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"This is the Greatest Day of My Life"

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A scheduling snafu with the airlines caused the huge group of American volunteers (101 in total) to spend an extra day in the Dominican Republic at the end of June, turning a nine-day trip to serve the poor into a 10-day mission. What to do with a free Saturday at the end of a tiring, emotional, and exhilarating experience of construction, medical clinics, food distribution, and more?

There was talk of a day of rest at the beach, allowing sore bodies to recover and time to process the stunning emotions of interacting with the poorest of the poor. Maybe a day at one of the many nearby resorts for a day of "vacation," all you can eat buffets, water sports, and relaxation?

Those ideas were considered and certainly worthwhile and deserved at the end of what can be a grueling service trip. Instead, the Wallingford, Conn.-based DR Mission Team chose to hold the first-ever "Batey 50 Day," bringing the fun, food, music, and celebration to the sugarcane village we have adopted. This community of 200-plus has no electricity or running water, families live in what can only liberally be called a shack, and hunger abounds.

At around 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 30, four busloads of 101 Americans rolled up the dusty roads and pulled into Batey 50. The normal group of children were waiting and began cheering and hugging as the team exited the bus. Exclamations of joy from the locals began as they saw the special t-shirt all Americans were wearing that day -- "Batey 50" on the front, the number 50 on the back with the word "Esperanza" (hope in Spanish) displayed above.

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The concept throughout the day was to do everything possible to make all equal -- for one day there would be no rich and poor, no Americans and Dominicans, no black and white. The same Batey 50 blue t-shirts worn by the U.S. group were given out to all in the village, and right away celebration broke out. This was just the start. A full day began of games, face painting, clowns, manicures, hair dressing, sports, and more. The Maranatha Band from La Romana, DR, one of the most popular musical groups in the DR, set up an enormous stage complete with generator and put on an amazing show (for many in Batey 50 it was the first time they had ever seen a live band). Americans and Dominicans danced, jumped, praised the Lord, and sang together.

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Two new cinder block homes, built by the team during this week, were dedicated and keys were given to their new owners (this is part of the DR Mission Team's Fifty for 50 project to rebuild all of the homes in Batey 50). And to make the day even more special, two members of the DR Mission Team, John Litevich and Erika Catalano, were engaged to be married, him getting down on one knee and proposing next to the batey sugarcane weighing station.

Then came dinner, a catered meal by a chef complete in white coat, to be shared together by everyone in the village and the group from the U.S. A beautiful buffet was set up in the field adjacent to the shacks, normally home to a wandering cow, goat, pig, or dog. Hundreds lined up to receive their heaping plate of food, and then American and Dominican, rich and poor, those with and those without, sat with each other and ate.

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The finale of the day was a short hike, which included virtually all of the 400 people in attendance, across a small river and up a hill opposite Batey 50. It was an amazing site to see hundreds of people, all in blue t-shirts, climbing to the summit. Once at the top, there was an stunning view of Batey 50 -- remnants of the concert and food in the field, the crumbling shacks most live in to the rear, and the new homes and under-construction school in the foreground. Truly Batey "Esperanza"!

As people turned to take in the view opposite Batey 50, a truly heavenly moment occurred. Laying before this group, as far as the eye could see, was a lush valley of green fields surrounded by majestic mountains. The late afternoon sun coated the valley in golden light as the mountains sat in gentle shadows. A perfect ending to a perfect day.

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While many in Batey 50 said this was a day they would never forget, the Americans returned home the next day to the U.S. and resumed jobs, school, responsibilities, and "normal" life. But they will never be the same, as many reported, "That was the greatest day of my life."