When Ann Marie Testarmata first started researching summer travel experiences for her daughter, she hadn’t expected it to become a family affair. But once she stumbled upon Discover Corps’ Volunteer Vacation offerings, she realized that a family trip would be even more special.
Ann Marie and her daughters, Vika (now 18) and Ira (14), spent nine days in the Dominican Republic with Discover Corps’ “Heart and Soul of the Caribbean.” (At the time, Vika and Ira were 15 and 12, respectively.)
Allow us to introduce you to Ann Marie, Vika and Ira, who generously shared their memories of their experiences in the Dominican Republic with Discover Corps.
What did your daughters think about taking such a different kind of vacation?
Ann Marie: They were excited! We went in the winter, and it was like summer in the Dominican Republic, so that was a big deal. They thought [there would be] beaches and nice weather, but they didn’t really know what they were getting into.
What type of volunteer activities did you participate in during your trip?
Ira: On the first working day we went to a little town and planted trees. We took black bags and put soil and a seed in them until (our group) had around 20,000. After that we took a break and walked around the village to explore Dominican culture. We had lunch with a local lady that cooks dinner for the town. We had a lot of fruits and chicken and rice and beans. It was really good!
What was your favorite part of the trip?
Ann Marie: The compound we stayed in was great. We all ate together. It was like a family. There were around 20 people, with a really wide range of ages– a middle-aged couple, kids, an older woman… Everyone brought something to the table. The best beach was right down the street. I loved coming home after working in the village. We’d be done by three or four and just go to the beach.
Vika: I liked all of it. We were in Puerta Plata and helping these kids dig out a trench to give them better water filtration. The little kids would cling onto your arms when you were working.
Ira: I liked going to different little towns and seeing their culture. I really liked helping them. Where we stayed there was a little candy shop: We hung out there and made friends.
What interesting things did you learn during your volunteer experience?
Ann Marie: I liked a lot of the stuff that Dave, our leader, taught us about sustainability. We went overnight to Santo Domingo to visit the Peace Corps office. We went to where they make water filters out of clay. It’s a local industry, and it was very interesting.
What was the most challenging part of the trip for you?
Ira: It wasn’t hard. It was kinda cool not speaking the same language. You have to use hand motions and find different ways to talk.
Did your trip to the Dominican Republic make you want to travel and volunteer more in the future?
Ira: My family travels almost every vacation and summer, but I still want to travel more. I kind of want to go to Africa. We might go on a safari… that would be cool. I want to do more volunteer trips. I really like helping people and making them happy.
What would you say is the best part about taking volunteer vacations with your family?
Ann Marie: I loved that we were together and doing things. We could be apart, but still close to each other. We got to see how other people lived. It’s good to be humbled, for all of us. We really felt like we were part of the place.
What was the most impactful part of your trip?
Ann Marie: When we visited a Haitian refugee village. They have no country of citizenship. If they leave this compound, they can be sent back to Haiti. We were building a trench to help with the drainage there. Dave took us through the town: He goes to all of these places all the time and knows the families, so we got to meet the people there. That was one of the most dramatic visits we had there, and the most memorable.
What advice can you offer to others who are considering family volunteer vacations?
Ann Marie: Do it! I always encourage it. We flew into Santo Domingo and Dave [our group leader] picked us up. He drove us over the mountains, on about 2 hours of curvy roads. We got to our room— a double bed with a mosquito net and two bunk beds, and a bathroom with a shower. My kids were, like, in shock. I looked at them and said, “It’s not Club Med.” But we were so tired, we just went to sleep. Then we woke up and it was sunny and the palm trees were swaying. We went outside and realized it was going to be fine. -by Britany Robinson