Matt LaHann is a Blue Yonder associate who traveled to the Dominican Republic with his family to contribute to humanitarian efforts. As we kick-off Global Volunteer Month, he shares how he and his family were impacted by their service and contributions.

Like many people, I have had my own unique share of volunteer opportunities.  Most of the activities I have been involved in have been limited to only a few hours, or one day at most. However, that cadence changed last month when I went with my family on a week-long medical mission to the Dominican Republic.  

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and it is a popular tourist destination known for its white-sand beaches, pristine blue water, picturesque mountains, and dazzling waterfalls. But despite the scenic landmarks and romantic culture, most of the population lives in distressed conditions; many families suffer from a lack of basic necessities including running water, sewage, electricity, access to health care facilities, and affordable medical care.

My wife, who is a nurse, was the one who connected us with the mission group.  She has wanted to give back for several years and after our kids expressed interest in the medical space, the timing seemed right. Additionally, we felt this would be a unique opportunity to give our kids an appreciation for what they have, their opportunities, and the importance of giving back to those in need. 

The medical mission partnered with Children of the Nations (COTN). Children of the Nations is a nonprofit organization that provides care for orphaned and destitute children in poverty-stricken areas of the world. As one of the organization’s areas of operation, we spent a week with the children and local people in the Barahona communities, which is in the western region of the Dominican. 

Most of the children in the villages were Haitian-Dominicans living in shantytowns originally built for Haitian migrant sugarcane workers in the 1960s.  Our venture team consisted of our family, nine students from Grand Canyon University, a pediatrician from Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and the team leader. 

Before we started volunteering, we met COTN’s in-country staff, toured their clinic, and visited schools in the villages of Algodon, Altagracia, Don Bosco, Los Robles, and Pueblo Nuevo. COTN’s Village Partnership Program allowed us to provide medical care and health education to the children and local people in the villages. 

While most of the children we met were smiling, there were many that had been struggling with meeting basic human needs. Each day, our clinic team was able to do wellness checks with the children at the schools and impart healthy habits, proper hygiene techniques, and positive lifestyle choices to hopefully help them overcome the cycle of poverty and disease. I spent the bulk of my time with the clinic team and, in my very poor Spanish, would ask the children health-related questions such as: Where do you get your drinkable water? Where and what type of bathrooms are available? Do you wash your hands with soap? Do you sleep with a mosquito net at night? etc. 

The children would patiently listen to me stumble through my questions. If I wasn’t clear, which was the case most of the time, I would lean on the wonderful translators to clarify and get the children to open up and share. 

The most impactful moment occurred outside the local school. The principal took our clinic team to a home where a 12-year-old was caring for his three younger siblings while their mother had been in the hospital with kidney failure. It was hard to imagine what life was demanding of this child with adult-size responsibilities, yet he and his siblings still had an amazing spirit.

Outside of supporting clinic activity, I spent a day in the village and helped mix and lay a concrete floor for one of the homes, which like most was pieced together with palm-wood boards and a corrugated tin roof. Our kids had the opportunity to engage in cultural immersion which included playing games with the children ranging from blowing bubbles and singing, to playing baseball and basketball and learning a much cooler version of rock/paper/scissors.  They also had the opportunity to make jewelry and cook with the families we met. 

On the last day, we made a special run to the store and bought food and supplies for one of the families that was struggling even more than the rest. The family didn’t have a refrigerator for the perishable items we bought, but a neighbor graciously volunteered to store the items in their dorm-sized refrigerator, something they were so very proud to show to our team.

Even though I had never previously volunteered for more than a day, I left the Dominican Republic wishing I had more than just a week. I came across the term ‘volunesia’[JS4]  which is used to describe the moment when you forget you’re volunteering to help change lives because it’s changing yours. I didn’t set out to be a beneficiary of the medical mission, but I believe I’m happier because I volunteered. Whether it’s one hour, one day, or one week, I encourage all of us to seek more opportunities to volunteer and support the spirit of service.

Blue Yonder offers associates two Volunteer Time Off days to dedicate to charities of their choice. How will you spend this National Volunteer Month? #BYVolunteer