Until you actually see it, it does it no justice. It will grab at your heart no matter how many times you’ve been there.
“Beautifully broken” is what MTSU head women’s tennis coach Shelley Godwin calls it.
It’s a poverty-stricken capital filled with close to one million people, well south of where the tourists visit and top 1 percent reside. It’s colorful with beautiful beaches, all-inclusive resorts, clean white-sand and the clearest water you’ll ever lay eyes on.
It’s nothing short of paradise.
For some people.
It is Santo Domingo, the capital and largest city in the Dominican Republic, where long dirt roads serve as the median for an ocean full of sugar canes that lead to clay-made houses — houses that do not know what plumbing is, houses where the living room serves as a bathroom.
Trash is scattered every way you turn. The same trash is twined together inside an empty bottle of water to serve as the baseball for the afternoon’s pickup game.
A bus rides along the median about three miles before it begins to break down, or at least that is what the passengers think.
You look out the window and see approximately 30 children screaming at the top of their lungs. These are their first visitors in more than a month. It had been too long.
Getting off the bus are a dozen Blue Raider student-athletes: former tennis player Carla Nava; soccer players Emily Jorgenson, Kelsey Brouwer, Taylor Kirk and Madison Ledet; softball teammates Nina Dever, Laura Dukes, Kailey Ann McDougal and McKena Miller; runner Autumn Gipson; and volleyball players Bridget Keller and Eseta Maka.
They have another thing in common — faith.
It originally brought them together almost a year ago. Nava was looking to connect with other young women her age from her church.
That required more from her than just joining an active group. Nava learned that she would have to lead a new Bible study group — one with women who also could relate to the everyday challenges of being a Division 1 student-athlete.
Nava found her peers in several sites on campus: at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes weekly meeting, at a volleyball game and at a couple of MTSU basketball games.
They set their first meeting on a Wednesday, inside the tennis locker room. Nava recalls that she was extremely nervous.
It only took one person to walk through the door, however, to show Nava and her former coach, Godwin, what was possible.
“It continued to grow every week. They would bring new teammates,” says Godwin, the leader of the Middle Tennessee women’s athletic bible study. “You could see the wall slowly come down each week.”
During those meetings, Godwin wasn’t a coach or even a former athlete, but simply a friend. She made that clear with an unusual request. “’Do not wear something MT with your sport on it,’” she told the women.
“This was about who they are as people, not athletes here at MT,” Godwin says.
It didn’t take long for the group to realize that something special was looming in that locker room. They met regularly, with the exception of Christmas break, from August 2013 until the spring 2014 semester ended in May.
Inside the room, they made the most of their talents. They committed to serve those less fortunate.
Their agreement wasn’t just for a day of community service; it was a weeklong mission trip 1,564 miles away from the campus of Middle Tennessee from May 24 to May 30.
Godwin says she knew what “the baseline” would need for a mission trip to come about: financial support.
The group sent letters to family, friends and people who would support a mission trip. Two months later, they had raised more than $20,000.
“At the very last minute, we didn’t think we were going to have enough money, and then we ended up having more than we thought we would and more people got to go,” Keller says. “It was really a blessing.”
“It was the grand finale to a really neat year,” Godwin adds.
‘Short-term trips, long-term effects’
SCORE International, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based organization that began as a sports ministry and now sponsors mission trips around the world, features its motto, “Short-term trips, long-term effects!”, on its website, http://scoreintl.org.
The quote held true for Godwin and her group of athletes during their seven-day trip to Santo Domingo.
It wasn’t Godwin’s first trip down the three-mile dirt road to San Louis, or, as the group calls it, the “Sugar Cane Village.” Turned out it wouldn’t be the group’s last visit, either.
As soon as the MTSU group stepped off the bus, they were instantly connected with the crowd of children. They had the kids’ undivided attention, not because they brought material possessions, but because they brought the gifts of time and love — hours upon hours of playing games, getting to know each child individually and making an impact on their lives.
“It wasn’t about what we were giving them. It was just about us being there,” Godwin recalls.
The young women came to see Godwin on the first night of their trip. They could tell the kids needed more attention and love, as well as “material blessings.”
Inside the home that SCORE provided for their visit, the young women asked Godwin if they could return to the village.
“It wasn’t on the schedule to go back,” Godwin recalls, but with approval from SCORE, they returned the next day and showered the kids with needed material goods — and more love.
“It’s something our group realized. When you’ve got nothing, what do you rely on?” Maka says. “They rely on God just to give them food for the next day.”
2-for-1 is too much
The group was handing out new shoes to all the children in the village. Nava found a little girl who was still sleeping and woke the child up with excitement, showing her the new shoes and school supplies she would receive.
Nava gave the young girl her new shoes but quickly noticed that they weren’t the correct size. What happened next, she says, was something she’ll never forget.
The little girl went to her mother, and Nava went to grab another pair of shoes, hoping this time to find a good fit. Before Nava could give the new shoes to the child’s mother, however, the gracious woman made clear that the original shoes would be fine.
Nava recalls that she told the mother, “OK, have this one. You can just keep both.”
“No, we are all getting one, so one is fine,” the mother replied.
To see such a self-sacrificing response from a family that didn’t know where its next meal was coming from, Godwin says, “was a punch in the gut.”
No translation, no problem
The group expected to have some communication issues with the people they met on their trip, since Spanish is the language of the Dominican Republic.
“I didn’t know what he was saying half the time,” Kirk says of a 9-year-old boy named Wilson with whom she grew close on the trip.
Nava’s first language is Spanish, as a native of Mexico City, Mexico, and she’d planned to help her teammates with any language barriers. But she was there to serve the children, not to be tied down as the trip’s official translator.
“Don’t use me,” Nava says she told the group on their second day. “Let the Holy Spirit lead you. People always say when you go overseas, language is a barrier, and it is [only] as much as you want to make it. If you think it is, then it will be.”
The young women accepted the challenge and concentrated on being available to the children. They weren’t distracted by cell phones, worrying about playing time or stressing out over a class. They focused on quality time with the children.
“It was cool to see God’s love,” Kirk says. “He found a way for us to communicate.”
“Carla wasn’t there to be a translator,” Godwin adds. “Love is a universal language, and that is what we really tried to hit home when we got down there. We are here to love these people, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak.”
The usual mindset on a mission trip is about giving to others and expecting nothing in return. This group agrees that the latter doesn’t turn out to be the case.
“You don’t realize ’til you’re there those people actually help you more than you help them,” Brouwer says.
Each of the young women has expressed how their trip changed them as much, if not more personally, than the people they went to assist. Now the group members are hoping to make a difference with their sports and even with their families.
Once Kirk returned from the Dominican Republic, for example, the first thing she did was sit her family down at the dinner table to share how she felt transformed by the weeklong trip.
Flipping through her journal, Kirk described every village, every child and every impact the trip made on her. She says it helped her inspire her family and spark new conversations with her mother, father and brother that she might not otherwise have had.
Her friend Keller agrees.
“As athletes, we have so much attention drawn to us, and I think we should use that as a pedestal to not just gain light upon ourselves, but to show light to the Lord and his great love,” Keller says.
Ledet, who calls her four years at Middle Tennessee a mission trip in itself, says she now looks at soccer in a completely different way.
“I realize how soccer is just something that God gave me to use for him. It’s a gift that he has given me strictly for him,” she says.
With their gifts, the women say they now can make a difference within their respective teams, too.
“I hope that my teammates are able to come to me with anything,” Jorgenson says. “You don’t have to go overseas to serve.”
In its first year, the Wednesday Bible study group that began in MTSU’s tennis locker room finished abroad in Santo Domingo, bringing a pledge to fruition that Godwin and her group say they’ll always remember.
“I’ll for sure never forget it,” says Brouwer. “It was my first out-of-the-country experience. And for it to be a mission trip it just changed my life.”
(You can see more photos from the mission trip here.)
— Justin Beasley, GoBlueRaiders.com