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Last month, a good friend of Hope Strengthens Foundation, Captain Bryan O’Neil, U.S. Marine Corps, took leave to embark on a mission trip to serve disabled children in the Dominican Republic, in conjunction with St. Thomas More Parish in his hometown of Narragansett, RI. Hope Strengthens Foundation was honored to provide the baseline funding required to support Captain O’Neil’s participation on this important mission.

Below is a first-hand account from Captain O’Neil summarizing his incredible experience on this mission. Bryan is a true leader whose faith, heart, and spirit continue to make the world around him a better place. In other words, he’s a Marine.

– HSF

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The mission trip was organized through St Thomas More Parish in Narragansett, RI where my old chaplain from High School, Father Marcel Taillon, is the Pastor. It was down at the Emmanuel Hogar orphanage in Cangrejo, just outside of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. The parish has sent a missionary team every spring for the last 5 or 6 years and they always do good work. The trip was organized through an organization called Mustard Seed (www.mustardseed.com) and they serve orphans with mental and physical disabilities in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe. The also serve the local communities depending on their respective needs.

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This year’s group from St Thomas More had 22 missionaries led by Father Taillon. There were 10 adults, including 2 doctors, and 12 young adults from the parish. All the young adults were either still in High School or in their first year or two of college. We each traveled with 2 personal bags, one with our own items and the other with either medicine, shoes, or clothing others had donated for the orphanage and surrounding community.

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The biggest challenge for the orphanage this time around was that they recently accepted an additional 13 disabled orphans from state run facilities that needed better care, bringing their total number of disabled orphans to 33. They have expanded their compound and have had a couple of additional buildings put up for housing the children and establishing a dining facility, but the staff was still having a tough time adjusting to the additional volume of work that needed to be done. Each child is cared for by the staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A majority of the children are bedridden but still need to be fed, changed, and clothed by the staff. The facility is kept extremely clean due to the increased susceptibility of the children to get sick, so the laundry and general house cleaning is constant as well. All in all, the orphans are cared for very well, even better than the other children and families in the community since it is a pretty poor area.

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The most astonishing part of the staff is that out of about 20-25 part-time and full-time workers, only one is actually a registered nurse and another is a physical therapist. The only requirement for the rest of the staff is that they love God and love the children of the orphanage. The orphans come first in everything they do because they all feel they are doing God’s work by tending to their needs. It is very impressive to witness, especially since nearly all the staff goes home after work and takes care of their own families. You can’t help but to become a more selfless person just by being around the staff and the children of the orphanage, and it is absolutely the product of what can happen when you have hope in God, his works, and the dignity and sanctity of human life no matter what state it is in.

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Most of the children suffer from some form of cerebral palsy that occurred around the time of birth and for whatever reason did not receive the proper level of medical attention that could have helped mitigate the disorder. The orphans all have a different story on how they got to the orphanage, some were dropped off by parents or relatives, some came from state run orphanages that could properly take care of them, and some were simple found left in the street and found by residents in the community. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how they got there, only that they are there now and so the staff is committed to giving them all the care and love the children deserve.

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The main thing the staff needed while we were there was a sidewalk leading up to one of the dorm rooms for the orphans so the route to the cafeteria could be more accessible. Luckily we had a couple experience guys who knew how to do that sort of thing with the group, and plenty of HS kids who needed to experience physical labor for themselves!

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We also did some painting around the complex where it was necessary, and sort of just helped the staff get into a better routine dealing with the additional workload with laundry, washing dishes, and general clean-up. The doctors that came on the trip examined all the new orphans and gave them full physicals, as well as checked up on the orphans that have been there for a while. Any downtime we had was spent with the children, typically just holding them and getting them out of their beds or wheelchairs as much as possible. Despite their physical disabilities, most of the children were still responsive to touch and were somewhat aware of their surroundings.

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We also ran 3 separate medical clinics out in town and administered basic medicines to people who couldn’t really afford it. We probably brought 7-8 suitcases of shoes down with us and gave them all out to the community at the local church. Most of the children do not have shoes down there so it really made their day to get a new pair of sneakers or shoes. One day we took several orphans to the local beach just to spend some time with them outside the orphanage and they really enjoyed it. On the second to last day there, we made 150 individual serving bags of rice, corn meal, beans, sardines, sugar, and olive oil to bring to a very destitute part of town. It was a garbage dump where all the nearby resorts dump their trash and local refugees, mostly Haitian, scavenge for left over food and supplies. It was pretty sad to see, but at least we were able to give them some fresh food.

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We celebrated mass every day, half the time in Spanish at the local church just outside the orphanage. Father Taillon also baptized the 13 new orphans and I was fortunate enough to be the Godfather to one, which was a great experience. Our last mass before leaving, all orphans were given the sacrament of anointing of the sick, which was a great way to close out our trip. From the outside looking in, it is easy to feel sorry for the children because they are not only orphans, but the also have such severe disabilities. But once you are there and see the staff care for these children, you see nothing but pure love and joy on the faces of all the kids and the staff members because they chose to have hope, hope in the love of God and the dignity of human life. It was a great experience and I can’t Hope Strengthens Foundation enough for your financial and spiritual support. I am already looking forward to going back next year and continuing our service to the community.

Semper Fi,

Bryan O’Neil