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I had been waiting my entire life for a moment to come along that I thought would change who I was. I wanted something inspiring. Something that made me think: This is why I am here. This is what I want to work for. I was able to grasp that moment this summer.
The day was Wednesday, August 2, 2017. The time was about 6:15 PM. I was in Santiago, Dominican Republic, traveling with an All-American softball team. I was warming up my arm when a young girl in a tattered white dress came onto the field. She walked right up to me and tugged at the hem of my jersey to get my attention and pointed to my ball. She quietly muttered a shy “¿Tengo?” and I gave her my ball, half-expecting her to run off with it. We spent the next half-hour before the game throwing the ball, laughing, and having just a genuine connection with one another. She was and is the most remarkable person I have ever met. I sat with her afterwards and, with the help of my translator because my Spanish is quite poor, talked to this young girl about her life and her world; a world which I learned is so different from mine.
Her name is Katya, and based on her small stature, you would guess that she was about four years old. She’s eight. She explained to me that the dress she had worn to meet me was the best outfit she owned and she wore it because she wanted to look pretty for all of the beautiful American ball players. She explained to me that her father had recently passed away from a disease that he had obtained from the garbage dump that her family worked at. He was unable to receive treatment for his illness because he, like thousands of other Dominican and Haitian citizens, was what is considered stateless. Because they are born without or travel without any documentation of their birth or their existence before the current day, these people essentially do not have a country to call their own. They float between the two countries on the island and neither will have them. Often times they are dumped at the border and remain there until they can find somewhere close by to make a life, or they die trying. In connection, because these people do not technically belong to either country, they are not allowed to obtain an education, hospitalization, or treatment for any injuries or illnesses, nor are they protected by the country’s laws or police. Because of this, hundreds of thousands of stateless children become slaves within the wealthier parts of the country and nothing is done because these kids are not protected by police. My heart broke for the young girl in front of me. A girl who had to live her life faster, and mature faster, than any kid her age should have to. But despite her struggles and her loss, she was one of the most amazing humans I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Two days after meeting Katya, my team and I ventured to the garbage dump where her and her family worked to see for ourselves what life was like for a stateless citizen in the Dominican who was trying to make a living. What I encountered at the dump that day will live with me forever. The sheer magnitude of garbage, dead animals, maggots, broken glass, needles, rotten food, and God knows what else that they have to dig through is something that no person should ever have to experience. For about 30 pesos per carpenter bag, they collect plastic bottles and put them in bags to sell to recycling companies. I don’t know if you know much about the conversion of pesos to US dollars, but 30 pesos is about 60 cents. So for one huge bag full of these bottles, bottles that they have to fish out of filth with their bare hands and feet, they get 60 cents. I spent the day there with them, collecting bottles, handing out gloves and water, and just offering my help to anyone or giving them someone to talk to. I wanted to experience their lives, not as someone who was patronizing them or looking down on them, but just as one human to another, reaching out my hand. I thought what they did to make an honest living was incredible and heart breaking. I knew when I was there that this was my moment. I waited my entire 18 years of life to be right here, in this moment, with these people, in this place. My experiences in the Dominican Republic that summer will live in my heart for the rest of my life, but my journey with the people there is far from over. As soon as I was home, I was researching. I wanted to know everything I could about this country, about the people I was able to call my friends. How could I get back there? What can I do to help them? I now am proud to say that I will be embarking back to the Dominican next summer to return to Santiago and work alongside them once again. For a few weeks this time, not just one day.
I am extremely humbled by what I have experienced. I feel that I was truly not able to understand the depth of the human experience until I saw it at its highest, which I now realize is what I am blessed enough to have, and at its lowest. There is nothing more heartbreaking than knowing that there is a whole world of people out there that are in trouble, and I sit here in my cushy dorm room, receiving an education that I chose, while people I have come to care about are struggling. I can’t help but feel a bit guilty, but at the same time I know that everything I can do to impact their lives, I am going to do it. I left a piece of my heart down there with Katya and her family. I know that I will probably never see her again, but I will remember her for the entirety of my life. I will remember her laugh and the way her face lit up when I told her she was “muy bonita.” I will forever admire her strength and her character. I can only dream of the day we will meet again.