From the Dominican Republic, A Generous Gift

John Rivera is the Acting Director of Communications for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Baltimore.

On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I had the opportunity to visit a Catholic Relief Services-funded project in the city of Santiago that provided tutoring for children who had fallen behind in school because they had to work to support their families. Many of these youngsters, who had just entered their teenaged years, were reading on a third grade level. Sitting in a classroom with the much younger children in those grades would have been humiliating and wasn’t an option. So through our partner, Accion Callejera, we supplied special teachers who could quickly bring them up to speed.

Along with some of my colleagues, I visited a school on the outskirts of the city. In many ways, it was a lot like the school my 8-year-old daughter attends. The students wore uniforms. They were loud and boisterous during recess. And like all children, they were very curious. Naturally, the foreign visitors on the playground that day attracted a lot of attention.

DR gift

Caroline, a student in the CRS-funded Learning Together project, shares her High School Musical backpack in the hope that it will be seen by schoolchildren in Baltimore. She attends elementary school in the city of Santiago, in the Dominican Republic. Photo by John Rivera/CRS

As we sat under some trees, seeking shade from the sun, two girls stood shyly next to us. From the way they clung to each other, they appeared to be best friends. One of the girls, who had piercing brown eyes and pigtails, was holding her book bag, which had a picture from the apparently internationally popular teen movie, “High School Musical.” To break the ice, I asked her name—Caroline, she said—and told her (in Spanish) that my daughter loved High School Musical. She smiled and the friends exchanged conspiratorial glances.

A moment later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girl taking all of the books out of her High School Musical backpack and putting them into the backpack of her friend. My heart sank. I knew what was coming next.

She came over came over and presented me with her backpack, asking me to give it to my daughter.

I knew I had to think fast—how to refuse her generous gift and not hurt her feelings? I told her that my daughter already had one (a backpack at least, if not one with a High School Musical design). But what would make her really happy would be if I could photograph Caroline with her backpack and show that to my daughter. That elicited another smile. We took the picture and I carried it back to Baltimore. And not only did I show it to my daughter, but I also had the chance to show all of her classmates in the 3rd grade the generosity of spirit of a little girl who lives far away—but who in many ways is just like them.

– John Rivera

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