Harris family slowly adjusting to life back in the U.S. after several years in Dominican Republic

Joel and Jennifer Harris (back), along with their children (from left) Aubrey, 8; Landry and Caroline, both 3; and Meredith, 4, recently returned from two and a half years in the Dominican Republic — a move that introduced the youngest children, for the first time, to the need for jackets and socks.
Joel and Jennifer Harris (back), along with their children (from left) Aubrey, 8; Landry and Caroline, both 3; and Meredith, 4, recently returned from two and a half years in the Dominican Republic — a move that introduced the youngest children, for the first time, to the need for jackets and socks. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Nov. 20, 2017.

Glass windows in the house, and below freezing temperatures at night — both new experiences for the Harris kids.
“We’re getting used to jackets and socks,” says their mom, Jennifer Harris.

For two and a half years — a large chunk of a young life — the family lived in the Dominican Republic, a lifestyle the kids came to know as “normal.”

It’s life in the northern Indiana community where they were born that now seems a bit “foreign.”

When Jennifer and her husband, Joel, left Huntington with their four kids, oldest daughter Aubrey was 5, Meredith was not quite 2 and twins Caroline and Landry were almost five months old.

Now, the youngest three have lived in the Dominican Republic longer than they’ve lived in the United States.

During their time in the DR, the kids became fluent in Spanish, wandered outside pretty much at will and fell asleep to the sound of crickets.

But their time in the Caribbean nation was almost derailed by the unexpected addition of the twins to the family.

Joel was — and still is — employed by Lifeline Youth and Family Services, a Fort Wayne-based non-profit that offers both home-based and residential counseling services for youth. He was working in home-based counseling when he applied for an opening at the organization’s Caribbean Mountain Academy, a boarding school in the Dominican Republic that houses troubled teens from the United States and Canada.

An answer to his application was a long time coming.

Joel, then serving on the Huntington County Council, finally decided to file as a candidate for a second term, shortly thereafter receiving word from Lifeline that he had the job in the Dominican Republic. He suspended his political campaign and the family started making preparations to leave the country.

Then they found out Jennifer was pregnant.

With twins.

That gave them pause.

“I think it would have been foolish not to reconsider,” Jennifer says. “But we both really felt called to it. And people have babies every day. People move with babies.”

The family committed in March of 2014 to go to the DR and had originally planned to leave in August of the same year. They finally left in April of 2015, after the newborns had been medically cleared and received passports.

During the intervening months, Joel worked with students at the Caribbean Mountain Academy via Skype.
Once in the country, Joel, who has a master’s degree in counseling, served as a therapist at the boarding school.

Jennifer served as an unofficial “campus mom.”

“I’m mom to these four first,” she says. “But I’d fill in as an unofficial mentor, a listening  ear.”

When it became known she had a teaching degree, she was asked to teach music at a Dominican Republic school that served students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. The school, she explains, was a Spanish/English bilingual school that “focused on raising leaders from within the DR.”

To keep things going at home, Joel and Jennifer hired a Dominican woman as a housekeeper and nanny.

“It was wonderful,” Jennifer says. “She loved them, and they loved her.”

The woman helped with child care, laundry, cleaning and occasionally cooking, all for a paycheck that was equivalent to just under $50 a week in U.S. dollars.

It may not sound like much for an 8-to-5 job, Joel says, but “she was paid more than a typical police officer.”

The Harris kids were in good hands with the nanny, Jennifer and Joel say, even with the language barrier.

“She knew very little English, and the kids’ Spanish was growing, but not adequate,” says Jennifer — who, unlike Joel, was able to communicate in Spanish.

Aubrey and Meredith grew their Spanish skills while attending the school where Jennifer taught. Aubrey attended kindergarten and first grade there, learning from an American teacher and Dominican assistants. Meredith did a year of preschool, where the teacher and assistants were all Dominican.

Joel and Jennifer didn’t realize just how much Spanish the kids were learning.

“Aubrey would be really quiet, then a Dominican would come and talk to her and she would just break out in this beautiful Spanish,” Joel says.

Aubrey surprised Jennifer when the two were at a hospital with Caroline, who had gashed her leg on a broken glass. Aubrey needed to use the bathroom and had to ask the hospital staff for directions.

“She just asked in this completely grammatically correct Spanish,” Jennifer says. “They were obviously not prepared for her to speak to them so fluently.”

Meredith, too, was becoming fluent in the language of the Caribbean nation. When Jennifer and Joel asked her teacher how she was doing in school, the teacher responded, “Oh, she knows everything I’m saying,” Joel says.

The girls’ school in the DR had mostly Dominican students, with two or three American students — mostly children of missionaries — in each class, making up about 10 percent of the school’s enrollment.

Aubrey is now attending Emmaus Lutheran School, in Fort Wayne, where she’s no longer in the minority.

That wasn’t the case in the Dominican Republic, where four blonde, blue-eyed children stood out in a dark-skinned culture.

“It was kind of weird,” Aubrey says. “I was the only blondie in the classroom.”

“We were celebrities,” Joel says. “They’d stop us for pictures or they’d come up and start petting our kids.”

“The attention was really difficult for the kids to deal with, especially Aubrey,” Jennifer says. “They weren’t trying to be rude or disrespectful, but the constant touching was intrusive.”

A typical day in the DR saw Aubrey and Meredith getting picked up by the school van, and, if Jennifer was working, the two younger kids staying home with the nanny. Joel walked down the mountain, a trip of about a quarter-mile, to work.

“I got pretty good calves that way,” he says. “I did it for two years.”

Some evenings, students from the boarding school would come to the Harrises’ home for mentoring.

Joel and Jennifer say their kids had more freedom in the DR than they do here.

“We lived in a duplex in a gated community with security guards,” Jennifer says. “They could just go outside and play. Here, we don’t have that luxury.”

“They played outside more,” Joel says.

“They climbed trees; Aubrey climbed a tetherball pole,” Jennifer sais. “They did things kids here don’t do anymore.”

Aubrey would run up and down the mountain, between their home and Joel’s school, by herself.

“That was OK because everybody was looking out for everybody else,” Jennifer says.

Once back in the U.S., the kids had to get used to a new set of sounds.

“The noises are different,” Jennifer says. There was no glass in the windows, so we heard music from down the mountain, not the heater kicking on … they went to sleep with nature sounds. We had crickets year ’round.”

“And roosters, and guinea hens, cows and horses,” Joel says.

They’ve also had to adjust to sleeping in air conditioning, which was nonexistent in the DR, and to having a constant supply of electricity instead of the frequent power outages used as a conservation measure in the DR.

“All four have had nightmares and tummy issues,” Jennifer says. “They’re missing their friends from the DR.”

There were some bumps as the kids — and their parents — adjusted to an American diet — full of salt, preservatives and processed foods.

“It just sits hard,” Joel says.

Aubrey says she misses the rice and moro (rice and beans), while Meredith says she misses the cheese — a comment that gets a rise out of Joel.

“Their cheese was awful,” he says. “Their cows are not the same quality as American cows.”

While the Harrises don’t regret the experience, it’s something they probably won’t repeat.

“I don’t see making that kind of move again,” Jennifer says. “It’s hard living that far away from family.”