In that first shower when you get home from Camp Hands of Joy, you can wash off all of the layers of bug spray, sunscreen, and dirt that the camp showers just can't seem to cleanse. You can shave away the hair that has been growing mercilessly under your armpits, on your legs, or on your face. You can finally feel clean and refreshed for the first time in over a week. You can step out of the shower and feel the A/C that keeps you from getting immediately sweaty again. But what that shower can't do for you is wash away the memories of the children's smiling faces. What it can't do is wipe away the love you have for each and every child, even the ones you never directly communicated with. What it can't do is erase the desperate yearning to go back to camp, and the pain of knowing it will be a year until you go back. And you wouldn't want it to.
The problem with my post-camp shower this time was that I wasn't home. Well, I was, but not the home that I had known my whole life. Not back in any kind of comfort zone. Camp was just the beginning of my new adventure, my new life. This time, my post-camp shower was cold (though there is hot water. I just couldn't figure out how to make it work and was too embarrassed to ask), and when I was finished, I stepped out into the hot, sticky Dominican air. But I felt ready. I felt excited. I felt nervous. And I was clean.
My name is Alyssa. I am 24 years old, and I am an American from Florida. For the past eight years, I have been involved in a week-long overnight Vacation Bible School-type camp for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in the Dominican Republic. It started out as a pretty disorganized event for around 50 children from one deaf school in the capital city and has grown to have its own organization (Hands of Joy) and bring in around 200 children from various schools around the country. The children get to come to a camp where their language (American Sign Language) is the dominant language, meet and interact with children who face the same hardships as they do, get three meals a day and a bed (unheard of for some of these kids, as many of them live in extremely impoverished conditions), and go to different daily activities such as chapel, swimming (the favorite of just about everyone), sports, science, crafts, and discussion group. They learn about Bible stories and about our awesome God in chapel through dramas and preaching and have it all reinforced throughout the day. They get loved on and cared for by a team of Americans and Dominicans who come to serve at the camp. This is a week that the children look forward to and talk about all year. This used to be the week that I lived for. And now that week is my life.
Every time I left camp, my heart stayed in the Dominican Republic with those children. I lived the rest of the year waiting to get back. I have always felt a desire to work with these kids year-round, but it was never really an option. I started serving with this mission when I was 16 years old, so I had to finish high school, and then I needed to go to college, and then I needed to get a job and make some money. Moving to the Dominican Republic never seemed like a viable option. I started an online graduate school program and was on my way to becoming a marriage and family therapist who had the linguistic and cultural ability to work with the Deaf Community in the United States. But when I came home from camp last year, I knew I needed to change my life course. I knew I needed to pack up my life, move to the Dominican Republic, and work with these children throughout the year. I just didn't know how to do it.
In February, the director of the school in Santo Domingo that the camp has been working with for the past eight years came to visit the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. She stopped in my home town for a night and asked me to be her interpreter, as she speaks very little English and my grandparents (who she was going to be staying with) know very little Spanish or sign language. I had never mentioned to her my desire to move to the Dominican Republic, but all of a sudden she looked at me and asked me, "When are you moving?" I clearly must have responded with a very confused expression because she followed up with, "When are you moving to the Dominican Republic?" She offered to let me live with her and told me that I could teach science at her school. This gave me a lot to think about. I was then struggling with whether this was a personal desire or a true calling from God. Was my God going to walk this path ahead of me and guide my steps?
A month later we had a special prayer night at a microchurch I was attending. We broke up into groups of about seven people, and each person got a turn on the "hot seat" while everyone else prayed and asked God if there were any scriptures, words of encouragement, songs, visions, or anything like that He would like them share with that person. When it was my turn, I was silently asking God if there was anything He wanted me to hear. I kept hearing the word "go" over and over. Then, a woman who I had only ever met maybe once told me that God was telling her that He is speaking to me, but that I had been doubting that it was His voice. He wanted her to tell me that it was His voice and to follow what He was telling me to do. Another woman spoke up and said she had a vision of me standing on a dirt road with a sign pointing forward and God was saying to follow the path He had laid out for me. In that moment, without consulting family or friends or giving much thought to how I was going to make it happen, I made up my mind that I was going to pack up my life and move.
The next few months were filled with my normal full time job as a teaching assistant, graduate school, and church commitments, as well as packing, preparing to move, and visa application requirements. And now, I am finally here. I have finally begun this new and exciting chapter in my life. I have already been here for almost a month, which is crazy, so I am very behind on keeping you all updated, but I will be writing about this year's camp and then about my week and a half in the country since leaving the states. I will also be setting up a gofundme page for anyone who feels led to contribute to my mission, as I will not be able to be paid for teaching until I can pass a teaching exam in formal Spanish. And as my Spanish abilities are abysmal, that will most likely be a year or more. Thank you all for your time, and I hope that the way God has spoken to and is working through my life will continue to be an encouragement to all of you who might need to be reminded that He is here, He is within all of us, and He is working.