Buckeyes Go International - Dominican Republic 2017 (Dec. 15-19)

Brady Blackwell (men's soccer), Katie Burgee (women's lacrosse), Courtney Daniels (field hockey), Christine Frederick (women's cross country), Hannah Hites (rowing), Kylie Knight (women's soccer), Catherine McNutt (rowing), Kyle Michalik (baseball), Yianni Pavlopoulos (baseball), Fritz Schierl (wrestling), Evan Stifel (men's cross country) and Bailee Sturgeon (softball) will facilitate shoe distributions at local schools and communities in the Barahona area. In addition to the service, they will participate in a variety of cultural immersion activities, such as baseball, dancing, cooking lessons and a visit to a local mining operation for the gemstone Larimar.

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Stay tuned for daily updates throughout the week.

Day Five

"No adios. Hasta luego," said our new amigo Alejandro as we walked towards the airport security lanes. He, and a group of other incredible people we'll discuss below, were with us every step of the way during the past five perspective-altering days.

Gratitude. That's the word of the week as our feet meet U.S. soil once again. We are grateful for the experience. We are grateful for the children's smiles (and the elderly, too!). We are grateful for the warmth of the Dominican people. We are grateful for the safe travel home. Simply put, we are grateful.

With security and U.S. customs behind us at the Atlanta airport, we had to verge separate ways from Kristen Schwartz. She was headed towards a different terminal, destined for Nashville. Kristen had just completed her 24th shoe distribution trip with Soles4Souls. Hugs were aplenty and contact information was exchanged. We can't thank Kristen enough for all of her hard work before, during and surely after this adventure to make it the best possible experience for her beloved Buckeyes (🚨 Ohio State fan alert!). She is a good soul and we miss her already.

We are also grateful for the Batey Rehab Project and their entire staff. We became a part of their family for five days as they opened their home to a group of 16 strangers. This group of men and women have been and will continue to make real, meaningful impacts in and around the Barahona area.

Thank you to Gene Smith and the Ohio State Athletics administration for providing the resources and vision to create a service-learning experience we'll never forget.

Thank you to Brittany Savko and the Student-Athlete Support Services Office (SASSO) led by Dr. David Graham for much of the behind-the-scenes work in making this happen.

Life lessons were learned, perspective was changed, cultural immersion occurred, much-needed footwear was provided and love was shared. That makes for a full dose of gratitude.

We are grateful to return during the holiday season, dispersing throughout the country over the next few days to celebrate with family and friends. We are grateful for Buckeye Nation and its unwavering support. We are grateful for this University and the endless opportunities it equips the student body with. Oh, and we are grateful for reliable cellular service back in the States, too. After all, we do have Snapchat streaks, hashtags, Facebook stalking and scrolling through puppy photos on Insta to get back to. 😂😂😂

Day Four

A trek to the Larimar mines marked the start of Day Four. Larimar is a beautiful blue stone found only in the Dominican Republic. Trust us, when a group of Buckeyes unanimously agrees a shade of blue is stunning, its worth the google search.

The mines are dug into a mountain just over six miles southwest of Barahona. The shafts dip anywhere from 50-360 feet into the ground. Many of the shafts also begin with horizontal tunnels penetrating the mountain before meeting a vertical shaft to go further into the Earth.

Next up was the fifth and final shoe distribution. We held this one at the home of a Batey Rehab Project (BRP) attendee. It was touching to see her young daughter step up and `help us out,' beaming with pride that her home was the shoe distribution site.

¡Vamos a la playa! exclaimed the beach-bound Buckeyes after saying goodbye to our last set of children. It seems impossible to outshine the deep blue water, white-capped waves, palm trees and mountains; but Fritz Schierl managed to do just that when strutting around the beach donning a scarlet speedo.

We later burned off a few post-dinner calories when Dominican Buckeye and senior athletics academic counselor Belkis Sanchez demonstrated several Dominican dances for the group. Once again, Fritz stole the show by flashing his slick dance skills while cutting a rug.

Before returning to the hotel for our final slumber session, we had the opportunity to purchase homemade jewelry items crafted by our Larimar expert, Alejandro. In addition to assisting at all five shoe distributions this week as a BRP volunteer, he is also a master of Larimar jewelry. His pieces are stunning. And his admiration for Larimar is blatant, evidenced by an egg-shaped-and-sized belt buckle made of Larimar worn each and every day.

Shopping continues mañana with a quick stop at a local market en route to the airport. Can't wait to see what treasures we will find!

Hasta luego!

Day Three

Another double dip of shoe distributions was on the docket for Day Three in the Dominican. This time around we traveled to two separate locations, one in the morning and one afternoon visit. By day's end, 250 smiling children were donning brand-new footwear around their communities. In addition, we received quite a surprise in the morning when a handful of elderly members arrived and we were able to serve them as well. Their smiles were just as big as the children and exceedingly impactful.

Post-distribution included a tour of the village, including a closer look at some of the homes made entirely of mud and sticks. The sturdiness of these houses and ingenuity to construct them as such was truly fascinating.

Our second distribution site is arguably the favorite thus far because of the extended opportunity to play with the children afterwards. The playground was engulfed with Buckeyes `acting like they were kids again' and playing a large variety of games. Most notably was a Dominican version of `Ring Around the Rosie' taught to us by the lil ones.

The elongated period of play was the most talked about item during this evening's team reflection exercise. 1)Because it was super fun to act silly with young'uns, but more so 2)because it allowed for a deeper, more meaningful connection with them. The informal environment of a playground opened the kids up and gave us a clear path to their hearts and them to ours.

Misconceptions of poverty was also a much-discussed topic during reflection. Living in the United States, we all had our idea of what poverty is and how living impoverished is like. Seventy-two hours here has completely shattered many of our previous thoughts and enlightened us. A lack of the newest iPhone, WiFi, hot showers or any other luxury we take for granted do not have to have a direct effect on one's happiness, and the Dominican people we've visited with have been proof of that. We continue to be taught about ourselves and the increased gratitude for what we have back home.

Shoe distribution was originally scheduled to end today after our fourth outing. Luckily, we have been given the opportunity, and have enough shoes left, to venture out for a fifth service tomorrow. It will be extra special, too. As mentioned in previous posts, the women of the Batey Rehab Project (BRP) have opened their home to us this week and cooked delicious meals. We are headed to their native community for the final shoe drive, one that was personally organized by the women from the BRP house. These women have been victims of sex trafficking, sexual assault and/or heinous acts, and the shoe distribution coordination gave them the opportunity to take a leadership role within their communities. They and their children will also be joining us for a large fiesta tomorrow night with more mouth-watering food and whispers of possibly some salsa dancing have been heard!

We are about to wrap up the evening by scarfing down some empanadas stuffed with cheese, beef, chicken, lobster and for a few brave souls -- shark.

Good night.

Day Two

Day number two began with breakfast prepared by our friends at the Batey Rehab Project house. With full bellies, the Buckeyes were off to the first shoe distribution!

Anticipation and expectations were high, running rampant throughout the short ride to Los Robles. The Los Robles community did not disappoint, welcoming us in with open arms and the children's smiles were unforgettable. It was a split day in the village, serving approximately 90 younger children in the morning before a quick lunch break followed by washing the feet of, interacting with and presenting shoes to a group of 25-30 older children.

Smiles and sports are often universal languages, bridging any communication barriers which exist. Today in Los Robles was no different and both were aplenty. Teams were split up and the game was on as members of the community and Buckeye student-athletes headed to the sandlot for a fun game of baseball.

Action naturally gravitated towards Buckeye baseballers, Kyle Michalik and Yianni Pavlopoulos, but grappler Fritz Schierl flashed the leather a few times at the hot corner as well. Baseball is a HUGE deal in the Dominican and we were honored to play the loved game alongside the Los Robles children. Just wait until we can show you video of the jaw-dropping scenery surrounding the village's baseball field. Make sure to come back and check out the blog next week once a high-speed internet connection in America allows us to share. It will not disappoint.

Speaking of baseball, it connected us with another member of Buckeye Nation on Friday during the layover in Atlanta. As the group was gathered at the gate, a prominent Major League Baseball agent approached with a friendly "O-H" predictably responded by a collective "I-O." He informed us that he, too, was heading to the Dominican on our same flight for a talent scouting excursion. He lives in Cincinnati and proudly displays an Ohio State-branded luggage tag during his international journeys.

Tomorrow brings two more opportunities to serve these beautiful and loving communities near Barahona. Can't wait.

Off to catch some much needed rest. Adios, amigos!

Day One

2:42 a.m. ET | Our alarms sound Wednesday night/Thursday morning (you pick) and the next Buckeyes Go International service-learning experience by Ohio State Athletics student-athletes is officially on like an 8-bit barrel-rolling gorilla from the 90s (google it if you don't get the corny joke).

A motley crew of 12 student-athletes and three staff members are off to CMH to catch an early flight ultimately destined for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic by way of Atlanta. The Buckeye Dozen (+3) is participating in a partnership with Soles4Souls to facilitate shoe distributions at local schools and communities in the Barahona area. In addition to the service, we will also participate in a variety of cultural immersion activities, such as baseball, dancing, cooking lessons and a visit to a local mining operation for the gemstone Larimar.

Sounds like fun, right? Well, not quite yet. While the week ahead is sure to make a lifelong impact for us, the first 24 hours haven't gone quite as planned to say the least.

The first hiccup came at the initial checkout counter when Hannah Hites, a senior rower, was denied a ticket because of a clerical error by the travel agency. Fortunately, the situation was rectified and Hannah will be reunited with us tomorrow in the DR. See ya soon, Hannah!

Following a sizable delay to the connecting flight in Atlanta, we were finally on the last leg (or so we thought) to Hotel Rea -- our home for the next four days. What was scheduled as a three-hour bus ride from Santo Domingo to Barahona transformed into a six-hour battle with immense traffic.

The journey mercifully came to a close as we pulled up to the Batey Rehab Project house. We were beneficiaries of a delicious meal prepared by the fabulous non-profit organization which brings modular housing solutions and fair trade opportunists to Batey Communities within the Dominican Republic; creating a sustainable future for families living within poverty. Their comforting hospitality quickly erased the tires of a long travel day, re-energizing the group prior to tomorrow's jam-packed day. Our first shoe distribution kicks off in the morning and we can't wait to see the smiling children!

With heavy heads hitting pillows, we are grateful for this opportunity and ready to roll the next four days. Very few sheep will be counted this evening at Hotel Rea.

Talk soon, Buckeye Nation.