Sixteen Upper School students, one alumna, and four chaperones traveled to the Dominican Republic during March Break for the fourth annual trip with the Holy Child missionary program in Santo Domingo.
This year's trip was special because the students were joined by Sr. Gloria Okuh, SHCJ, who conducted her student teaching at Oak Knoll earlier this year. Sr. Gloria enjoyed working with Oak Knoll's students so much, she wanted to join them on their annual mission trip.
The Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus created the program in the Dominican Republic's batey in 1995. The batey is one of the poorest areas of the Dominican Republic, lacking the most basic of necessities such as dependable running water and indoor plumbing. Today the mission site encompasses a medical clinic and learning center. The site's lay missionary program is coordinated by Oak Knoll alumna Ann-Joyce Peters, SHCJ '55.
"Throughout this week we have learned so much from the people of the batey and have so much respect for their continual faith and hope," wrote Janel Brown '14 and Keara Walsh '13 on the third day of the trip. "Despite their unfortunate situation, they remain strong, welcoming, and spirited."
The students participated in many of the traditional activities associated with the mission, including reading with students at La Escuela Fe y Alegria, the mission's school, and distributing decorated picture frames containing a photo of each child to their families. This year, the students also had the opportunity to tour the dispensary and some were even able to shadow doctors in the laboratory and pharmacy. They also washed the feet of some of the local children, a spiritual experience as well as an essential hygiene ritual.
"While washing the children's feet, we made an effort to make them feel cared for because many do not receive loving actions from their parents," said Elizabeth Armstrong '14 and Elizabeth Gregory '14 in a reflection they wrote during the trip.
After joining the students in a school lesson about the importance of protecting the environment and keeping the earth clean, the group helped in the gardens by picking up leaves, litter and rocks, and planting trees with the students. Afterward, Janel performed ballet and tap for the students and even taught them a few moves. The girls also took on a group of local boys in a fierce soccer match. The children of the batey even came out to cheer for the Oak Knoll students!
On their last day in the batey, the girls assisted the students in planting roots in milk cartons and ended their stay with a closing prayer service with the mission teachers and dispensary staff.
"It was a great opportunity for us to connect both spiritually and culturally with the native Dominican teachers as the prayer service was conducted only in Spanish," wrote Caroline Doherty '14 and Maddie Niebanck '13.
As there are no afternoon classes at La Escuela Fe y Alegria on Fridays, the girls were able to spend their final moments outside playing with the students. The group brought beach and tennis balls to play with the children and also enjoyed taking pictures with the many students with whom they'd bonded during the week.
"It was sad to have to leave them because we just wanted to show our affection and care for them," said Maddie and Caroline. "We easily could have played with them forever."
Before leaving Oak Knoll, the entire school community joined forces to raise money for the mission and to collect much-needed items including water bottles, t-shirts and sneakers, and other necessities.
The students who attended the trip were: Emily Hench '13, Maddie Niebanck '13, Kathy Torres '13, Karen Valerio '13, Keara Walsh '13, Lizzy Armstrong '14, Catherine Bonner '14, Janel Brown '14, Bridget Corry '14, Jackie Doddy '14, Caroline Doherty '14, Elizabeth Gregory '14, Nikita Lazaroo '14, Olivia O’Loughlin '14, Chynna Pickens '14, and Sarah Smith '14. The students were joined by Physical Education Teacher Mimi Hartnett, her daughter Seton Hartnett ’10, who attended the first Oak Knoll mission trip in 2010, Photography Teacher Jennifer Breitenstein, English Teacher Jessica Levee, and Sr. Gloria Okuh, SHCJ.
Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child is an independent Catholic school enrolling boys and girls in kindergarten through grade six; and young women only in grades seven through 12. For more information about Oak Knoll, please visit www.oakknoll.org or call 908-522-8109.