Water angels

Alums organize swim team mission to the Dominican

The annual winter training trip for Tufts’ 42 women swimmers and divers this year turned into a grand humanitarian effort that brought nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies to children in the Dominican Republic. Several other college swim teams that also trained in the Dominican in early January joined in the project, which was organized by two Tufts alums.

Ben Sands, E54, and Tufts swimmer Camille Petersen, A08, with a Dominican boy. Photo courtesy of Ben Sands

Ben, E54, and Judy Sands, J57, have accompanied the swimming and diving team on previous training trips purely for pleasure. This time, they saw an opportunity to join the Tufts team in an act of compassion for those in need.

As volunteers for Airline Ambassadors, a nonprofit organization of airline employees who use passengers and unused aircraft space to transport goods to those in need, the Sandses have traveled to Guatemala and El Salvador on similar aid missions. The word spread quickly. A travel agent who was arranging the Dominican trip mentioned it to other teams. Bowdoin, Brandeis, Northeastern, Boston College and the Rutgers diving team quickly got involved.

Inspiring alums
“I was totally amazed by Ben and Judy,” said Sarah Ferranti, A05, co-captain of the Tufts team. “They organized everything on their own from scratch, making connections with anyone who could help them get supplies and find people who needed them most. Their investment in helping children in particular was really inspiring to many girls on the team.”

Tufts and Bowdoin swimmers and divers with the loaded flatbed that transported clothing, toys and supplies. Photo courtesy of Ben Sands

The swimming women took full advantage of allowable luggage standards. Many checked two suitcases, one with their own items and another with an array of donations the Sandses had collected. The athletes also stuffed their training bags with peanut butter, children’s clothing, Barbie dolls, action toys, over-the-counter medications, school supplies and other items. Peanut butter, which costs $10 for a 12-ounce jar in the Dominican, was in big demand. The athletes transported $6,500 worth of peanut butter, about 500 pounds. Tufts School of Dental Medicine donated toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss to the cause.

“In the end, we brought a lot more stuff than I thought we would,” said Ben Sands. “All of the teams were very supportive from the beginning. It was wonderful to meet so many great young people.”

A poor nation
In the Dominican, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the athletes trained at a facility constructed for the Pan American Games, which the country hosted in 2003. They also visited hospitals, churches, schools and villages and witnessed poverty unlike they had ever seen. A quarter of the nation’s 8.8 million people live in poverty. And while the country has long been viewed primarily as an exporter of sugar, coffee and tobacco, in recent years, the service sector has overtaken agriculture as the economy’s largest employer due to growth in tourism.

On January 3, the Sandses took the Northeastern team on the first goodwill stop of the trip. They brought stuffed animals and coloring books to children in a hospital and at an orphanage in Santo Domingo. On January 6—King’s Day, the Dominican day of gifts—the Brandeis team delivered toys to children in a village of Haitian immigrants who work in sugar cane fields for $2 a day. The generosity was overwhelming to those children, who consider themselves fortunate to receive one toy a year on King’s Day.

Living conditions for the Haitian braceros (sugar cane cutters) are squalid—inadequate water, electricity and sanitation. There is not enough food. “So when you give a child a Beanie Baby that costs more than her family earns in a day,” Ben Sands said, “it’s a big deal.”

Judy and Ben Sands with the 8-year-old boy who got a new wheelchair. Photo courtesy of Ben Sands

Students from Tufts, Bowdoin and Rutgers went to the village later in the week to distribute 1,500 pounds of clothing, collected mostly by Bowdoin. The living conditions were particularly alarming to the visitors. Families were sharing small shacks patched together with cardboard and tin. People huddled around shaded areas. Pigs were on leashes staked to the ground. You could see the ribs of dogs that roamed free.

‘We could send more’
“Thirty-five of us piled into the back of a flat-bed truck and climbed out in a completely different world,” Ferranti said. “Everyone in the group was thinking that we should have brought more, that maybe we could send more goods in the future.”

The last goodwill visit was on January 11, when Tufts and Bowdoin brought craft supplies and more toys to a school for children who had lost one or both parents. The group gave a wheelchair to an eight-year-old boy whose mother had to carry him to school.

The opportunity to help improve the lives of people, mostly children, was a profound experience for many of the athletes.

“The image in my mind that sticks out the most was pulling into the school and having kids climbing all over the fences and smiling and screaming because they were so excited to meet us and to get a few things, simple things that made their day like playing cards,” said Kate Sweeney, A05, co-captain of the Tufts team.

College athletic teams in other sports also contributed to the effort. The Sandses brought along baseball gear donated by Tufts and Northeastern and gave it to a coach and kids practicing on a local ball field. The coach noted that the equipment would help 500 children.

Remarkably, the Sandses coordinated the mission in just a month. They alone collected donations that filled 49 suitcases the teams brought to the Dominican. Duffels and boxes crowded their hotel room, leaving only aisles to the door and the bathroom.

Judy Sands, J57, with some of the Dominican girls and their new dolls. Photo courtesy of Ben Sands

The hundreds of swimmers and divers who made the trip are back at their colleges now, competing in the pool for the championship season. Their training in the Dominican will help them reach their swimming goals. However, it was their participation in a humanitarian aid effort that produced the greater good.

“One of the girls I was leading through the line to get her goodies just kept squeezing my arm with both her hands,” Sweeney said. “She was frightened and overwhelmed by what she was going to be able to get. This touched me because it really made me realize how lucky I was to have what I do. It was nice to be able to comfort her and tell her it was OK to get these things.”

Paul Sweeney is Tufts’ sports information director. He can be reached at paul.sweeney@tufts.edu.