Kim Guinnip wasn’t sure what to expect when she traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2007 with fellow parishioners from Auburn’s St. Alphonsus Parish.
She at first thought the Dominicans they’d meet in Hato Nuevo might be bitter about their extreme poverty, and she wasn’t sure how they’d react to the Americans’ presence.
When she arrived in Hato Nuevo, however, she realized her concerns were unfounded.
"They truly are a very happy people, and you don’t expect it," Guinnip said, marveling at the Dominicans’ generosity. "The one thing they had to eat for the night, if they would see you they would try to bring you in and share it with them."
Guinnip’s 2007 trip was just one element of St. Alphonsus’ partnership with the Hato Nuevo Daycare Center and School, which was recently opened by Father Ronald Gaesser, a retired priest of the Diocese of Rochester. Father Gaesser currently spends much of his time in the Dominican Republic, and the Hato Nuevo Daycare Center and School is one of three facilities he’s opened there with help from diocesan parishioners through his El Portal de Belen Foundation, Guinnip said.
Guinnip said Father Gaesser visited St. Alphonsus in 2006 to tell parishioners about a new school and child-care facility he hoped to establish in Hato Nuevo.
"Father Gaesser was very motivating, and we as a parish were very motivated," said Guinnip, the parish’s bookkeeper and coordinator of the Dominican project.
The parish decided to become involved with Father Gaesser’s efforts in Hato Nuevo. Their first step, Guinnip said, was to begin a program called Sponsor a Child. Father Gaesser had estimated it would cost approximately $125 a year to support one child at the child-care center and school, so parishioners volunteered to sponsor individual students. The parish soon branched out and began collecting supplies for the child-care center and school, and in 2007 Guinnip and six other parishioners — five of them high-school students — were sent to Hato Nuevo to present those supplies in person.
The seven parishioners had read about the Dominican Republic and the Hato Nuevo community in particular before traveling there, but Guinnip said to be there in person was a completely different and unexpected experience.
"That was a big eye-opener for all of us," she remarked.
During their stay in Hato Nuevo the Auburn pilgrims painted the second floor of the child-care center and school. The building’s first floor has been used as a child-care facility for the past few years, and this year the nuns in Hato Nuevo will begin teaching kindergarten through fifth-grade classes on the building’s second floor.
The pilgrims also spent time with facility’s 120 children and their parents, Guinnip said. They learned the community’s drinking water was unclean and unsafe for all except a few who’d built up a resistance to it, and saw how typhoid and infection were big problems in the community. Even the Dominicans’ houses were a far cry from what the Americans were used to, Guinnip said.
"(The houses) look to us like something a child would put together in the back yard," she said.
Nonetheless, the Dominicans were cheerful and generous, and they focused on what they did have rather than what they lacked.
"Family is the most important thing to them. Family and community, that’s what they treasure," Guinnip noted.
The St. Alphonsus parishioners quickly learned how important the combined child-care and school facility is to the community. Not only do the nuns working there provide care and education, but they also ensure that the students receive at least one meal a day.
"It may be their only meal of the day," Guinnip said.
Guinnip said she and her fellow travelers were changed people by the time they left the Dominican Republic to return to Auburn, noting that they now can’t stand to see people being wasteful.
"The wasting that we have here is just ridiculous, (especially) when you go down there (to the Dominican Republic) and see people that need things," she said. "And there’s obviously people right here that have dire needs. You don’t have to go down to the Dominican to see that there’s poverty all around you."
St. Alphonsus Parish continued to collect money and supplies for the children of the Hato Nuevo Daycare Center and School, and in March Guinnip accompanied another group of parishioners on a return visit to the Dominican Republic.
"Really our whole purpose (of visiting the Dominican Republic) is evangelization, to see it (the country) and experience it and come back and tell someone about it. A big part of it is just to spread the word of what the conditions are (and) … to open your heart to these people and come back and share that experience," she said.
In June the parish pilgrims gave a presentation about their latest trip to encourage more support for the fundraisers the parish holds for this project all year long. The parish also hopes to send another group of travelers to the Dominican Republic soon, Guinnip said.
"Just go down there and you’re hooked," she said. "You can’t go wrong with 50 kids just dying for you to pick them up and hug them."