Working vacation

Yale's first Alumni Service Tour visits the Dominican Republic.

Alejandra O'Leary ’04 is a freelance journalist and rock musician in New York. 

Timothy Horton

Timothy Horton

Physician Michael Hauan ’81 examines a patient at a clinic in the village of Sabaneta as Remle Stubbs-Dame ’06 interprets. They were among 70 volunteers on an alumni service trip to the Dominican Republic. View full image

It was another sun-struck day in Vallejuelo, a tiny town in the southwestern region of the Dominican Republic, only an hour or so by bus from the Haitian border. A motley group of workers sat down on the ground in a circle and began introducing themselves to one another as light broke through tall trees. Many of the visitors were Yale students and alumni who didn't speak Spanish, so they communicated their names and favorite hobbies with the help of bilingual fellow travelers and their own improvised sign language. This was the daily ice-breaker, repeated each morning for the benefit of the day's new volunteers from Vallejuelo.

The stories people told -- about school, farm work, travel, books -- reflected deep differences in perspective, ambition, and opportunity between the two groups of workers: those who had come to help build houses as part of Yale's first-ever Alumni Service Tour, and those who will one day live in the houses. But the work they had all come together to do united them for five days in March.

During the week of March 9, 70 Yale alumni, family, and friends -- ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s -- and 18 students volunteered in the Dominican Republic. Some worked on the houses in Vallejuelo, others ran arts projects for schoolchildren in the village of La Cucarita. Others tended patients in traveling medical clinics across the region.

In other words, it wasn't your typical alumni event. And it attracted many people who don't typically go to alumni events. Andrew Garling ’68, a doctor who worked on the medical team, says he usually deletes all e-mails from Yale. But the November message about the Dominican Republic trip was different. "The catchword," Garling says, "was 'service.'"

The trip was organized by the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) and Dwight Hall, Yale's umbrella group for student volunteers. Mark Dollhopf ’77, executive director of the AYA, sees the trip as a pilot for a new way of involving alumni who, like Garling, aren't tempted by reunions, club events, or sightseeing trips. Unlike the educational travel tours the AYA offers, this trip challenged its participants not only intellectually, but also physically and "metaphysically," as Dollhopf puts it.

Dollhopf says that, ever since the start of the AYA's strategic planning process two years ago, he had faith that such a trip could be a success, because "Yale is a very special place. There is a tradition of service, and volunteering is still a cultural norm at Yale." The AYA recruited participants through e-mails, first to a list of alumni associated with Dwight Hall, then to all alumni. (The students, some of whom acted as translators, were supported by grants from the Yale Club of New Haven. Deborah Rose ’72, ’77MPH, ’89PhD, provided funds to support travel expenses for some alumni.) Dollhopf says the Service Tour attracted a much larger share of younger alumni -- and also more alumni of Yale's graduate and professional schools -- than most alumni gatherings. "There is room for everybody on this kind of trip."

The medical brigade, the La Cucarita classes, and the 60 new homes under construction in Vallejuelo were all elements of longer-term projects overseen by the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, Florida. The diocese has been working for five years in this extremely poor region, and the AYA partnered with the diocese because of its record in the area, Dollhopf says. "We knew we had to work with people who are already down here," he explained during a dusty three-hour bus ride from San Juan de la Maguana (near Vallejuelo) to Santo Domingo, the national capital, at the end of the week. "We need sustainability and infrastructure. There has to be a there there for a project like this to be successful and significant."

When the homes in Vallejuelo are finished, the new owners will leave their current dwellings, which are isolated for half of every year during the rainy season. The families have put down an initial mortgage payment, but the diocese also requires each family member to put in a certain number of hours of sweat equity on the houses. After a week of "slinging stucco around in the hot sun," Dollhopf was awed by the example set by the local team members. "Many of them have already worked many more hours than they are required to give, and they showed up to work every day," he says. "People will walk ten miles to the site to do hard work for which they are not compensated, then go back and work in the fields for the rest of the afternoon."

Other Yale volunteers met with an equally strong response. Li Yun Alvarado ’02 taught creative writing to children in La Cucarita; other alumni led projects in dance, crafts, English, creative writing, and music. "We worked on autobiographies," says Alvarado. "The kids were so surprised that they could write about the details of their lives -- trying to get the mules to stay still, or playing baseball. They got a new sense of 'I can write about that, that's important.'

"Still, what we got out of the experience was probably three times as much," she adds.

The Yale alumni doctors estimate that they saw about 1,000 patients over five days in the Dominican Republic. Dr. Carl Lindquist ’61, an ophthalmologist, administered eye exams in La Cucarita with the assistance of an interpreter. "La Cucarita is very isolated, and some patients came two and a half hours on horses, mules, and donkeys to get there," he says. "There could be seven or eight horses belonging to patients outside the clinic."

Not every doctor on the trip worked in a clinic. Selby Jacobs ’61, ’73MPH, a psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine and director of the Connecticut Mental Health Center, slung stucco for a week with the construction group. This was not Jacobs's first time in the Dominican Republic: he worked there as a physician with the Peace Corps from 1966 to 1968, and he has been back many times. His daughter Alicia Jacobs ’96MD, who was born in the Dominican Republic, joined him on this trip.

"I was captured by the idea that it was a service tour instead of a sightseeing tour," says the elder Jacobs. "And it wasn't just an opportunity to volunteer service to other people. It was a very intense experience in renewing fundamental aspects of your own identity and your relationship to other people and your shared humanity."

Dollhopf says the AYA hopes alumni will take the lead in planning trips in the future, perhaps in a number of locations. But he believes it's important to establish continuing relationships, so more trips to the Dominican Republic are likely. And while the AYA is also looking to organize more service projects in graduates' own backyards (like the Connecticut Day of Service that took place on April 19), Jacobs says there is special value in volunteering abroad.

"Some people might ask, 'Why not go and volunteer in the inner city of New Haven? Or go to New Orleans?'" Jacobs says. "I would argue that a cross-cultural experience sharpens the focus of these questions. It makes you try to understand the culture, puts your culture in contrast, and makes you question it." 

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