As First Coast shoppers filled town centers and big box stores in the final weeks leading up to the holiday season, Ponte Vedra resident Vickie Pappas was some 1,082 miles away at Hogar de Niños orphanage in the San Cristóbal province of the Dominican Republic, where children and teens gathered in a communal cafeteria with crayons and coloring books.
Though it’s been awhile since her last visit, Pappas was no stranger to the orphanage as she joined them for a Christmas celebration. The residence lacks many of the “modern” necessities of a traditional home, such as running water and constant electricity, but its festivities are no less heartfelt. Over candy, song and dance, they celebrated the upcoming holiday with the simplest components of Christmas: togetherness, Christ and the spirit of giving.
The residence sees assistance through its sister organization, the Homeless and Orphans Outreach, Inc. (HOOI) based out of Lake Placid, Florida. Hogar de Niños is one of the eight schools, churches and orphanages that has been supported by the nonprofit, all-volunteer organization throughout its 23-year history, powering through barriers proposed by language and distance to form relationships that connect the children who call it home with its network of volunteers in Lake Placid and mission particiapnts throughout the country.
A transformative experience
On the First Coast, Jacksonville’s Episcopal School routinely visits the orphanage on trips led by Director of Community Service Sis Van Cleve Miller in partnership with the Global Christian Outreach. It’s a journey she has spearheaded for more than 10 years at the school in keeping with Episcopal’s mission to inspire students to dedicate themselves to services wherever they can, and one that often changes the lives of those involved.
Pappas first accompanied her son on one such trip years ago at a time when she said she believed she was being called upon by her faith. Through what felt like a dance of fate, Pappas was contacted by Miller in November asking if she’d be interested in returning. Welcoming the opportunity to take her eyes off of the more self-indulgent aspects of stateside Christmas preparations, Pappas departed with Miller from Orlando for a four-night trip from Dec. 7-11.
“Five years ago I went with Trey on this mission trip … and when we returned, I made a promise to be more aware, more grateful, more caring and (simple),” she said. “I know God realized that I had slowly and selfishly slipped back into ‘the world,’ and guided me back to the orphanage.”
She and Miller joined other volunteers from the HOOI community on the trip with Christmas gifts in tow; among them shoes, watches, candy and backpacks with school supplies donated through drives run by Episcopal School of Jacksonville and Lake Placid’s volunteers.
Pappas reconnected with a young man named Popitto, whom she’d met in 2011 during her first visit. Like several of the children at Hogar de Niños, Popitto had resided there for years before heading to college in Santo Domingo. He now regularly returns to mentor at the faith-based orphanage and preaches twice a day every Saturday in San Cristóbal.
“Through the experience and seeing him again I’ve realized the best thing you can give is your time and your love,” she said. “It’s not about expensive material things, but the importance of reaffirming relationships, of giving love.”
The true spirit of Christmas
Though Pappas went to be of service to the children of the orphanage, she received as much as she gave from Hogar de Niños’s residents, who she says embody the spirit of Christ in their own actions.
“The children are deeply religious, and they pass that spirit unto others,” she said. “In serving others, you try to be the hands and feet of Christ, no matter what background you come from or what situation you’re in.”
Pappas said the children of Hogar de Niños never forget the true meaning of Christmas.
“Now especially is a time to look for grace and kindness and compassion with everyone you meet – you’re in service for Christ not by what you say but by what you do,” she said. “These kids reflect that and I feel blessed having witnessed it.”