tapped into the ground. For local children from the Dominican Republic, the nail combined with a few rubber bands transformed into a rough version of horseshoes and helped forge relationships that transcended language barriers.
This past December, White and 12 others from Clemson took a week out of their holiday break to travel to the Dominican Republic as part of Clemson’s Alternative Break Program. Each year, Clemson takes a group on its “Building Hope: Sustainable Community Development in the Dominican Republic” trip, partnering with the U.S.-based nonprofit Cambiando Vidas to provide a house as a Christmas present to a family in need.
“The group that we helped build the house for this year, they used to live in a very tiny, one-room house,” White said. “They were living in a very small room, and being able to give them a house they could call their own for Christmas is incredible.”
After flying to Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, the group traveled by bus to San Juan, the location of their build site. Each day, the group awoke by 8 a.m. to head to the job site and assist local construction workers.
“The Dominican Republic is in the middle of a big construction boom,” White explained. “We are there to pass the blocks and help however we can since they are such construction experts down there.”
Remarkably, it took just five days to construct the house. Day one, the group built walls from concrete and cinder blocks, followed by adding a roof, pouring cement flooring, cleaning up and painting. The fifth day of work culminated in a huge nighttime celebration in the new home.
“It’s tradition that the first meal the family shares in the house they share with everyone that helped build it,” White said. “Everyone from the community as well as our Clemson group comes — even neighbors who only stopped by for an hour one day.”
Mixed in between the hard work was some fun down time for the students. When temperatures reached their height in the early afternoons, the group would finish their workday and travel to the river or local pool to cool off with the family. They also were able to interact and play games with the local teens and children while at the construction site.
“Between breaks, like water breaks or on the work site, just being able to spend time with everyone is definitely the best part of the trip,” White said.
The locals’ sense of community left an impact on White, especially coming from America where he feels the culture can be more individualistic.
“Everyone there knows everyone,” White said. “It’s like a big city, but it’s also like everyone’s just family, and so treating everyone equally and being loving toward everyone is probably the biggest takeaway from the experience … You get inspired by building a better sense of community and to do more service.”
This was White’s third time on the Dominican Republic trip. He first applied his freshman year after hearing about the Alternative Break Trip Program from his fraternity president. On this trip, White took on more responsibility and became a site leader, running reflection sessions with the other members and helping first-time trip attenders, some of whom were also first-time fliers, throughout the experience.
“Being able to have the chance to go and be of service to the Dominican Republic is just something I’ve kind of always wanted to, so being able to do that at Clemson has just been amazing,” White said. “It’s connected me with a lot of other really fantastic Clemson students, and it’s really gotten me into more service. Everything I’ve learned from the experiences have really added to my Clemson Experience.”
He would encourage others to consider joining an Alternative Break Trip while at Clemson.
“I think that service should be a very big part of people’s lives, especially giving back to those who are in need,” White said. “Alternative Break Trips do that, but also you learn so much through these trips by learning social issues in different areas or just becoming a more well-rounded person … You get a lot of intangible knowledge, and I think that stuff is very valuable when you go into the workplace and with life in general.”
White looks forward to hopefully joining for his fourth year as a senior next December, though it will be hard to leave the Dominican Republic his final trip.
“People kind of focus on what we’re doing for them, but I think we get an even bigger impact on being able to go down there, and the impact they have on us through their sense of community,” White said. “Being able to experience everything with them, I think we gain a lot more than we necessarily give them.”
To learn more about Clemson’s Alternative Break Programs, visit bit.ly/ABPClemson.
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