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From changing lives to being changed: Kristen Bissett tells of her Dominican Republic experience

ONU students Caleb Bryan, Missy Weaver, Jordan Holder, and Kristen Bissett at work in the pharmacy section of one of the barrio clinics. Bissett found a newfound appreciation for relationships through interacting with the many patients at the clinics. (photo/Chris North)

The city of San Juan de la Maguana is not a tourist area. In fact, it is one of the oldest cities in the Dominican Republic and continues to be economically dependent on the agriculture cultivated by the inhabitants of both local “barrios” (Spanish word for “neighborhood”) and surrounding mountains. A visit to the city requires a three and a half hour car ride from the closest airport in Santo Domingo. If you would like to know how difficult the trip is, however, just ask Kristen Bisset.

She has made it twice.

The Ohio Northern student organization Northern Without Borders (NWB) travels to the city of San Juan de la Maguana twice a year to work with the Christian non-profit organization Solid Rock International. In San Juan, the group helps in pop-up clinics and construction sites for a week with the help of Solid Rock. Fourth-year pharmacy student and president-elect of NWB Kristen Bissett accompanied both of this year’s trips in July and this past Thanksgiving break.

Most students in NWB only take the trip once, if at all, during their time at ONU, but July made such a personal impact on Bissett she could not give up the opportunity to head back just four months later. She packed up her scrubs and personal items in preparation for the six hour plane flight to the barrios while the rest of campus dreamt of turkey, family, and a week of rest.

Dominicans do not celebrate Thanksgiving in the same way as Americans, but other cultural differences influenced Bissett more than just the lack of a cornucopia.

“The culture focuses more on just relationships and families, and they don’t really focus on the materialistic,” said Bissett. “Like, you can go into someone’s home and they don’t have anything, but they’re still willing to offer anything they can. So they have a lot more hospitality and generosity.”

Bissett remembers a home visit with a Dominican woman as a time when she directly encountered this difference in culture. The NWB students and their advisor Dr. Chris North of ONU’s communication department accompanied two translators and a pastor on a call to a handicapped woman whose atrophied muscles and terrible knee pain have kept her from walking for eight years. After a 3.5-mile, footed trek up a mountain and across two rivers, the group finally arrived at the secluded structure where the woman and her daughter live.

“It was a small, wooden place with dirt floors,” Bisset recounted. “The daughter welcomed us with hugs and the warmest hospitality. She brought us chairs and offered us something to drink.”

Unfortunately, the injured woman cannot be treated for her pain because she has no way to retreat down the mountain and into San Juan on her own. The group taught her a few exercises to help her build her muscle strength in her legs which Bissett described as “very thin and bony.” The pharmacy major finds it “overwhelming to know” this woman’s location is one of the only reasons she cannot receive care.

It is upsetting to think that people who need the most help do not have the same luxuries that we do,” said Bissett.

Back in the barrios of San Juan de la Maguana, Bissett made it a point to encounter more of the Dominican culture. The NWB group participated in many activities in the Dominican communities outside of the walls of their pop-up clinics and construction sites. Students visited with locals, ate at a restaurant, played baseball with children, and went to church.

Bissett had trouble connecting to the Dominicans on her initial trip because of the language barrier, but it was not long before she found her place both in the clinics and in the community.  Dr. North said about Bissett, “I can see that connection when I watch her down there and interacting. And when I see her planning and thinking about, there’s a purposefulness with the way in which she approaches everything that we do.”

What surprised the ONU professor the most was the exceptional maturity Bissett demonstrated when interacting with the Dominicans. 

Dr. North is not new to the D.R. trips. She led her 15th trip for NWB to San Juan de la Maguana this Thanksgiving. Many of the students from her Ethics of International Aid class attend the trips with her each year, but she says not everyone reaches the same level of connection with the Dominicans Bissett possesses.

“It takes some experience. It takes some insight, and it takes somebody who really wants to get it to have that,” North remarked. “Otherwise, it’s just a really awesome experience. To get to that next level...takes an investment in the people and in the place to understand and to grasp and to look a little bit deeper into what’s going on.”

Bissett recognizes she had to have a personal transformation before she found the skills she now has.

“When I came to college, like, I focused on school and I really lost my touch with people, and I didn’t really, like, care to work with people,” the pharmacy major recalls. “But now I feel like I’m a changed person where I really care a lot more about people in the sense that, like, it’s not so much about things any more. It’s about relationships for me, and I just think I’m such a changed person since that trip.”

Kristen Bissett flew to the Dominican from the materialistic America in which she was raised, but she left with a newfound appreciation for the relational culture of the barrios.

“It’s a very big culture shock,” she said. “I didn’t think it would change me so much. Like, I thought we’d be going down and helping them, but I think the trip really helped me more than I helped them.”

Not even a month after her second trip, Bissett now has her sights set on another. “I’m trying to go back again for a third time, and I would go back every year if I could,” she said.