A Couple With Conviction
Married 50 years, Ben and Judy Sands - with the help of swim teams from Tufts and several other universities - traveled to the Dominican Republic in January to distribute nearly 5,000 pounds of food, clothes, toys and medical supplies.
Packing one or two suitcases for an overseas trip can be somewhat daunting and stressful. But when the task is jamming more than two tons of food, toys, clothes and medical supplies into 49 pieces of luggage, the stakes are much higher. Just ask Ben and Judy Sands.
In January, the couple - who met at Tufts while students there in the 1950s and have now been married 50 years - led a trip to the Dominican Republic with swim teams from Tufts, Bowdoin, Northeastern, Brandeis, Rutgers and Boston College to distribute the contents of those 49 pieces of luggage within the impoverished and displaced Haitian community there.
"The Haitians who work in the sugar cane fields are brought in with the aid of the government, illegally," says Ben (E'54), who has been on his Tufts class reunion committee every year since 1953 and coached hockey at Tufts on-and-off throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
"They're told that there are nice jobs for them and so forth, but they end up living in hovels in the middle of the cane fields, working for a dollar and a half a day," he says. "They can't get out. They have no identity: they're not citizens, they have no status in the country..."
"The children can't go to school," Judy (J'57) jumps in. "They're slaves," her husband adds.
The Sandses - a genial couple with a tendency to finish each others' sentences - learned about the Haitians' situation from a woman they had met through Airline Ambassors, a program that uses available cargo space on airlines to ship needed goods to third-world countries.
Having traveled to Guatemala twice with Airline Ambassadors, the Sandses decided to organize their own humanitarian trip - this time, to the Dominican Republic - using the same approach. They quickly realized they could work with the Tufts athletics department to team up with athletes who were heading to the Dominican Republic for several weeks of training.
"We've taken trips with the swim team in the past, so I had this idea that we could do the humanitarian trip with the Tufts women's swim team," Ben says. "I ran it by [head athletics coach] Nancy Bigelow in the middle of October." She quickly agreed.
The swim team's trip presented the Sandses with an opportunity to transport all of their supplies without violating federal airline regulations, which state that each passenger can only travel with two large pieces of luggage.
"Everyone can take two bags, and if you're going on a week's swimming trip, you don't need two duffel bags of stuff, plus it was an all-inclusive place," says Ben, his voice rising in excitement. "So we could have each of the 15 swimmers take a bag for us: they take 15 bags, we can take two each ourselves - that's 20 bags!"
From there, the idea quickly snowballed.
"About a week later, Nancy said we should call the travel agent because some other teams were going, too," Ben says. "So to make a long story short, we called and contacted Bowdoin, Northeastern and Brandeis, initially, so those four teams all became involved in the trip." In a matter of weeks, Boston College's swim team and Rutgers' diving team had signed on as well.
"This whole thing came about in a short time period," Ben says. And within a matter of a few weeks, he and Judy had a whole lot of packing and planning to do.
"We then met with each of the four [initial] teams, and gave them a list, and said that ideally, we'd like them all to bring a gym bag full of stuff," he continues. "What we needed were things like peanut butter and school supplies and over-the counter meds and construction paper."
The response from the teams was overwhelming, and the piles of food, medicine, clothes and other items quickly built up. Other groups pitched in as well, including the Tufts School of Dental Medicine, which donated toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss to the cause.
But gathering the supplies was just the beginning.
"We found a baseball team and gave them baseball equipment that Tufts and Northeastern had donated - that was a fun time," says Ben Sands. "We were driving by a field, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, stop!' and said, ‘Who's the boss here? Do you want some equipment?' through a translator. The coach said, ‘Yeah,' so I said, ‘OK, we're going back to the hotel and getting our baseball stuff!'"
"Then we had the problem of what we were going to do with all the stuff once we got there!" Judy says. Ben nods in agreement, adding that "the trip had three parts: collecting the stuff, getting it there, and distributing it. We knew we had the stuff coming in, we knew how to get it there, but we hadn't a clue about how to distribute it."
So the couple began contacting people. Through Airline Ambassadors, Ben says, "we located an organization in the Midwest, Kids Allied, that had two schools in the Dominican Republic. One was way up in the mountains. So we contacted that school. We set it up to go there on a certain date, January 11, which was when they go back to school [after Christmas vacation]."
It was around that time that the Sandses learned about a priest in the Dominican Republic who is working to attain rights for the country's Haitian population.
"He has four feeding programs with 200 children in each one, and he gives them breakfast and lunch," Judy says. "Otherwise, the children would get one meal a day."
"So we're seeing this, and we just kind of said, ‘That's what we'd like to do; we'd like to help him,'" Ben says. Luckily for the couple, geography was on their side: "It turns out that the villages he had were right next to where we were, within a half an hour in either direction," he adds.
Having collected between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds of supplies, the group made their way to the Dominican Republic. On their first day, they visited a local hospital.
"We gave everyone a stuffed animal and a coloring book, and I took Polaroids of all of them to put in little picture frames," Ben says, smiling. "We knew that kids loved that - we'd done that in Guatemala. We saw maybe 40 or 50 children."
The orphanage where they traveled next was more sobering: as Judy puts it, the experience was "pretty grim," and it's one of the few segments of the trip of which the otherwise unflappable couple don't have pictures.
"Most of these children showed no reaction at all because they were non-responsive, non-verbal," Judy says. Ben adds, "It was really just one big cage, with 15 boys in it, and then within the cage was a separate cage for one person..."
"It must have been someone who was violent," Judy says, adding, "It was really kind of tough on the [swim team] kids, I think."
The other places to which the Sandses and the swim teams traveled with toys, food and other supplies were less grim.
"We went out to do the distribution with the priest," Ben says. "He then took the kids into the villages, the batays, to show them the conditions out there. We went back three days later to take clothes out."
The Sandses also distributed their goods at places that were off the planned track - like a local baseball diamond.
"We found a baseball team and gave them baseball equipment that Tufts and Northeastern had donated - that was a fun time," Ben says. "We were driving by a field, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, stop!' and said, ‘Who's the boss here? Do you want some equipment?' through a translator. The coach said, ‘Yeah,' so I said, ‘OK, we're going back to the hotel and getting our baseball stuff!'"
Sorting through all the other "stuff" was no easy task.
"I worked the whole time - basically, I didn't know what was coming in, and I had to sort it all," Judy says. "When we got there, I only had four calculators, and this woman [from the school in the mountains] had asked for 20. I was really sort of sweating that out and thinking maybe I could buy some, but by the time the kids had given me all their stuff, we had 80!"
The couple's hotel room quickly turned into a warehouse.
"We had so many school supplies - I had stacks of construction paper this high, stacks of coloring books this high..." continues Judy, waving her hand at waist-level. "Our room had aisles to get from the bed to the bathroom."
To the Sandses, however, a cluttered room was a small price to pay for the chance to lend a helping hand. And the couple is already thinking about a return trip.
"I've got some other ideas, like if we could work with this medical collaborator that ships all the containers, maybe we could give him 20 duffel bags and then take down our own couple of bags," Ben muses.
Judy has no doubt that she and her husband would manage to fill up those 20 duffel bags: "People are willing to help if they know there's a need," she says.
No matter what shape their own plans take, the couple hopes their January venture has shaped the future humanitarian plans of others.
"I hope we've inspired younger people to do humanitarian work and work in the field of social justice, because it's so important, and the young people are the ones who are going to have to carry it out," Judy says.
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
This story originally ran on April 25, 2005