Expanding Hearts and Minds

Fighting Chronic Disease

Creighton’s connections in the Dominican Republic have inspired countless alumni to serve others. One example is Hans Dethlefs IV, MD, BS’87, a former ILAC program participant who returns to the D.R. several times a year to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Read more here.

Expanding Hearts and Minds

Creighton continues to serve in solidarity with the poor, marginalized and orphaned in the Dominican Republic

By Cindy Murphy McMahon, BA’74

Under night’s dark refuge, a woman cautiously crept into a lush garden in the Dominican Republic (D.R.) countryside and gently placed the bundle in her arms under a leafy bush. Then she silently vanished into the shadows.

“Luis was found near the Haitian border, and it’s possible his mother was a Haitian woman who wanted him to have a better life in the Dominican Republic,” the boy’s adoptive father says today, some 12 years later. Haiti and the D.R. share the second largest island in the Caribbean.

During his first year of life, Luis was identified as having a disability and placed in a Dominican orphanage for children who were severely challenged, both physically and mentally.

That’s where he was discovered by a Creighton student.

“The student was touring this orphanage for children with severe disabilities when Luis caught her eye,” his father says. “Most of the children laid in bed all day, but she noticed that he had cognitive abilities.”

The student got permission to take Luis to the nearby clinics manned by Creighton health care professionals and students serving in the D.R.

The Creighton volunteers diagnosed Luis differently. “They saw that he could interact, that he was funny and intelligent,” says his father.

Over the next several years, many of the Creighton faculty and students who visited the D.R., either through the semester-long Encuentro Dominicano service-learning immersion program or the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) health professions programs, met Luis and fell in love with him.

His adoptive father, a hernia surgeon volunteering at the time at the ILAC clinic, felt the same way.

“I can still remember the first time I saw him. He was sitting on a Creighton student’s lap, eating a banana, as cute as could be,” says Bruce Ramshaw, MD, chair of the department of surgery at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine.

For 40 years, the story of Creighton’s presence in the Caribbean has been about connections. Connections with people such as Luis — thousands of Dominican children and families who discover that people at a Jesuit, Catholic university in the heart of the midwestern United States care about them. Care about them enough to return again and again, and enough to take their stories to heart so deeply that they will never be forgotten.

Creighton’s D.R. programs emphasize the importance of global vision and understanding in the education of well-rounded individuals. Programs are offered for dental, medical, nursing, pharmacy, law, physical therapy, occupational therapy, undergraduate and even high school students. Faculty-led groups, medical/surgical teams and other colleges and universities are offered service-learning and rural D.R. immersion experiences through Creighton. A water quality program has students visiting rural campos to analyze water samples and work with the community to ensure clean drinking water.

All of the programs are housed at the ILAC Center (Centro de Educación para la Salud Integral, or CESI, in Spanish), a multiple-building campus, including a church, located about five miles outside of Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic. The ILAC/CESI Center is an international, Catholic, Ignatian-inspired facility that provides health services and pastoral care to Dominicans and hosts many organizations, with Creighton being one of its primary partners.

More than 4,300 Creighton students have traveled to the Dominican Republic, either through Encuentro Dominicano (Encountering the Dominican in English), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, or through programs run out of Creighton’s Institute for Latin American Concern office. The ILAC Summer Program for health professions students is marking its 40th-year milestone.

A New Chapter in a Long History

Creighton’s president, the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, was one of those whose life was influenced by Creighton’s presence in the Dominican Republic. During the time he was a faculty member in philosophy from 2000 to 2003, he also taught Creighton students in the D.R. in 2002. Today, he views study abroad and immersion programs to be important aspects of higher education and has launched the Creighton Global Initiative to increase Creighton’s global offerings.

Fr. Hendrickson and other Creighton administrators would like to see the successful service-learning immersion experiences the Encuentro program offers to be experienced by even greater numbers of students, including those from other universities.

“For decades, Creighton has been partnering with local communities, many that are poor and marginalized, to build relationships and share resources,” Fr. Hendrickson says. “We also have been enjoying the beautiful realities of the culture and geography of the Dominican Republic.

“As I am keenly interested in the Creighton Global Initiative, I am eager for more Creighton students — and students from other Jesuit colleges and universities — to be transformed by Creighton’s remarkable presence in the Caribbean.”

René Padilla, PhD, vice provost for Global Engagement, who oversees Creighton’s Dominican Republic service and learning programs, says now is a good time for Creighton’s flagship international programs to look to the future.

“As Creighton celebrates milestone anniversaries for the University’s involvement in the D.R., we’re celebrating our successes, and at the same time, we see opportunities for new life, as these programs are the foundation for Creighton’s global initiatives and mission.”

The Creighton-Dominican connection runs deep. As the University broadens its programs and bonds in the Dominican Republic, it is sure to solidify the core of its efforts there.

A Transformative Experience

Jill Vonnahme Marmol, BA’09, today an immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C., is one of the many students and alumni who felt profoundly changed by her experience in the D.R.

When she came to Creighton from Le Mars, Iowa, in 2005, she was a pre-med major, but she soon learned that wasn’t necessarily her niche.

“That was a glorified disaster,” she laughs.

“I had been to Honduras on service trips in high school, so when I was visiting Creighton to decide where I wanted to go to college, I saw a poster for the Encuentro program and that was actually one of the selling points for Creighton for me.”

While studying abroad in the D.R. as a sophomore, she found she excelled in the social sciences, so she switched her major to justice and society with a Spanish minor.

“We had a really special semester, a great group. We all clicked and got along well. I can’t underestimate the importance of Tom Kelly (former program director) and Lisa (his wife) and their family, and how they were really good at challenging us to step outside our comfort zones, while at the same time making us feel at home.

“Encuentro does a good job of avoiding the ‘white savior’ complex,” Marmol continues. “We were taught that we were there to learn how not to ignore massive injustices and poverty, and to recognize that we can be part of the collective solution.”

Shortly before her semester abroad, Marmol’s mother had a recurrence of breast cancer. “My parents were both very supportive of me going. Even though she was very sick with chemo, my mom made the two-hour drive for the parents’ information meeting before we left because she was so supportive,” she says.

Her father visited her while she was in the D.R., but while he was there, her mother took an unexpected turn for the worse. He left immediately and Marmol followed two days later. Her mother died two days after that.

“My heart was torn between two places,” she says. “My time in the D.R. was such a huge watershed moment for me, using my gifts to fulfill my passions. But I wanted to be with my grieving family, too. I wanted to be in two places at once.”

She was grateful that her father made it simple for her, telling her she must go back to the Dominican Republic.

As part of the Encuentro program, each student lives for a time with a Dominican family in one of 200 rural communities, or campos, twice during the semester. From their time with their host families, students learn firsthand the realities of life in the Dominican countryside. They also work side by side with the community members on development projects to improve life in the campo. Marmol and her classmates lived in the tiny village of Ocho de Caballeros, home to about 20 families.

“I have no words to describe what a welcoming community it was,” she says. “The parents were so ready to take us in and genuinely happy to have us. We were obviously learning from them, but they embraced us and made us feel so welcome.”

Marmol returned to the D.R. during her senior year to assist the academic director, and has kept in touch with the Dominicans she came to know and love. She also is one who felt her heart tugged by the little boy Luis, who lived at the orphanage where she volunteered.

“He was a firecracker. I can’t even use the word ‘disabled’ with him. He was so spunky and independent. He was definitely not a victim — he was a fighter.”

After she returned to Creighton’s campus, Marmol worked part-time at a legal services agency specializing in immigration. “It was exactly what I was looking for. The attorneys were in tune with social justice and the particular vulnerabilities of our clients.”

Following graduation, she volunteered for a year with the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps Midwest and then applied to law school at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law.

“I actually chose Washington, D.C., because one of my Encuentro classmates was going to work in the White House and needed a roommate,” she says. She gravitated to the school’s immigration law clinic, and Marmol’s career path was firmly set.

She met her future husband, Alexis Marmol, her first year in law school. They were married in 2014 at St. John’s Church on Creighton’s campus.

She currently works for the D.C. Superior Court, but eventually looks to join her husband at the immigration law firm the couple started in the D.C. area. She plans to concentrate on unaccompanied immigrant minors and domestic violence cases.

Incorporating Jesuit Values

The transformation and growth that take place for students such as Marmol would not happen without the incorporation of Ignatian values into the learning objectives and the numerous opportunities for students, faculty, staff and volunteers to grow personally, professionally and spiritually.

Participants in the Creighton programs have the opportunity for reflection, prayer, discussion and journaling before, during and after their experiences in the D.R.

“Reflection helps them integrate what they encounter,” says Susan Naatz, MS’95, associate vice provost for Mission and Ministry. “Many of them have a truly transformative, life-changing experience.”

Also, the on-campus Division of Student Life works closely with Creighton’s on-site Encuentro student life director to provide leadership-building and cultural activities, as well as to ensure that students’ housing, health, safety and general well-being needs are met.

Tom Kelly, PhD, professor of systematic theology, is one of the dozens of Creighton faculty and administrators who have found themselves intensely and inextricably bonded to both their students and the residents of the Dominican Republic.

Kelly directed the Encuentro program from 2005 to 2007, moving to the D.R. with his wife and three young children, and then served as the program’s on-campus coordinator for four years.

“I had taught about the (Catholic) Church in Latin America for years, but I lacked on-site credibility,” Kelly says. “From a professional standpoint, my time in the D.R. was probably one of the most meaningful experiences of my career. I had 10 to 17 students each semester, and I really got to know them under very intense circumstances.

“Seeing poverty up close and what you can and can’t do about it. I have never seen students grow as deeply and permanently as I saw there.”

These connections can be symbolically understood in the life of one Dominican boy.

“Every student who volunteered at that orphanage fell in love with Luis. He had such a personality. Honestly, leaving Luis was the hardest part,” professor Kelly says of the time when he had to return home to Creighton’s campus from the Dominican Republic.

The Creighton connection changed the trajectory of Luis’ life, who today is 12 years old and lives in Knoxville, Tenn., with his family. He receives special needs education for half a day and is in a regular classroom the other half. He is a straight-A student, a safety patrol officer and class representative on the student council.

“He still has some physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy,” says his father, “as well as hearing and speech impairments for which he wears very colorful hearing aids he personally designed, but he continues to get better all the time.”

It took five years for the Ramshaws to complete Luis’ adoption. “Halfway through, all the paperwork was lost and we had to start over,” Ramshaw says.

“Volunteering with the ILAC program was a wonderful experience for me, and it turned into gaining a new son. The situation now is just wonderful, and we are so blessed to have him in our home.”