by Kelly Vlaskamp, HHI Intern
My name is Kelly, but I go by Elisa in the Dominican Republic. I’m working on a sanitation project funded by the German Embassy, which is constructing latrines in Arroyo de Leche and Negro Melo to fight contamination. I’m also the first HHI volunteer to live long-term in one of the communities.
When I first arrived in Arroyo de Leche in June, I prepared myself for the full immersion experience of community life—bucket baths, dirt roads, rice and beans, and of course, latrines.
I met my host family on a rainy afternoon in June and could barely understand the Dominican accent, so I kept to myself. I heard heart-warming stories about how nice and welcoming this family is, but to me, we were still just strangers sharing a table for lunch. More and more community members trickled into the kitchen to get their share of lunch and the introductions began.
“3 months?!” They’d exclaim, “That’s so long. Won’t you miss your family?”
And they were right. In those three months, I would miss what had become comfortable and familiar: my family, my friends, air conditioning, hot showers, and the occasional iced summer special from Starbucks.
Over two months have gone by and without even realizing it, I wasn’t thinking of hot showers or iced coffees anymore. I was fully immersing myself the Arroyo de Leche lifestyle. I spent my days swimming rivers with the local kids, participating in the never-ending search for the perfect mango, milking cows, learning to cook Dominican food, or sitting in the shade of huge trees simply getting to know my new neighbors and making every effort to prove I’m not a tourist in their community.
When I first visited every house in Arroyo de Leche and Negro Melo for the initial assessment for the project, the assessments were marked with names insignificant to me, but now after 2 months of living in their community, I learned they are more than insignificant names on a beneficiary list.
I’ve spent entire days learning people’s life stories and family histories. I’ve shared my own story, my own aspirations, and my own fears with people who I once considered strangers, but who now know me better than anyone else on this island.
So now, with less than two weeks before my internship ends and I leave Arroyo de Leche, when people ask “Don’t you miss your family?” I smile and say, “But I have my Dominican family right here. This is my home. I’m an Arroyo de Lechera, just like you.”