Journeys in Transition

Journeys in Transition


Director of Service Learning and Community Engagement

Camila Dominguez ’24 has been involved with working in her community for all her life. Her mother, Carolina Freire, actually founded Voluntarios de Panamá, an organization whose mission is to inspire and connect people to service organizations all over the country. Born and raised in Panama City, Camila has been involved in work with her mother for as long as she can remember, whether on a day-to-day basis or on the annual “Good Deeds Day” that her mother also worked to promote. 

“There are pictures of me at four years old at beach cleanups,” she quipped to me. Through the work with her family, she was able to gain valuable perspectives on many of the issues facing the world today. However, as long as she remained in Panama, Camila’s experience in the world was inextricably tied to her family’s. 

Moving to Alexandria and enrolling in St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes offered challenges, but also an opportunity to grow her own voice and direction. Camila came to SSSAS as a 10th grade student, and on the surface, she came with a variety of skills and advantages that should make her transition as smooth as possible. She went to an American School in Panama City, which not only meant that she arrived in the Washington, D.C. region with fluent English language skills, but also that she was used to the international environment the area would offer—and even the transience that sometimes plagues it. There were stories floating in and out of the air as people were always moving. She was used to talking to the new kids that would come to the school, and she joked, “Everybody was always fighting to talk to them first.” 

Despite this, she faced unexpected challenges. Though academics were a large part of that early struggle (as she reports that her teachers at SSSAS have a much more watchful eye on her performance than her teachers in Panama had), the largest challenge was social. “In Latin America, everybody will say hi to you, or good morning,” she said, but at first, it seemed as though people in the United States led more solitary existences. To make matters worse, she says, “I’ve never been a person who did any type of sports,” and so she couldn’t rely on a team to find new footing. For a little while, she felt herself struggling socially. She was the new kid, but “new” didn’t feel the same to her at SSSAS as it did when she heard it back in Panama City.

And so, she figured she would lean on her experience in Panama and try something she’d always done—get involved in her community, but this time on her own terms. During her 10th grade spring, she signed up for Reach for the Stars, an after school program, founded by alumna Danielle Pascale ’23. Being a native Spanish speaker, she was able to connect with the students who this program serves, mostly of Central American descent who have ended up in this region through migration. She could learn their stories in a richer way, and she began to see some similarities between what they were going through and what she was. 

She realized that both she and the students in the program were struggling with what it means to be in transition. She could relate to the feeling of being uprooted—and wanting to move back. In this more lonely time in her life, she remembers, “The conversations meant a lot more to me [at Reach for the Stars] than they would have in Panama.”

First photo: Camila Dominguez ’24 with her parents, Manuel Dominguez and Carolina Freire, at a fundraiser in Panama. Second photo: Camila in front of the Red Cross building in Darién, Panama.

Now, she is careful to offer a caveat to this realization. She knows that the advantages that she has had in her life equip her much more to live a life in this area that is free from obstruction and major hardship. She couldn’t imagine herself trying to embark upon changing cultures once again, let alone trying to do it under the conditions she’d learn those students face. She learned, “There were students who slept in hammocks in rooms with all of their siblings,” or kids that didn’t have shoes even to walk to school. Instead of using their situation merely to realize that she has had so many advantages, she felt inspired to act. Of course, they yearned to return to a life before these conditions, but if transitions are hard, she wanted to make them easier for everyone. In her words, “I wanted to help provide some of the resources to make their transition smoother.” 

Around the same time of her realization, new migrants began to arrive in the region on buses paid for by the governments of states along the US-Mexico Border. The Washington Post reports that over 13,000 migrants have arrived in Washington, D.C. since April 2022. These buses headed to various locations around the city—Union Station and The Naval Observatory, for instance—but by July 2022, various organizations in the area had begun to coordinate to receive the migrant travelers and provide aid. At that time, Capitol Hill Methodist Church began a partnership with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network to receive 1-2 buses per week so that they could offer some amount of support to migrants, to make a transition period of their lives a little easier. Their ambition fit with Camila’s realization—people need the most support during their transition periods. 

She, along with her mother who learned of the organizations who were aiding recent migrants, began working to support Capitol Hill Methodist Church in their mission to provide dignity to those who are on their journeys in transition. She realized the resources that she and many others in her world had that they were not using, and thought how powerful they could be in the lives of those starting off in our region. At that time, she began her work by simply collecting donations from her friends and others who were connected to her, and she would bring these items to the church on Thursdays around 7 p.m. There, she would help to sort and distribute all of what had been gathered to those who arrived with little other than what they were wearing at that moment. 

In November 2022, she helped to start an Upper School tradition of providing assistance to Capitol Hill Methodist Church and their mission by sharing her story with our whole school community during Saintsgiving, the traditional SSSAS day of giving thanks to and engaging with our community before our own family Thanksgiving traditions. In that year, the school community came together to provide over a dozen large bags of clothing and toiletries to her mission. Hoping to make this a more continual endeavor, she started AMOR (which stands for Assisting Migrants or Refugees and also means “love” in Spanish) and runs materials drives and sorting sessions throughout the year involving Saints in our school community. In this simple way, by bringing a need to our school community that we can fulfill eagerly, she has helped SSSAS continue to be active in our mission to support all of God’s children. 

The Darién Gap

Between Panama and Colombia lies 60 miles of territory that is one of the world’s most dangerous areas and difficult to emerge from unscathed. The Pan-American Highway is unfinished in the gap.

This experience has also caused her to reexamine her life in Panama with fresh eyes. Within the past two years, Camila began to offer workshops for those in Panama, migrants and native Panamanians alike, so that they can begin to understand the needs of those migrants crossing through the country and how to meet them. This past summer, she had the opportunity to work with the Red Cross in Panama to offer her workshops to those in the Darién Gap, one of the most treacherous areas in the world—so treacherous that the Pan-American Highway that runs from the tip of North America in the Arctic Ocean to the tip of South America at Cape Horn fails to live up to its name over the stretch. In decades prior, only indigenous communities and guerilla groups had seen fit to frequent the Darién Gap’s mountainous jungle terrain, but, as the Migration Policy Institute reports, since 2020 various groups from Haitians to Venezuelans have had to cross it to seek refuge from unsafe conditions in their homelands. This passage, and its dangers, is a path of last resort.

For two months, offering these workshops at migrant registration centers allowed her to see how difficult this journey really is. She remembers her experience, but has a hard time recounting their stories to anyone here. “It’s hard to explain the severity and tragedy of their journey.” She remembers hearing stories of children stating how many of the dead they had to pass along the way. “Seeing all those things really breaks my heart, because it makes me feel how it would be to live through that.”

It’s this experience that underscores the continued urgency in her work. Despite the fact that The Washington Post reports waning numbers of migrants arriving to D.C. (and the fact that this story has fallen to the wayside in a global newscycle that continues to churn), she says, “The problem is not going away.” Every week that she goes, she still sees around 30 more people arriving at Capitol Hill Methodist Church in their transitional period. That means there is still work to be done for her and those that seek to support migrants in a time of need.

Still, she also does not expect every person to be as involved as she is. “It’s tricky to get more people involved because of the timing of the program,” she says. Nor does every person feel the same pull; it is the combination of her own transitional opportunity and how it informed her experience in a school-sponsored program that allowed her to take her family’s experience and make it one that she has found her true voice within. She is thankful for how helpful the school community has been in helping her carry out her mission, and that she found the inspiration to act here.  

The thing she does hope people will do is to become more informed on what is happening. Towards the end of our interview, she lamented the fact that she felt she had not spoken enough about how central the Darién Gap is in understanding today’s story of migration to the United States. The experiences she heard of the Darién Gap revealed to her one key thing she hopes people will realize, and perhaps move them to act: “People aren’t coming here for a vacation. People are coming here, struggling, and it’s not an easy choice to make.” For those inspired enough to explore, she said the information is out there and hoped that people would look to the work that organizations like International Organization for Migration or Red Cross are doing (or the statistics they produce), even if they can’t travel to Darién to find it for themselves. 

And, in the end, if people want to get involved, Camila knows someone that might be able to help. “If you want to help, reach out to the club!”



The number of miles of the Pan-American Highway that remains incomplete running through the Darién Gap. This area is known for robbery, rape, smugglers and criminal groups, and human trafficking, in addition to wild animals, insects, and a lack of safe drinking water. 


The number of people who crossed the gap in 2023, including 113,000 children, is more than twice the number in 2022. The majority of migrants were from Venezuela, followed by Ecuador and Haiti, but some came from as far away as Angola, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. According to the UN, economic insecurity, political upheaval, violence, and climate change are driving record numbers of migrants from their home countries. 


The number of people who have reported sexual violence to Doctors without Borders since 2021. 


The number of people reported missing to the International Organization for Migration between 2021 and March, 2023, although the real figure is most likely to be much higher.


The gap’s environment presents tremendous challenges, with high humidity and temperatures reaching 95°. One of the wettest regions in the world, torrential rains can trigger landslides. Wildlife in the gap includes crocodiles and venomous snakes.

This information was gathered from the Council of Foreign Relations and the Human Rights Watch.