What is HHART?
I went to the Dominican republic with Rotary to do a HHART mission. HHART is short for Hispaniola Humanitarian Assistance and Relief Team. The purpose of HHART missions is to help people (primarily Haitian heritage) in poverty and poor living conditions living near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. The HHART team consist of doctors, dentists, other medical staff, Rotarians, translators and other people who want to help.
Most of the Haitian people in the Dominican Republic are undocumented which makes them vulnerable to deportation. Many of the Haitian people don’t go to work or school in fear of getting deported. I heard stories about the situation from the members in our team and it was heartbreaking.
On my way!
I left Collingwood on Saturday January 14 to head to Toronto with Richard, the district governor of my Rotary district, and his wife Elizabeth. We stayed in a hotel for a night since we had to get up at 3 am to go to the airport the next day. We arrived in the Dominican Republic at noon. The first day was just getting to know our hotel in Sosua and get prepared for the mission to start on the next day.
First HHART day: Pancho Mateo and Cangrejo
On Monday at 10 am we headed to Pancho Mateo where there is a community center built by the non-profit organization Amigitos with the help of BuildAid Norway. The building has a kitchen, medical and dental offices, restroom facilities and a big open area with dining tables and a place for kids to play. We got a tour of the place and then we started by making the dental office ready for operation. I got to sterilize surfaces. After, we walked around the village.
We loaded our truck with all the equipment we needed for field work and headed to a village called Cangrejo. There we set up a medical clinic. My official title with another girl called Aja was youth ambassador. We were mostly part of fun team which means that we were entertaining the local children with coloring books, crayons, paints and other activities while their parents were receiving medical care. We got to use the women’s center in Cangrejo for it. All of the kids were super excited. It was an organized chaos. The kids wanted to take all of the stuff and we had a hard time communicating with them since we didn’t share a common language. At the end all of the kids wanted hugs and they were all so happy. We had so much fun together. It made my day!
I got to do fluoride treatments on all the children 8 years old or older after the fun team. We spread fluoride all over their teeth. With the help of translation the children got educated on how to brush teeth properly. We gave them toothbrushes and toothpaste when they were done. We returned to Amigitos to store our stuff for the night.
Jenga and blinky
We got back to the resort for sunset. Everyday I was so dusty, after full day off work in the villages and being in the back of the truck that, I ran to the shower. After that, I was starving for dinner. We always had dinner together with the HHART team minus the local members who weren’t staying at the resort. It was great time bonding with the crew. Every night someone pulled out Jenga and I personally would call myself a pro but some might disagree.
We had a meeting about the next day and we elected the next person to get Blinky which is a stuffed elephant who has been on the HHART missions since the first trips. Together we nominate three candidates and vote on who should get it next. Me and Aja won it the first night. The purpose is to take photos with Blinky during the next day.
Second HHART day: Los Ciruelos
On Tuesday we left at 9.45 am and headed to Amigitos (with Blinky) to pick up all of our field stuff since we stored them there overnight. Tuesday’s drive was longer since we went past Puerto Plata to Los Ciruelos. The village was in a beautiful spot next to a mountain. There were many goats roaming on the field. We set up a medical clinic in a church. We ate lunch before starting to take patients. We always made sure to eat discreetly since often the people in the villages only get one meal a day to eat.
I got to do opto which meant fitting reading glasses to people. Many of the people wanted glasses just for the looks so we gave them the lowest strength glasses. We also handed out some sunglasses before we ran out of them. My favorite moment was when this little boy got sunglasses and he had the biggest smile wearing them.
After getting everyone sorted out with glasses me, Aja and one of our translators Wilson, who also helped with the opto, moved on to do the fun team. We went to the back of the church where there was an open space and in the middle of it there was a shelter with tables and chairs made from concrete. We didn’t need to go gather up the children for painting since they all seemed to appear from thin air once we got the stuff out.
The children were a lot more calm and their moms also came to see what was going on. The adults were almost more interested in the paints than the kids. We had a couple skipping ropes and a volleyball. The children liked playing soccer which was nice since it got us more involved. Eventually the children started to get enough and they started leaving. We went back to the church.
Me and Aja stayed at the front of the church since there wasn’t much to help with. Suddenly a lot of kids came back. We had a lot of fun playing clapping games and handball with a balloon. Of course they all wanted rides on our backs and we delivered. The older children liked drawing with crayons. The children were all so cute and lovely.
At the end of the day we walked around the village. Me and Aja both holding hands with a bunch adorable kids. We met a 107 year old guy originally from Haiti who told us about his life. After a long day we set off to go back to Sosua. We stopped at a grocery store in Puerto Plata. We didn’t make it back to the resort before sunset.
Third HHART day: Amigitos
On Wednesday we left the resort at 10.30 am to go to Amigitos. This day was more relaxed. I started with fluoride treatment that we did together with my HHART team members Grace and Homa. I handed out toothbrushes to the children and they all wanted one. I had a hard time stopping them taking all of the toothbrushes.
The kids went back to school so I went to a little courtyard inside Amigitos to keep company to Cayra and Dr. Bay from my HHART crew who were sorting out medical items. We also got a new addition to our HHART dental team in the middle of the day when three new members arrived.
When the kids came back I got to once again have fun. They got to paint on paper plates. It went very smoothly with the help of Grace and Homa. The children at Amigitos were calmer and more organized. After all the work we got back to our resort well before sunset and had a great dinner together with the HHART crew.
Fourth HHART day: Resort day
I wasn’t feeling 100 % on Thursday so I decided to stay at the resort for the day. Sadly it was Aja’s last day and I couldn’t go to the field with her. I spent the day enjoying the sun, swimming and reading Harry Potter. It was a nice change to all the work we had done the last couple days and left me feeling relaxed and ready for the next day.
Fifth HHART day: Men’s shelter and a new village
We left the hotel at 11 am. First, we headed to the airport to drop of Aja and say good bye to her. Then we headed to Amigitos to pick up all the necessary stuff we would need for the day. Then we headed through Puerto Plata to Christo transforma which is a men’s shelter for men suffering from addictions. They lock themselves up in the shelter so they can’t escape and start using again.
We got greeted with singing that was led by their pastor. We set up a medical clinic with two doctors, a triage nurse and translators to help communicate. I set up an opto station with Kathleen who is a Rotarian from my Wasaga Beach club. While fitting glasses to the men in the shelter we got to hear some of their stories. One man had teenage children in the United States but he couldn’t go back because he had a criminal record there.
I have never seen a place like that in person. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel uneasy there. I was the only younger girl there. Some of the men there called me pretty which made me feel uncomfortable. I also got given a painting buy one of the guys. It was hard to put up a good front there and I found myself more in a corner keeping to myself. What made me feel better, was these little cute puppies that were at the men’s shelter.
We headed out of Christo transforma to go find a place to eat lunch. We drove to Puerto Plata and found a beautiful place by the beach. There was a little kiosk where me, Cayra and Bay bought some fries. We reflected about the men’s shelter together which made me feel noticed.
After eating we headed to a new village called Los Aguillo where there haven’t been any HHART missions. We wanted to see if they would have need for humanitarian assistance. The village was along a river. When we got off the bus and started walking Wilson scared me to death by making a noise of an angry cat behind me and grabbing my ankle. Once my heart rate returned to somewhat normal and I stopped laughing, we got a brief history about the village from Wilson and Elson. Finally, we headed back through Amigitos where we picked up our dental team and headed back to Sosua.
It was Grace’s last day so we wanted to celebrate by going to a restaurant close to our hotel. Me and Cayra shared a pizza and an appetizer. We had such a great time with the group even though a fly flew into my coca cola bottle. Blinky was of course with us.
Sixth day: Back to Cangrejo
Saturday was sadly my last full day in the Dominican Republic. We headed out at the usual time from the resort once again towards Amigitos to drop off our dental team. We grabbed a couple bags to go and got on our way to Cangrejo.
Saturday was a busier day and we had a big medical clinic in the local church. We also had two fun teams. I got to work with a 12 year old local girl. We didn’t share a language but we could still communicate. We took one of the suitcases full of fun stuff to other side of the village where there was an open space. She had everything under control since she already was used to organizing activities for the kids to do. When we had painted and drawn with crayons long enough in the first location a little boy took a trash bag and showed me all the trash on the ground and I helped him clean up.
We walked a bit to another open space in Cangrejo. There we took out the paints and the kids wanted to do face painting. It was so much fun and I let them paint hearts on my face and arms. Then we returned to the front of the church. One of the kids wanted to see a doctor so I figured it out with the other HHART members who weren’t busy at the time.
We closed the clinic at the church for half an hour so we could eat lunch before continuing. Right after finishing the meal, the medical team got busy since an older man had a seizure on the street. I quickly gathered the children again and took them away from the situation to an open area close to the church. There, we took the paints out and we found a ball from another bag, that was in the women’s shelter, so the kids could play with it. I started painting the children’s arms. They all pointed their arms at me wanting more and more hearts on them. I also face painted hearts for two of our translators Elson and Wilson. Well, it was more me forcing them to get face paints than them volunteering for it.
To end my last work day me and Steve, who is also a Rotarian from my club and the chief of the HHART mission, took the kids to a near by beach. They were all so excited and they were shouting and singing on the truck on the way there. When we unloaded the truck they all ran to the beach. I had a great time watching them be happy and enjoy life. On the way back to the village they shouted my name and Steve’s name. It was a great note to end my trip on. At the village I said goodbye to our translators and we headed back to Sosua briefly stopping at Amigitos on the way.
My last day: Snorkeling and flying home
I woke up at 7.30 am because the previous evening we had managed to organize a snorkeling trip at 8 am so I would have time to do it before flying back to Canada. Me, Cayra, Bay, Richard, Steve and my amazing host dad Kevin got picked up from the beach next to our resort with a little boat. Then we sailed to another beach to get snorkeling equipment. We sailed a bit further away from it to go snorkeling. The water was turquoise and clear so we could see all the fish. There also was a coral reef but it was sadly all grey. We had a local guy with us who showed us all the best spots underwater.
We took the boat to another spot other way from our resort. It was further away from the coast. There was a lot more fish and some of them were pretty big. We had bread with us that we fed to the fish so they all would gather up around us. I’m glad I could do a cool activity like this before leaving to go back home.
I packed all of my stuff, checked out of the hotel and was on my way around 11 am. I hugged good bye to our team. We had a bit of trouble at the airport because I didn’t get an email or any other electronic copy containing my eTA which is a document that allows me to go back to Canada. Thankfully I was with Kevin and Steve and we got it all figured out and I got through security and everything. I bought some souvenirs before boarding my flight.
Thoughts about the HHART mission
Leaving the Dominican Republic was very hard for me. On the plain back to Canada I cried my eyes out. I have never felt so sad to leave a place not even when I left for my exchange year. I very rarely cry but I was so touched by this trip. This has been the best experience of my life. I feel like I made a connection to the Dominican Republic and our HHART team. I loved meeting the local people and seeing how beautiful the island is.
I feel like a changed person after just one week. The other HHART members made me feel more confident about myself and I feel like I got to be fully myself. I faced a lot of new situations. This trip made me learn how fragile life is and how privileged I am. I saw awful things like a mother striking her child, I heard about another child’s mother being abusive and I learned that often many people in the villages have to cook with coal inside their houses because they have no other options. Also, seeing the children have teeth in poor condition touched my heart. All of which I haven’t had to suffer from.
What was surprising is that even though a lot of the people we encountered had next to nothing they still often had the biggest smile and the smallest things made them happy. I will never forget all the kids I got to have fun with. My favorite thing was to make them feel loved and seen. It also saddened me to think that many of them don’t receive enough love at home but at least for that little moment I could make them feel better.
I feel sad because I don’t know if I ever have a chance to do another HHART mission. This trip made me realize why the work of Rotarians is so important and why Rotary International is an amazing organization. I couldn’t be more thankful to have experienced this week and I will never forget about it. It has inspired me to do more humanitarian work in the future. I also highly encourage people to google more on what is going on the Dominican Republic. Even a little help goes a long way!