A group of St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School students dig the foundation for a house during this year’s DREAMS’ service trip in the San José de Ocoa mountains, Dominican Republic. Photo courtesy Don Hall

At St. Mary’s, DREAMS do come true

  • May 10, 2024

A group of high school students from Hamilton, Ont., recently returned from a labour-intensive trip deep in the mountains of the Dominican Republic just in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their school’s social justice program that sent them there. 

St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School has been transforming the lives of students and those in need through a program known as DREAMS, an initiative that gives students first-hand experience in assisting communities in the global south.

Don Hall, chaplaincy leader at St. Mary’s, said the program was launched in 1999 following a compassionate request from a group of students during a religion class at the school. 

“The students at the time were saying to the religion teacher, ‘We’re tired of studying about poverty, we want to do something about it,’ ” Hall said. 

From there, a collaboration between religion teacher Paul Morrison, missioner Fr. Louis Joseph Quinn and Fr. Michael King from Hamilton set up what would become the DREAMS program. 

DREAMS stands for Dominican Republic Education And Medical Support, a name thought up by Veronica Morrison, the mother of Paul and grandmother of Eric, a student who took part in the first mission trip. The name relates to exactly the type of Catholic service performed by students and chaperones each year when they embark on a journey to the Dominican Republic to serve those in need.

Hall, who joined the DREAMS program 20 years ago, says the yearly trip has woven itself into the identity of St. Mary’s over the years, with senior students pleading their case as to why they should be chosen to attend the mission trip each year.

“Our students view being involved in the DREAMS program as a rite of passage. When they come in to be interviewed, so many of them say to me that they have wanted to do this since they were in Grade 2 and that they have known about it since they were very young,” Hall said. “The students have such a background, such passion, determination and a real patience for it too.” 

This year’s team was composed of 18 students, Hall, Peterborough Deacon Aidan Murphy and his wife. Apart from a few hiccups due to national events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and 9/11, the DREAMS team has not missed a trip since forming in 1999. 

Last month’s trip saw students building a house from the ground up for a family in the steep rural mountains of San Jose de Ocoa.

“That first afternoon we arrived and we started digging the foundation for a house that would have three generations living together. This house marked 61 individual homes that DREAMS has built over the years and the grandfather Raphael was so emotional thanking us for being there and constructing this house for his family,” Hall recalled. 

Through their landscaping over the eight-day journey, which included digging the foundation, mixing concrete, laying bricks and even working to construct a working bathroom in the sweltering Dominican heat, students found a renewed sense of purpose in service to their neighbour. 

The intense physical labour, combined with the lack of everyday luxuries such as cell phones and excess electricity, allowed students to connect with the local community through games of baseball and quality time — another key pillar of the program that emphasizes fostering friendship and kindness in a uniquely Catholic education experience that you can’t find in a classroom.

“From the moment we landed in the Dominican Republic, I was met with the warmth and kindness of the people in the community. I realized that although they may be in poverty to our standards, they were rich in community,” said Lucas Mella, a Grade 11 student. “The DREAMS trip was a transformative experience that taught me the importance of service, empathy and solidarity. It reinforced my belief in the inherent goodness of people and inspired me to continue finding ways to make a positive impact, both locally and globally.” 

A testament to the lasting transformation DREAMS has had on its students, past participants’ thoughts on the mission remain similar to those who attended most recently, showing that a decade difference in time doesn’t change the impact of the initiative. 

“I remember a boy named Ian from a trip 20 years ago who said, ‘Our school’s model is live, love, learn. You can learn and you can live at school, but if you really want to love, you’ve got to go out and be with people who don’t have all the material confidence that you and I take for granted,’ ” Hall reminisced. “DREAMS changes the lives of the families who now have a solid home that they can move into, but there’s a greater change on our students and us because we have a totally different perspective on what’s important and what isn’t after we return.” 

While production of Raphael’s house nears completion and students from the program write reflections based on their experiences, Hall and faculty are planning the 25th-anniversary celebration of DREAMS at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Waterdown on May 3. Attendees will celebrate all that the DREAMS program has done over its quarter century of service, including raising upwards of $150,000, building 61 homes and supporting various educational projects in the island nation. 

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