Take a drive through Miami-Dade County and you’ll find about 40 active bridges. Some of these bridges are burdened with thousands of vehicles, while others bear countless pedestrians. Some provide access to the beach, some to a hospital or school, others to our jobs.
When was the last time a major waterway, or even a trickling stream, prevented you from going anywhere in Miami? Things are different in the Dominican Republic. Over the past decade, I have had the privilege to travel there with the Belen Youth Missions (BYM) and help construct 10 bridges. Each experience taught me a lesson of its own.
Growing up in Miami, I never had to walk to go to Belen, or even walk two blocks to go anywhere. On my first mission I learned that, I, along with my fellow classmates, were exceptions when it came to walking. Take a two-hour flight to the Dominican Republic and you’ll find extreme poverty. In every community I served, I saw campesinos cross small streams to go to either work, seek medical attention, sell their agriculture, or receive an education. Typically, these walks take over 30 minutes to complete. Come the rainy season, however, a small stream can swell into a dangerous roaring river. Against such violent waterways, villagers are forced to seek alternative routes, possibly doubling or tripling their commute. Sometimes, their paths are completely cut off.
Looking back, you could not find a greater disparity between an 18-year-old Dominican campesino and myself. As a collegiate student attempting to find my purpose in life, I looked forward to the humbling experience of the missions, the hard work and the resulting feeling of accomplishment. I considered it to be my true summer vacation. I saw the beauty and happiness of simplicity. Without fail, every summer I saw the blending of communities: The BYM and Dominican children playing in the water, exploring waterfalls, or working on a bridge and bonding over the memories they would all share.
I remember the kindness shown to me by our host families with a smile. I hold onto the selflessness shown by the Dominicans when they would deliver a plate of warm, fresh tostones to us after a long workday. Over our mission we built many physical bridges and learned many lessons, but the symbolic bridge between our two communities taught the greatest lesson of them all: How something so life changing for us would be equally as life changing for them. With every bridge we built, we gave a young Dominican a chance to achieve a greater life.
As a young professional working in Miami, I drive over various bridges. And, as a typical Miami resident, I complain about the traffic jams they sometimes cause. But sometimes, while sitting in traffic, I catch myself and think back to how fortunate we truly are. How we take our 40 bridges for granted, and how our daily stressors do not compare to the hardships endured by those less fortunate.
The lessons, the people, and the memories are never washed away. Instead they stay with you, they change you, they humble you and make you a man for others.
Enrollment for Belen Youth Missions opens mid-January to current juniors and alumni. The trip takes place every summer at the end of June through the first week of July. Please contact either Mirna Menendez (firstname.lastname@example.org), Executive Assistant to the President, Michael Murgado’10 (email@example.com), or the Alumni Association for more information on how you can assist our mission.