By Celine Klosterman
Midway through his first of two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, Andrew Hanson is leading youth groups, working to build a community park and helping teachers implement a civic engagement program for students. But most importantly, he said, he and local residents are achieving solidarity.
“My Dominican community members tell my visiting friends, ‘Andrew is one of us now. He’s Dominican already.’ This always makes me feel good because I truly am starting to feel more at home here, and whatever I accomplish will be more sustainable if it’s done from an insider’s perspective.”
Hanson, a 23-year-old whose home parish is St. Patrick in Ottumwa, left for the Dominican Republic in August 2009 with the goal of solidarity in mind. It’s “the most essential part of my job,” he said. “… I go over to people’s houses for coffee or dinner, hang out with them on their front porch, go to church with them and do anything else that allows me to interact with community members.”
He met many residents during a community diagnostic he conducted during his first three months in the Caribbean country, where about 40 percent of people live in poverty. “One problem I found through surveys was that community members feel the majority of youth are at risk to get involved in drugs, alcohol and delinquency at an early age.” Partly to blame is the lack of extracurricular activities and public space for them, he said.
To help fill the gap, he began running three community youth groups: a Brigada Verde (Green Brigade) for 11-13-year-olds to volunteer in ecological development; Escojo Mi Vida (I Choose My Life) to educate 13-16-year-olds on sexual health and HIV/AIDS; and Barrios Saludables Niños Sanos (Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Kids), an environmental awareness and civic engagement group for fourth- and fifth-graders.
To make space for youths to meet in such groups and for other productive activities, Hanson and others have been “battling hard” to get a small park built near a school in the city of Puerto Plata.
He said progress is moving slowly on “island time,” and recruiting volunteers for the project has proved challenging. But “my faith has kept me humble and helped me realize that my frustrations are just as important as my successes in this experience. Many people in my position put a lot of pressure on themselves to ‘save the world,’ and they forget that you can be Christ for others in the simple, little, everyday things you do. I have had a lot of time to reflect and pray, and this has strengthened my relationship with Jesus.”
Among Hanson’s rewarding, everyday efforts is spending time with his “three little buddies” — boys ages 5 and 6 who he said “have attached themselves to me.” One is from a former host family; another is a neighbor, and one has parents who work from dawn to dusk and has learned to “depend on others during the day,” Hanson said. “They are making as much of an impact on me as I am on them, and it is comforting to know that if all else fails, at least I made a little difference somewhere.”
Hanson’s efforts to make a difference have left an impression on Marisha Kazeniac, executive director of Vermont Institute on the Caribbean and coordinator of the Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Kids program in Puerto Plata. “Andrew is the epitome of active charity and unconditional love in his work,” she said. “His openness and honesty, his strong and unfaltering personal values, and his sense of justice and equality in all he does have deeply affected the community of Los Dominguez in the months he has been there.”
He anticpates needs almost before they appear, she continued. “Through his intelligence and patience he guides change from within, rather than imposing it… He does not tolerate laziness and complaint, rather inspires others to participate in the process of responsible change. He does not do for, he does with.”
In coming months, Hanson will continue working with people to start a reading club for students and two English classes, and develop a youth summer sports league that stresses community service.
He’s guided by memories of people and activities that impacted him as a youth, and hopes he can similarly impact Dominican Republic residents.
“If my community members reflect on me and think I was a ‘good man,’ that means I probably served as a pretty good role model for others and gave them a new perspective.”