Amid the steady rush and hustle inside the Miami International Airport, Sydney Swain sat all alone. Caught in a layover, halfway between her Huntersville home and the third-world village where she spent the summer — overwhelmed by the excitement of returning home and the heartache of leaving new friends and "family" behind, and completely by herself for basically the first time since her junior year in high school had ended two months earlier — she cried.
"I don't know why, really," the 17-year-old said through a beaming smile remembering the flood of emotions that surprised her and reduced her to tears after every other member of her Global Leadership Adventures team had left for their connecting flights. "I realized I was by myself and was just sitting there thinking about everything we had done and the people I was missing, and I cried and cried."
The tears have evaporated, replaced by the pride of achievement, the fondness of friendships forged in a foreign land and the once-in-a-lifetime eagerness associated with the start of her senior year. But the memories of her summer of service in the Dominican Republic have fueled a resolute will to return to her beloved "second home" as soon and as often as possible, and solidified her determination to make helping others a life-long goal.
"I've always been interested in the Peace Corps, that's something I've talked about for years," Swain, the daughter of Dan and Jill Swain (Huntersville's mayor), said last week, just a few days into readjusting to life with cars, cell phone service and basic utilities. "After this summer, I know that's exactly what I want to do."
And in a fitting twist of fate and happenstance, it was her openly expressed interest in the Peace Corps that led to her unexpected indoctrination, and ultimate full immersion, into international service.
Near the end of her sophomore year at North Mecklenburg High School, Swain was contacted by Principal Matthew Hayes and asked if she was interested in joining a student group from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools preparing to embark on 21-day Global Leadership Adventures assignments.
"I had gotten to know Mr. Hayes and he knew this was something I cared about," Swain said, explaining that a last minute withdrawal had left an opening on the 2011 CMS contingent. "I ended up in the Dominican Republic and fell in love with the place."
As her junior year wound down this spring, and the schedule for a school club trip to France ruled out participation in a CMS-sponsored GLA trip to Cambodia, Swain reached out to Dave Addison, director of GLA operations in the Dominican Republic, to see if there was anything she could do there.
"He told me to come on down for the entire summer," Swain said, adding that she believes her inquisitive nature and interest in all aspects of the program the summer before made a lasting impression on Addison. "Dave said he would put me to work."
And he did, installing her as a supervisor and advisor to three different student groups taking part in GLA-organized projects during her seven-week stay.
"I felt a little uncomfortable at times last year," Swain said, "but this year I was like a mother to the group, even though some of them were older than me. I helped them adjust to some of the cultural differences and learn the routine and I think sometimes it was easier for them to listen to me because I was closer to their age."
The GLA's program included various excursions and adventures to expose students from throughout the United States and other countries to the culture and geography of the Dominican Republic, but the primary assignment was the construction of a new school in the village of Cano Dulce.
The unusual project involved a months-long effort by residents and volunteers to collect 30,000 plastic bottles. The bottles were stuffed with assorted materials and then used as the interior filling for school walls.
"The walls are framed up with chicken wire and then the bottles are stacked up inside the wire," Swain explained while showing some of the hundreds of photographs she has from her summer adventure. "Cement is then used to seal up the inside and outside of the walls."
In working on the project, Swain watched eight-year-olds from the village work all day, side by side with the student volunteers, to create their new school — a six-room palace compared to the lone garage previously used as a school for nearly 300 students. She even got to select colors for the interior walls — opting for a sea-like blue instead of the bland colors often used in similar projects. What she didn't get to see were the faces of the students on the first day of class in the new facility.
"The school is set to open in a few weeks," Swain said, glancing down uncomfortably and admitting, in a much more subdued voice, "my heart just hurts a little when I think about that bottle school."
The school, in fact, provided an unimaginable temptation for a high schooler only one year from graduation.
"If I wasn't 17 and I didn't have my senior year coming up," Swain said, "I would have stayed there and been a teacher at the school. I really wanted to do that, and I may end up back there doing just that."
Swain is already making plans to return next summer — "we're going to build two schools, and one will have a second floor with a hydroponic garden," she said — and she also wants to make other students aware of the contributions they can make.
"I'm on the principal's leadership board this year," she said, "and I want to get younger students interested in this. There is so much more we can do, so much more we can provide."
She said she has felt for a long time that service to others was her calling, but after an extended summer experience working alongside other young people committed to help, and sharing daily life with people grateful for whatever help they receive, she feels much more certain about the path she plans to take.
"I'm not the type of person to really plan ahead," she said, "but this I know — I want to do more of this in my life. I spent the first part of summer learning what to do and how to do it, but the last half of the summer I learned more about myself."
She was a cook and counselor, friend and fellow worker, nurse and nanny to young and old. She saw unimaginable poverty and despair overcome by compassion, caring and creative construction. And she emerged with a newfound appreciation of what she helped achieve, and what else can be accomplished.
"It was hard work, more work than I have ever done," Swain said, "but it was fun and heartbreaking at the same time. I want to go back and see that school in use, and I want to see other places, too. I just don't know what I'll do if I find a place I like better."
She has applied to seven universities placing an emphasis on schools that offer programs in international development while staying determined to serve in the Peace Corps.
"For a long time this is what I thought I wanted to do," she said, "and because of the school program, and because my principal knew this was something I was interested in, I got this opportunity. Now I know for sure.
"I have a hole in my heart right now for the Dominican Republic," she adds, explaining some of the tears that flowed in the Miami airport, "but I'm also excited about what I can do in the future."