Monday, April 5, 2010

T+K: An Island Love Story

February 25, 2010 was the night my life changed forever. This was the night that my fiancé, Tim, asked the question that all girls dream of hearing one day...

Tim and I met on the Fourth of July, 2008, at a Peace Corps gathering on the most beautiful beach in the world. This secluded beach (called Bahía de las Águilas) is reachable by a 20-min boat ride through radiant Caribbean blue waters and high cliffs. We were introduced during this fiesta, but we didn’t have a chance to talk one-on-one much. Over the next few months, we passed each other every now and then in the Peace Corps office or during other PC get-togethers, but the sparks didn’t really fly until that Thanksgiving. It was then that we were able to have a good long conversation and realized that we had a lot in common. Our first real date took place about a week later in Santo Domingo at a local pizzeria called Pizzarelli.

From our first date, the sparks blossomed into an exciting romance. We had to battle poor cell phone reception and 7-hour bus rides to visit each other, but despite it all, we found ourselves being pulled closer and closer together. Tim told me he loved me on February 24, 2009, and I eagerly told him likewise.

We spent the next year visiting each other when possible, meeting up in the capital, and even going to America together to meet each other’s families and friends. We got along amazingly well with everyone, and we couldn’t believe how perfectly God seemed to have prepared us for one another. It seemed to be destiny.

After the trip to the states, I became extremely busy in my site. I had four months to build 28 wood-burning cook stoves and create a functioning library in the local elementary school. Tim kept me sane through all his encouragement and pitching in to help. All the work got done, and then it was time for me to go. I didn’t want to leave the country in November as scheduled though. Tim still had until May to complete his service. I decided to extend my time in country, but I wanted to do something different. I also wanted to be closer to Tim if possible. So Tim asked a local priest if he knew of any projects in the south that would benefit from my service for the next 6 months. The priest responded by saying that he could use my help working in the surrounding one-room schools attended by mostly Dominican-born Haitian children living in the mountains to teach them about basic hygiene. My boss agreed that it was a worthwhile project, and Tim and I were thrilled that we’d be living only a 30-min motorcycle ride away from each other. Tim and I moved all my stuff across the country on public transportation in mid-November and I settled into my new home, living with an eccentric 77-year old woman. We celebrated our 1-year anniversary in December and began planning our return to America in May. Tim applied to grad schools and I started to look into the teaching job market, wondering where the future would take us. Little did I know, Tim had been plotting something special for months.

We went to the capital to discuss the Haiti earthquake relief work we had been involved with and to celebrate my 26th birthday. Tim asked if I wanted to go to Pizzarelli that night (Feb 25). I never turn down pizza, so I said of course. Earlier that day, Tim had been running around the city, supposedly shopping for my birthday present. It turns out that he had been preparing the final details of the proposal.

The whole plot started back in September last year when Tim contacted my high school friend, Christie (jeweler), about engagement rings. After months of secretive correspondence, Tim finally chose the perfect ring. The only problem was that the ring was in Michigan. How was he going to get it to the Dominican Republic? Tim’s dad happened to be in Grand Rapids for work, so he kindly picked up the ring from Christie. Unfortunately the mailing system to the Dominican Republic is unreliable and packages tend to “get lost” in transit, so our Country Director, Romeo, graciously allowed Tim to use the diplomatic postal service through the US embassy to ensure the ring’s safety. Tim received the ring on February 25, and he couldn’t wait another day to pop the question.

Tim was acting nervous on our walk to dinner that night, and it reminded me of our first date. After all, we were going to the same pizzeria as that memorable day. He was dressed nicer than usual with dress shoes and even hair gel. He also carried a mysterious package in his hand. I asked him why he was bringing a present with him to dinner, because my birthday wasn’t for two more days. Shouldn’t he wait? He told me that it was a belated Valentine’s Day/ anniversary of when we first said “I love you” present. I kind of rolled my eyes, but went with the flow.

When we arrived to the restaurant, only one other customer was there. Tim ordered a Margharita pizza before we even sat down, which I found odd. He then insisted on sitting at the table of our first date, which really made me curious. Then he asked if I wanted my present. Of course I did! He handed me over a blue bag, where inside I found a Dominican style photo album that can be bought at any tourist shop or major grocery store. I started flipping through the pictures, which went along with a silly, but beautiful poem that Tim had written about our relationship entitled, “An Island Love Story.” I could feel my heart beating faster as I turned the pages and became even more suspicious that something big was about to happen. It was too intimate of a gift to be a “just because” occasion. My hunch was confirmed when I turned to the last page and it read, “Kimberly Sue Dykwell, Will You Marry Me?” Nestled inside the opposite page was the most beautiful diamond ring I have ever seen. Tim says that I yelled out something like “What!” or “Wow!” but I really don’t recall. I started to shake and tears formed in my eyes as Tim dropped to one knee and told me how much he loved me. He said that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me and asked me again to marry him. I said yes right away and then couldn’t stop saying yes as he put the ring on my finger. It was a magical proposal. I am the luckiest girl in the world.

Tim and I can’t wait to share the photo album with family and friends when we get back to the states. We have yet to set a wedding date in stone, but we are planning for summer 2011. Hope to see you all in May!!

Haiti Earthquake Relief

Two weeks after the destructive earthquake that struck Haiti in January, Peace Corps officials asked me to help out with some of the relief work. Two other PC volunteers and I were originally sent by USAID to the hospital nearest to where I live to write an overall report of the situation. Injured people were being sent to hospitals on the Dominican side of the border, and USAID was interested in knowing about the situation and how they could help. When we first arrived to the scene, we found about 50 Haitian patients in the nurses’ ward. There were eight patients to a room and lots of family members and a few Creole/Spanish translators. The nurses and med students were tending to the wounds in the first room I entered. It was really difficult to see leg amputation wounds being cleaned and pins in limbs. One child went blind from the hit she received. All I felt was sadness and compassion for everyone. The volunteers and I tried to help out, but since we didn’t have medical backgrounds and the nurses seemed to have everything under control, we felt kind of useless. That night, we decided to write up a survey to ask patients in order to get a sense of patient need and quality care. Our hearts broke over and over the next day as the patients told us (through translators) their stories. Most of them showed so much courage and bravery. One girl was there all alone. She had been in a university that fell on her during the earthquake. Her leg had been amputated and she had no idea if any of her family was alive and vice versa. Through it all though, she still seemed so strong. This was just one of thousands of stories.

We learned a lot about the patient care from the surveys. Overall, the hospital was running as well as it normally did. Like the schools here, the hospitals have a long way to go as well. There is usually a lot of discrimination against Haitians in the DR, so we were happy to see that they seemed to be getting pretty good care. The biggest complaint from patients was that there was no water to drink. When we asked the hospital director about this, he informed us of a closet stocked full of donated water in the basement. Apparently no one had told the nurses. Once we set a schedule with the translators to go pick up water every day for the patients, we were off to the border where the need for our help was greater.

When I arrived to Jimaní right on the Dominican side of the border, things were chaotic. We were sent to a field hospital that was being run by mostly American volunteers. There were also teams from Spain, Guatemala, Canada, and the DR. Peace Corps volunteers had taken over most of the logistics of the operation. At first, the hospital was just sending out dead bodies with no record, letting people practice medicine without proof of license, and everything was completely unorganized. Within a few weeks though, the PC volunteers set up a computer system to provide administrative and logistical support. I was only there for 3 days, but it seemed like a month. We worked 18 hours straight a day, and there was always something to do. I pretty much ran around doing random errands, handed out food to patients (which was a nightmare), held “school” for some of the kids, ran the front desk (a coffee table), translated, interviewed the people in charge, and wrote another report for USAID. I was happy to help out the relief work in some way, especially since I live so close to where the earthquake took place. The interactions I made with the Haitians that week will stay in my heart forever, and I hope that they are finding peace. Haiti is still in dire need, especially with the rainy season coming up. Please continue your prayers.

Life in the Deep South

I’ve been so busy these past couple months with Haiti earthquake relief, going to my old site to build a couple more stoves, participating in an eye medical mission, doing my final medical tests, working on Tim’s library, and even getting engaged! Time has flown by and it’s almost time to leave. It seems like I just moved to the south a couple weeks ago. When I wasn’t busy doing any of the above mentioned things, I spent much of the past six months working at poor, one-room schoolhouses in the surrounding mountains that are attended by mostly Dominican-born Haitians. An American priest is my project partner, and together we visit nine elementary schools by frightening motorcycle rides to teach basic hygiene and nutrition principles as well as to share different teaching methods with the teachers. It has truly been a challenge, but I’ve learned to be creative. These schools have next to nothing in materials, and the teachers attempt to teach grades pre-K through 8th grade at the same time. School is only in session from around 8am-noon Monday-Thursday. The teachers don’t show up about half the time for any reason, usually due to rain. And most of the kids don’t regularly attend either. I asked the teachers about this, and they said that they are most likely looking for water or doing other tasks for the family (cutting firewood, cleaning, taking care of sick family members, etc).

Since I am in charge of visiting nine schools, I haven’t been able to work with the same group of students for more than a few hours every 1-3 weeks. I’ve learned a lot about the lack of education in the extremely rural areas of the country. I wish I could just build nice schools for these kids and fill them with teachers who show up to teach everyday, but I know this will take time. At least they have a start. I don’t know how much of an impact I am making on the kids or teachers, but I pray that at least a few of them have benefited from my visits. If nothing else, I was able to share my love and compassion with them. And hopefully some of them are now washing their hands and brushing their teeth more often!

My living situation here in the deep south isn’t too shabby. I am now living in two where I eat and one where I sleep. My host mom is a wonderful cook, and I sleep in the house of her crabby, 77-year old mother down the street. The Caribbean Sea is literally a one-minute walk away from the front door, so it’s nice to peak out the window every morning or go for a walk. My fiancé, Tim, now only lives about 30 minutes away from me, so I’m a happy girl. Both houses have generators, so it’s been nice having power most of the time. I think I bring bad luck though. The electricity has been breaking a lot more lately and the generator at the house where I sleep is often discharged. That means really hot, sweaty nights with no fan to cool down. Running water has been a major issue since January, so I’ve been learning how to really conserve water. I even admit that I’ve gone 3 days without showering on numerous occasions. One time it was 4. Gross! Fortunately, there’s a clean river about a 30 min walk away, so I go there to bathe sometimes. The living situation gets to me sometimes, and I’m able to calm myself down by telling myself that it’s not forever. I can’t help but feel guilty for thinking this though, considering that the majority of the world lives in conditions even more difficult. I’m not sure what else I can do to change the world, but I know that God is leading me to do His will.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this entry, I participated in an eye medical mission a few weeks ago. About 80 doctors, surgeons, and logistics volunteers flew to Santiago for a week to see over 800 patients. They performed about 300 surgeries on eyes and some skin issues. Tim and I worked as translators in registration, the screening rooms, pre and post-op surgery rooms, and even the surgeries themselves sometimes. I was born cross-eyed, so it was neat to learn everything about the condition. In fact, I even witnessed the surgery being done on a two-year old to correct his crossed eyes. I had this same surgery when I was two! The work and dedication these volunteers showed that week were amazing. If you would like to visit their website, it’s Pictures from their 2010 trip should be up soon.