It began, more than 20 years ago, as a trip with other teenage friends. The mission: build an aqueduct in a village in the Dominican Republic. The result: a lifetime commitment to improve the lives of the poorest campesinos in that Caribbean nation. Back in 1983, Albert Perez was a junior at Christopher Columbus High School and friend Alfred Consuegra was a 16-year-old at Belen Jesuit Prep. Both were among a group of Catholic high school students making the annual Belen-sponsored charity trip to the island. What they saw and what they did that summer transformed them in such a way that, after they graduated, they founded a group to continue the work with “adult” volunteers. “It was the biggest life-changing experience of my life,” says Perez, who now sells produce for a food company. “Before that trip, Miami was the center of the world and I lived there. But I fell in love with the area and the people, and I wanted to return to do something meaningful.” Adds Consuegra: “It started as a trip to get out of the house and away from our parents. But we discovered something more important.” So important, in fact, that in 1985 as college freshmen – after two treks to the Dominican Republic – they started Living Instruments for Others (LIFO), a Miami-based nonprofit volunteer group that does lay missionary work in the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. Members travel to the poorest places in the Dominican Republic to build projects that will change the lives of many; they also sponsor a Guatemalan orphanage for disabled children.

The group, which that first year consisted of five guy friends, now totals almost two dozen every summer, most of them professionals using their vacation time. On the last trip this summer, the oldest member was in his early 60s, the youngest was a 17-year-old Our Lady of Lourdes Academy student. Two fathers brought their daughters, and about half were women. The rest of the year, “we’re pencil pushers who usually work in air conditioning and don’t do any hard labor,” jokes Consuegra, who is a contractor. For two weeks in July, however, they get up at the rooster’s crow, wield hammers, shovels and pick-axes, and sleep in buildings and houses usually lacking electricity or running water. “We prepare them in meetings here in Miami,” Perez says, “but it doesn’t matter how many slides they watch because they don’t really believe the conditions until they see it for themselves.”All LIFO volunteers have heard about the program from others, and more than half are veterans of other trips. “The first year they come out of curiosity,” Perez explains. “By the third year it becomes a calling.”Volunteers willing to weather harsh conditions and pay their own way do this for one reason, Consuegra says. They want to find meaning by helping others. “I’ve worked on all kinds of projects . . . but what I’ve done in the Dominican Republic means so much more to me,” Consuegra adds.

Among the young Miamians who have gone on LIFO missions is a 30-year-old painter who keeps a studio on Lincoln Road. Juan Carballo went on his first trip in 2002 because, as he readily admits, he was interested in travel and a friend had told him about the commendable mission of the group. His first reaction after an all-day van trip to a mountain village? “Man, what have I gotten myself into?” he says, with a laugh. The two weeks, however, flew by as he did construction work, and the primitive conditions – drinking water from a canteen, sharing the latrine with a donkey, getting a stomach virus – did little to dissuade him. He has been returning ever since. He also contributed paintings for an auction earlier this year to benefit the program. “I realize that what we care about is so superficial,” he says. “These people have so little and they’re so warm, so welcoming. You’re working with them for 10 days, which is nothing to you, but it means everything to them.”In the 20 years LIFO has been traveling to the Dominican Republic, members have worked at 16 villages building aqueducts, latrines and schools. Typically the communities are nestled in remote mountains, each with about 300 residents who tend to grow what they can live on. LIFO leaders coordinate their efforts through the Jesuit-run Institute for Latin American Concerns (ILAC), which sponsors numerous outreach and missionary works to these remote areas. In February, before each trip, Perez scouts out the location for the right combination of factors. LIFO looks for three elements: small towns that have a stable population, are organized enough to benefit from the help, and don’t have an influx of money from U.S. Dominicans. In the meantime, organizers are raising funds – about $20,000 to $40,000 per project – in Miami, much of it from a doughnut sale at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Coral Gables. Later, supplies are bought in the Dominican Republic and transported to the site – often by donkey or on foot. LIFO members then work alongside the villagers. “We’re bringing the money and the people to direct the effort, but for the most part they have to do the detail work right with us,” Perez said. Every year, LIFO members visit the last town they worked on. They’re always greeted as if “we’re the circus coming into town and everybody is out there waiting for us,” Consuegra adds. The buildings often change the fabric of the community. Children who once had to trek to the river for water now attend school, for instance. And about five years ago, an entire village weathered a hurricane in a two-room LIFO-built school while other town structures were demolished.

These missions are not without perils. Several years ago Perez slipped on a rock while crossing a river in a dense forest. (He and a group of men were carrying PVC pipe.) The fall tore ligaments in his right knee and he could not walk. Miles from civilization, the two strongest men in the village took turns carrying him on their backs until they landed him on a donkey that took him back to the village. But it’s also not all work and no play. Each LIFO member is assigned one townsperson to share the trip with so that each side gets to know the other better. The idea, explains Perez, is `to open the eyes of the volunteers to how most of the people in the rest of the world live.” After a hard day’s labor, LIFO volunteers also play ice-breaker games with the villagers and visit individual homes selected by the townspeople. “It’s a big honor for them when we visit their homes, so all the neighbors come there for the evening to share time with us,” Perez adds.
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