As a child, I visited the Dominican Republic every summer; it was quite the departure from my suburban, middle-class home in South Florida. The drive from the airport to our home in the northern town of Puerto Plata revealed the extreme poverty that would, at times, leave me breathless. Why didn’t these children have shoes, clean clothes or homes with running water? My perspective on serving others and volunteering was shaped by my experiences in the Dominican Republic.
When I met Jennifer Barkley, a local business owner, she told me about her family’s involvement in a camp for hearing impaired children in the Dominican Republic. Even though I spent many years in the country, I knew very little about the deaf community and the challenges they faced. Her account and passion for Camp Hands of Joy was moving and I wanted to know more – and share it with our readers. Below is my interview with Jennifer.
How did you get involved in Camp Hands of Joy?
Our involvement began six years ago when a team from our church traveled to Ringgold, Georgia, for a building project. There, we met a Dominican woman named Juana Quinlan who was preparing to return to the Dominican Republic. She and her husband, Eric Quinlan, are part of a deaf ministry called Harvest Ministries, and she shared her story of the need for help in the deaf community. We discovered that children who are born hearing impaired in the Dominican Republic are often treated as mentally deficient and set aside as unteachable. Several of our group felt called to do “something,” and with the guidance and help from a missionary who started one of the few deaf schools in the D.R., Peggy Blevins, that “something” evolved into Camp Hands of Joy: a week-long, overnight vacation bible school camp for deaf children in the Dominican Republic.
Tell us about the project and how it has evolved.
The first Camp Hands of Joy occurred in 2009 and served only 42 children from two different deaf schools. This year, we had over 120 children from four different schools. It has been exciting to see how the camp has grown! Daily activities include swimming, crafts, science, drama, worship time, sports and discussion. The camp provides three nutritional meals a day, which is rare for most of these children, and a safe environment to play and just be a kid. For the older kids, we provide an opportunity for them to learn trade skills such as automotive repair and manicures.
It is rare for the Dominican parents or siblings of a deaf child to learn sign language, so the child goes home to an environment of isolation and limited stimulation. Camp Hands of Joy provides an entire week of interaction and fun with other deaf children and adults in a caring environment where they feel safe and are well fed. The teachers have told us that the kids really look forward to this week of camp and that it has been a positive motivator for good behavior in the classroom.
What type of services are provided through Camp Hands of Joy?
Many of the students come to the deaf schools late in their young lives and not knowing how to communicate or even how to sign their name. These kids start out in life with three strikes against them. The schools once run by Peggy Blevins, now Paulina Henriquez, have done an outstanding job teaching these children a language and how to read and write, but the opportunities for the deaf in the Dominican community to make a living wage are minimal. Outside of the camp, several of the Camp Hands of Joy team members continue to help the schools in many ways long after the camp has ended by offering their time, expertise and money. It is our goal to change the hearts and minds of the Dominican culture so they can see these children, young men and young women for who they really are: intelligent and capable people, full of life and hope.
How has volunteering in another country impacted you?
Being involved in foreign missions and volunteer work has exposed me to people, situations and needs that I would never ordinarily encounter and has revealed to me spiritual qualities and practical talents that I may not have otherwise discovered. It is central to my faith to look beyond my own close social and community circles and see where I can possibly make an impact.
Your whole family is involved in Camp Hands of Joy. How has the experience impacted them?
Our trips to the poorest areas of the Dominican Republic have been an amazing opportunity for our kids. My husband, Phil, and I definitely noticed a wonderful growth in their maturity level upon our return. I suppose nobody returns from such service and looks at his or her own life in the same way — the cultural experiences and engagement with the poor have the effect of shining a light back on one’s own extravagance, materialism and waste. In addition, to see my kids interact with people who live a very different life than they do and to see them express respect, compassion and mercy to those they do not know is such a great joy. I love that it just doesn’t matter whether they are hearing or deaf…give two kids a ball and they will be instant friends!
How has Dermacare, your business, helped support the program?
Dermacare Laser and Skin Care Clinic has a charitable side to the business called DermacareCARES. Dermacare has helped to extend the time the older students spend at
school by providing the salary for a seamstress named Merida. This seamstress has been able to teach the girls a trade so when they graduate, they will have a marketable skill. One of the graduates, Gileania, has already found her niche making beautiful drapes for the
more expensive homes. Dermacare is also providing the salary for a much-needed teacher’s aid in the classroom. His name is Edwin, and he is a recent graduate of the school. Edwin is wonderful with the kids and is extremely well thought-of by the teachers. As a teacher’s aid, Edwin is now able to make a living.