Friday, March 25, 2011

The Yale Alumni Service Trip

What made us decide to go to the DR in the first place?

It all started at the AYA Assembly last fall, where the work of some of the leaders among Yale alumni was highlighted.  During these presentations, Mark Dollhopf showed a video of the Yale Alumni Service Corp's work in Monterrey, Mexico last year. 

As Lisa and I watched the video, we both remarked that a trip like that would be great for our oldest son, Tyler, who has taken a few years of Spanish and has a desire to see the world.A little while later, we received an e-mail announcing the trip.  We went to the trip website, checked it out, and started to figure out if we could make it work. 

I was, I admit, a little apprehensive at first.  Would this be too much for me and Tyler to handle?  What could a 14 year old do on such a trip?  Armed with these questions, I called Joao Aleixo, who works in Yale's Office of International Affairs and who was kind enough to support the trip to the DR.  Joao was very knowledgeable and very helpful, explaining to me what to expect, what the accommodations would be like, and what kinds of projects we might work on.  Joao didn't sugar coat things, which I later appreciated, and made clear what the challenges would be.  He also explained the physical beauty of the area we would be visiting and the warm, welcoming nature of the people we would be meeting.  Armed with the information on the website and Joao's background, Tyler and I decided to sign up.

When we signed up, we offered to teach English or, if we could figure it out, piano.  (Tyler was willing to donate one of his electric keyboards to the cause.)  Over the course of January and February, we had a few conference calls with the education team to figure things out.  Our team leader, Darlene Cimino-DeRose, helped us figure out how we would pull off a piano program and suggested (thank goodness) to bring down small, portable, and battery-operated practice key boards, so we could teach more than one child at a time.  Over the next couple of weeks, we looked for Spanish-language piano books, and order some through Amazon.  So, piano teaching it would be!

Once we had the books and hardware in place, we started to think about how we would teach a group of kids.  We settled on a plan to teach four to six kids at a time.  Tyler worked with his piano teacher to sketch out what these sorts of lessons would look like.  Tyler then spent time figuring out the vocabulary he would need to use to teach the lessons he had planned and then he spent some time teaching me the basic piano skills I would need to teach.  By the time of our departure, we had our plan in place (or so we thought). 

Importantly, during our conference calls, Darlene, and Chris Goodrich, a Cambiando Vidas person who also happens to be a Yale alum, stressed flexibility.  "Go with Plan A, be prepared to try a Plan B, and you should even have a Plan C in mind," they told us.  "It could very well be that, within a day or two, you hit on a Plan E or F that actually works."  Being a confident sort of guy, who believed in the plan we had developed, I was confident that we might need a Plan B, but certainly a Plan C, D or E would not be necessary.  Boy, was I wrong!

Another thing we did to prepare for the trip was to check the CDC website and visit our doctors.  Would there be a risk of malaria?  (Yes)  Was there a risk of cholera?  (Probably not, but cholera could come over the boarder from Haiti.)  Should we bring anything special to wear?  (Yes, as it turns out that there is bug-resistant clothing.  And, the cultural norm in the DR is for men to wear only pants.   Despite the heat, shorts simply aren't what a man wears.) 

The other preparation I did for the trip was to read the novel that was suggested to us -- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Some might think it odd that they would suggest fiction to prepare us for a trip like this.  As a literature major, I thought it was perfect.  After reading the book, I thought the suggestion was inspired, because it offered an insight in the psyche of the Dominican people, into the reason why the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo still echoes through that nation's consciousness decades after his death, and into the kinship the Dominican people feel toward each other.  If you haven't read it, do.  The writing is gripping.  The story is compelling, if sad.  There is a reason that this book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

So with that preparation, we were off to the Dominican Republic.

Tune in later for the post about our trip to the DR!

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