“She said it changed her life and gave her a new perspective on things,” said the daughter of Gary and Lisa.
Gillen said she decided to go on the trip since she has wanted to help the less fortunate for quite some time.
“I realized how fortunate I’ve been throughout my life and I wanted to give back,” she added.
The rising St. Paul High School senior went with a group of 34 students to the Dominican Republic in mid-June for seven days. Gillen wasn’t the only person with local ties; recent Norwalk High School graduates Rachel Casselberry and Mara Jaworski as well as a pair of St. Paul alumni, Chris Stang and Kaeleigh Stang, also went. The rest of the group consisted of students from St. Joseph’s Academy in the Cleveland area.
“I went through an organization called Mission Possible, who has been putting on this trip for students like me for many years. I was introduced to the program through my TLC class this past school year,” said Gillen, referring to Teen Leadership Corps. “The group goes back once or twice a year.”
Jaworski heard about the trip through the one of TLC directors at NHS, Sarah Krieger. Jaworski said the experience sounded like what she had been learning through TLC and would “translate into good work.”
The two Mission Possible crews worked in two new housing developments in Higuey throughout the week. Potential residents had to apply to be accepted.
“The communities didn’t exist before,” Gillen said. “Our tasks included painting houses, treating mold and moving new families into the communities. We painted the inside and the outside.”
For Jaworski, the most fulfilling experience was helping a family move into a home. The daughter of Steve Jaworski and Mary Beth Dennison said she enjoyed seeing how grateful the family was and how “the work you were doing was benefiting others.”
“It’s a good chance they were from one of the tin cities because that’s where most of them came from,” Mara Jaworski added, referring to clusters of tin shacks located near sewage. “They really don’t have a system of picking up trash.”
Since many residents don’t have running water and the government often runs out, she said people end up fighting over a large bucket of water.
The team took advantage of Chris Stang, who studied pharmacy in college.
“He worked with the medical team a lot,” Gillen said.
The St. Paul student enjoyed helping the families moving into their new houses and playing with the children. Gillen said the families “were just so happy to have a house to live in.”
“They had next to nothing,” added Jaworski, who was struck by the residents showing that “happiness comes from a deeper place than material things.”
“Their attitude was more positive than anything that I had seen before,” the Norwalk graduate said.
During the trip, the Mission Possible team members played tag with the children. Others put on a Bible school.
“It was amazing to see how happy they were to see new faces and create relationships with new people. We faced many challenges, including a language barrier, as many of us spoke little Spanish,” Gillen said. “The kids spoke the best English of anyone. … The younger girls played with our hair.”
Besides working, the group traveled the area to see how the people live.
“It was eye opening to see how unsanitary the market is, which is where the people get almost all of their food. What was the most shocking to me was seeing how people outside our communities live in filthy and un-sturdy tin shacks,” Gillen said. “The homes we provide for families, which are much smaller and more outdated than anything we would see in Norwalk, are the nicest in the area.”
One of the things that she took away from the trip was being grateful for a job. Gillen, who also learned “not to complain about stupid things,” contrasted her situation with the circumstances the Dominican Republic residents face. If they have jobs, they have about an hour commute to Punta Cana.
“They work in resorts mostly and then (there also) are local jobs like taxi drivers,” she added. “Another thing that shocked me, but inspired me all the same, was seeing that all of the people were so positive, faithful and kind even though they had so little. I hope to bring back this mindset with me to my community.”