Deena Elrefai: 2020 Leadership Dinner Honoree Highlight

Deena with Donayda, Caimonial community member, in the DR.

This year, Bridges to Community honors the future at our 2020 Leadership Dinner in April, recognizing a group of seven young people who are stellar examples of passionate, service-oriented future leaders. 

From Leesburg, Virginia, Deena Elrefai has traveled on four Bridges service trips and interned with Bridges in the Dominican Republic.  

Deena’s family has been volunteering with Bridges since 2008, and Deena, the youngest of 3 children, traveled on her first Bridges trip in January 2016. She says, “[My parents] started taking us [kids] as a way to open our minds, and they definitely did that. It has been such an incredible experience, and it challenged me at an age where I needed it…It has broadened my worldview, and I’ve learned so much.

Deena with her family in Nicaragua.

I love that, [as a volunteer], Bridges meets you where you are. There is no one that couldn’t feasibly [go on a Bridges trip]. You don’t need to have done it before or speak Spanish. I think it’s fantastic that you can bring a 70-year-old and a high schooler on the same trip, and they both have different but totally transformative experiences. 

The house building is fun, and I love working with the Bridges masons. However, even more importantly, the opportunity to sit down and connect with the scholarship students and beneficiary families is an exciting cross-cultural experience I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. I loved hearing about the family’s lives, so similar but on such a different life path than my own. [You] meet people you would never have the opportunity to get to know if you were just a tourist.”

This past June, Deena interned with Bridges in the Dominican Republic. She says, “It was an amazing experience because I learned so much about [community] development and got to see how it works behind the scenes. ” 

Bridges Communications Manager Elizabeth Spivak worked with Deena to run a volunteer trip during her internship and was impressed and grateful for her support. She says, “Deena is such an intelligent, natural leader. Due to the size of our volunteer group, Deena had to adapt quickly and basically become a staff member for the week. She helped to coordinate every aspect of the group, including translating and leading the group on the worksite. I wouldn’t have been able to run the trip without her. She grew so much during that one week.”

Deena is currently a sophomore at Elon University and hopes to organize a Bridges trip with a group of fellow students next fall to expose others to Bridges’ work. She says, “The impact of Bridges’ work is incredible. [For the community members], it’s not necessarily the physical project, it’s the engagement with the community and what they need, and the empowerment [that Bridges helps to foster]: giving people the opportunity and enabling them to help themselves when maybe they couldn’t before because of lack of opportunities. I have built someone’s house and then come back and seen them living in it. You can see the sense of pride and ownership on their faces, and it’s obvious how much the house has changed their lives for the better.” 

The Bridges experience has made me feel dissatisfied with the way things are in the best way, and I wouldn’t have gotten there so fast without [it]…I want to be a change-maker.”

Deena also credits her Bridges experience with influencing her scholarly and career interests. She says, “Before my first trip, I thought I wanted to be a biologist, but Bridges led me to my current majors and minor: a double-major in International and Global Studies and Public Health Studies and a minor in Spanish. 

Bridges has influenced my research too. I am working with the Latinx community in my University’s local

Deena with Leslie Barry, Trip Organizer & former Board Member.

community to study reproductive health perceptions and engagement of the US health care system by Latina immigrants. My interest was shaped by my time with Bridges public health volunteers [this summer on my internship]. I had the chance to talk to women about their babies and the DR healthcare system, and it really [piqued my interest].

I want to work in development in Latin America for at least a few years after college in something health-related. I’ve gotten there because of Bridges, which has opened my eyes to opportunities and disparities in the US, the DR, and Nicaragua.”

To know Deena is to be impressed by her. Trip organizer and former Bridges Board Member Leslie Barry says, “I knew on our first trip that Deena was a special young lady. I saw her grow in her aspirations to change the world for the better. She well deserves this honor. I am so proud of her, and I know she will go on to do great things.”