In mid-July, Jessica Lewis went on vacation with her father, Ben. But 13-year-old Jessica didn’t go to Florida’s Disneyland or Canada’s Wonderland.
Instead she chose the Dominican Republic. It’s a common destination in this era of all-inclusive resorts, but that’s not why Jessica and her dad went there.
Instead, they chose a Hero Holiday humanitarian relief trip to help make life in the Dominican a little easier for its residents.
Jessica’s mother, Genny, says Canadian children often have far more than they need.
“Parents will dish out $5,000-$6,000 for (a school) trip and they probably haven’t even been (to the place) themselves. And although these trips are educational and wonderful, I often think of this generation of kids as being coddled and given so many opportunities that they often expect to have whatever they want.
“More often than not, parents, myself included, give in to them. I see kids wanting brand name clothing to make them feel more important.”
In the Dominican Republic, children often do not have shoes, let alone brand name clothes, toys and electronics, adequate housing, food, water or schools.
But who is the happier?
Jessica attempted to find out.
“(The trip) was an eye-opener,” she said.
“There’s a lot of depression in Canada, yet we have so much. Everyone seems so happy in the Dominican Republic. They don’t have much at all.”
What did Jessica and her father do to help the Dominicans? Here are some of the e-mails Ben Lewis sent home:.
July 7, 2010 9:53 p.m.
We just finished supper after a very busy day. We visited the hospital and four other places. One of them was full of Haitian people who live next to a dump. Funny thing is some of the kids didn’t even have shoes, but they were still so happy! They loved Jessica and she met a little girl with the same name. It was really sweet. The kids all followed us around and held our hands. We also visited the hospital where there are 12 beds in each ward.
July 9, 2010 9:58 p.m.
Today we helped build a basketball court at a school. It was lots of hard work, digging and pick-axing and stuff. Jessica worked very hard and she took breaks to play with the kids under a mango tree in the shade. It was a hard day, but we had lots of fun.
July 9, 2010 12:04 a.m.
Today we went to the dump to help Haitian people find recyclables. It was really gross, but the people were very happy.
Jessica and I gave them our gloves because they look through the garbage with their bare hands. After lunch we went on a hike and swam at a waterfall. It was beautiful. Then we went to supper at a restaurant without the group and that was followed by a pool party. Jessica swam on our relay team and did the quietest dive competition. She did really well.
“You can go to Paris to do stuff for yourself, but if you go to the Dominican, you’re helping others." - Jessica Lewis
July 13, 2010 9:51 p.m.
Today we went to Agua Negra, which means black water. It’s called that because all the homes are in a valley that was once a dump. When it rains, black toxic water comes up and floods the streets and houses. It’s really stinky and gross, but the people there are really nice.
We worked in the morning and played with the kids in the afternoon. One highlight was when we saw a 350-pound pig being pulled into the back of a pickup truck. Did you know that pigs can squeal as loud as a jet engine?
Jessica enjoyed her trip so much she is already fundraising to go back next year.
The experience is not cheap. Jessica and her dad had to pay for flights to Toronto and then $2,385 to get from Toronto to the Dominican via Buffalo, JFK and then on to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.
One of the highlights of the trip for Jessica was the day spent at the dump helping Haitians sort through the garbage in the hopes of finding recyclables they could sell. As Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, it’s not to hard to cross from one country to the other.
“Haitians are considered lower than Dominicans,” says Jessica. “They sneak across the border at night and travel up to five days to get to the dump. Living at the dump is better than living in Haiti. When a truckload of new garbage comes in, they’d jump up on it because it was new stuff.”
Jessica admits it was gross going through garbage, “but you get over the grossness because you’re helping people.”
As a result of the Hero Holiday trip, Jessica is not the same girl who left Canada in mid-July. She is now far more aware of global issues, especially poverty.
She has helped build homes of cinder blocks for families who lived in shacks made of plastic tarps and wood. She had cockroaches crawl up her arm at the dump. She has befriended girls her own age and younger who don’t have enough to eat.
And as to whether we in Canada are happier in our warm, cosy houses with everything at the touch of a button, or those who scrounge in the dump for recyclables to survive, she challenges you to take it upon yourself to find out.
As Jessica says, she’d take a trip back to the Dominican with Hero Holiday over a school trip to Paris any day.
“You can go to Paris to do stuff for yourself, but if you go to the Dominican, you’re helping others,” she said.
Susan Flanagan is a freelance writer and the mother of five coddled children living in St. John’s.