"Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened."
-- Dr. Seuss
On April 15, 22 people embarked on a journey to the Dominican Republic that would change their lives forever. I was fortunate enough to be one of those people. And the stories contained are merely the beginning of the lasting impact that will remain for the rest of my life.
When we arrived at the complex where our youth group was staying, we were so energized and excited to see what God had planned for us. We did various community service projects, such as painting and repairing a day care center, playing with the kids in villages and doing a gospel presentation that included Spanish songs.
One morning we ventured out to a girls' orphanage in the town of La Romana. Here we met a large group of girls who had been either abandoned or orphaned at a young age. The girls were ecstatic to see us; many would simply come up and grab our hands,eager to talk and play.
One girl in particular, Juliana, took me to a table where we set up coloring books. She was 3 years old and was picture perfect. She loved playing with my hair and wouldn't let go of my hand. She beamed when getting pictures taken, so we took many.
The women who organized the event later explained to me how Juliana was left one morning on the orphanage porch when she was about 5 months old. I asked about adoption, because it was clear there was not enough room for all of the girls. She sulked and explained that adoption had been halted because the orphanage had found out that many girls were being adopted and then sold into the sex trade.
My heart sank with the thought of how this little girl could have been taken and sold into slavery. The thought made me queasy. I teared up and gave Juliana a huge hug. She started crying when it came time for me to go. I hated leaving, but I knew that my coming brought her hope.
A similar situation occurred when we went to visit the AIDS orphanage near Santo Domingo. I was truly astonished by how unsanitary and pitiful the building was. In fact, we weren't allowed to use the bathroom because it was too high of a risk.
I met a boy named Jose Louis (Josh when translated), whose eyes flared up when he realized that my name, too, was Jose. He asked for paper and began writing me a note. He also drew a picture of himself, saying that he loved God and it was me who inspired him to pray. He told me that I would always be in his heart and that I was his best friend.
I feel extremely blessed to have gone to the Dominican Republic. And these are just two of the many situations I encountered. It is sad to think that many of these young children may not be around to see their 30th birthday because of where they live. Yet because I live in America, I have the chance to live a full life.
It's true when people say that people from foreign countries show you how to love. They are so happy and genuine that it inspires me. It's hard not to focus on what they don't have, but for now, I'll concentrate on what I took away from the experience: love, hope and a sense of what God wants us to be.
Josh Ward, who lives in Akron, just finished his junior year at Christian Central Academy.