"Mi casa es tu casa."

The words "Mi casa es tu casa" were said to us more times than I can say. Selfishness and strangers do not exist in the communities of El Cercado. "Family" is used to describe every single person and if a stranger is seen, the people will make sure they are no longer a stranger. I can without a doubt vouch for this; as soon as I entered the communities of El Cercado, I was embraced with hugs, kisses, and fully welcomed into many homes. I am a complete stranger, I speak a different language, I have different mannerisms, and my skin is a different color. However, this does not mean anything. I am human and I am no longer a stranger, I am family. It brings tears to my eyes and fills my heart recalling the amount of times I was standing in someone else's home only to be asked to sit down, eat, and drink water. Whether resources are lacked or not, I was always offered; guests always come first in El Cercado.

However, let me start from the beginning. I was fortunate enough, with 12 others, to have an experience that changed all of our lives forever through Stonehill College's H.O.P.E. Service Immersion Program. I knew where I was going and I knew I'd be fully immersed in the Dominican Republic culture, but I never thought my heart would both break in half and fall in love the way that it did. When we arrived, we were first welcomed by two friends from IPM-International Partners in Mission. These two women played a major role during our time here. They not only spoke both Spanish and English, helping with translations, but they had open hearts, shared their own stories, and had welcoming shoulders to both cry and laugh on. Their passion to be immersed in this culture and learn as much as possible all while living in the moment spoke to us all. We were welcomed more than simply into homes and the community; we were welcomed to immerse ourselves in their culture and truly be a part of it.

All of the provinces joining together in one festival to share each of their cultures: Carnival.

I am not writing this to share what we did everyday or where we visited. Instead, I'd rather share the happiness seen and felt, the beauty seen and felt, and the faithfulness seen and felt. I'd rather share stories about the people of El Cercado because this is about them, not me. I am writing this because El Cercado is a place of community filled with more social injustices than deserved. Although these injustices are experienced, the people are constantly smiling and refer to everyone as their families. El Cercado is filled with the most amazing and empowered groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. "Community" can be defined as "a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals". This does not do the El Cercado justice though.

An agriculture-based cooperative that creates products primarily out of peanuts: Mujeres Unidas en Desarrollo. This empowered group of women also make a nutrition bar called Nutrifort, which works to combat child malnutrition.

We may wake up each day, switch on the lights, take a hot shower, and safely drink tap water. However, this is not always the case for others and it is easily taken for granted. I for one, always take these for granted simply because it is the lifestyle I am used to. It's not bad to take these for granted, but we should be paying more attention. By traveling and immersing myself in El Cercado, I learned what "community" genuinely means.

Fe y Alegría-Faith and Joy.

One of our partners from IPM explained to us an unforgettable comparison-

Service is like a seed planted within us. Simply because we leave the place we learned from doesn't mean the plant lives. We need to keep watering it. We need to give it light. We need to do this by advocating for injustices and sharing knowledge with others. By doing this, the seed will live. The seed will grow.

"Empathy is a seed planted inside of us that must be cared for and watered."

A woman who helped organize our trip spent the entire week with us and shared many of her stories. This humble woman never once focused on herself. If we were to give her a compliment, she'd turn the compliment to the people of El Cercado; "It's because of the leaders of these communities." Joana is willing to give her all to and for others. She is strong willed and encouraged each one of us to strive and be proud of persistence. I will not fail to mention that she is a woman. This woman breaks the gender stereotype and has helped provide homes, education, food, and more to the people of El Cercado. She visited once and then knew her path in life; she has now been living in El Cercado for 35 years. This should be all of our paths. We do not necessarily need to pack our bags and move away from our home country, but little actions and knowledge are more beneficial than a lot of people are aware of. By sharing knowledge of injustices, the word spreads and eventually, more people like Joana are born. She noted that she nearly drowned one time while saving a friend; she had accomplished her goal and was ready to surrender herself to the sea. When she woke up to water being pumped out of her lungs, she later went back into the sea because she knew not to let fear consume her.

I will never forget you El Cercado, Dominican Republic. You stole my heart along with every other member of the group's hearts. We will never stop sharing the knowledge we gained here and we cannot wait to go back.

Until we meet again.

These are some quotes that stood out to my group throughout the week. These were said by both members of our group, our IPM friends, and people we met in the Dominican Republic. We believe these are extremely important and deserve to be shared.

"It's not about the project."

"Don't tell the poor what they need. They know what they need."

"When we walk beside them and accompany, that is the best way to support."

"Each decision that we make, and allow our leaders to make, affects others."

"There are two words that perpetuate inequality; individualism and indifference."

"We saw improvement, but also strength."

"They lack resources, but not life. Their struggles make them strong.