A Trip With Children International to the Dominican Republic
Children International is a humanitarian relief organization whose sponsors support more than 320,000 children in 11 countries. I have been working with them since last year when listeners to my radio program signed up to sponsor more than 250 children during the Christmas season, and another 100 in the week before Easter. (If as a result of today’s broadcast or reading this post, you’d like to join in sponsoring a child in the DR, please send me an e-mail with your contact info to email@example.com.)
Though I had thoroughly investigated CI before agreeing to serve as one of their spokespeople and knew of their very sterling reputation for effectiveness and efficiency, CI suggested that I would be better equipped to explain the program to my audience if I visited one of the 11 countries in which they work. CI is non-sectarian and establishes community service centers in impoverished regions of the countries in which they work which are staffed with medical and dental personnel, social workers and volunteers drawn from the communities being served. The aim is to rescue sponsored children from the most abject poverty via years of medical, educational support and small economic interventions aimed at meeting the basic needs of the child while supplementing whatever public education is available through training and workshops geared to the age of the children, culminating in intensive transition training as the child nears adulthood.[# More #]
Because I have been in Mexico as part of church service projects and understand that country’s profile fairly well, we decided to visit a country where I had next to no understanding of the local conditions. The closest of CI’s international operations after Mexico is in the Dominican Republic, of course a nation with a long and fascinating history but, like most of the Caribbean nations, is also a place of great swaths of deep and remorseless poverty across much of the island. Accompanied by my close friend Bud, a contractor and a veteran of many mission/relief trips to Mexico, Ukraine, Cambodia, and, in two weeks, South Africa, we arrived in Santa Domingo on July 3 and spent the next two days at three of the nine community service centers CI operates in the country and visiting nine homes in the course of the tours. Bringing Bud along allowed us to discuss among ourselves the effectiveness of the operations and Bud could advise me on the quality of such things as the new community service center under construction as well as offer informed opinions on different relief models he hads participated in very different parts of the world. We were led by CI’s DR director, Rafael M. Mejia P., the chief of sponsor relations unit, Sofia Betances, coordinator of human resources Evelyn Pe?a, youth coordinator Marlon Herrera, and from the Kansas City, MO headquarters, Franklin Guerrero-Jimenez, a wonderful, engaging relief professional who was born in Puerto Rico of Dominican parents, lived in the DR, and educated in the mainland where he served in international relief operations and Mission Relationships for the United Methodist Church for many years before joining CI as their Director of Development. All are extraordinarily competent social service professionals with many years of front-line service for CI. Franklin and Sofia patiently translated and interpreted for us throughout our many conversations, filling in detailed background on the country’s history, the relationship with Haiti, the economic and development prospects, and of course the children and CI’s unique approach and why it has proved so successful over the decades. We also had the chance to meet Sofia’s staff of a dozen translators, an extraordinary group of young professionals, patiently working through the long letters from sponsors and the shorter letters from children, keeping open the one-to-one communication that is the core of the CI approach. One staffer handles the special needs children, and his work is a window onto CI’s approach. He keeps a medical dictionary close at hand. When a sponsored child falls ill, the sponsor learns about it and the progress of the treatment in detail. This is not done to raise money, but because over the nearly seventy years of following the model, CI has learned that sponsors often become as concerned for their sponsored childrens’ health and welfare as they do for their children or close relations. Many many sponsors are older and their children have left and they are practicing a sort of long distance adoption. Others are single and greatly enjoying the relationship of watching a child grow, and not just in years but in vastly expanded human potential. Key events in the lives of sponsored children are carefully documented and sponsors informed, and if that requires one translator skilled in medical jargon, CI provides such a person
CI carefully accounts for every child who is sponsored and maintains an incredible record of each child’s progress over their years in the program. If requested by a sponsor, CI will facilitate a visit between the sponsor and the child and his or her family. Of course the expense of travel even to a relatively close country like the DR prevents many sponsors from making such a visit, but still many sponsors do find an opportunity to meet their child in the course of the years he or she provides the $22 a month basic sponsorship. Many sponsors also go beyond the core contribution, and intervene in the child’s life via supplemental gifts and supports. Occasionally a sponsor will provide the few thousand dollars to move a child and their family from the shacks in which almost all of the children live into a cement house of approximately 800 square feet, a life changing upgrade from the splintery shacks in which most of the urban and rural poor exist. (Running water is very rare, and indoor plumbing was in just one of the nine homes I visited.)
Some sponsors also provide larger gifts to enhance the overall program. I visited a new service center under construction in the Bosa Chica region which will be built and furnished thanks to the gift of an Atlanta family which provided the $250,000 toward the $380,000 necessary to acquire the land and pay for the construction. The ability to greatly impact 5,000 children and through them their families -the number any service center can handle responsibly-through such a gift is one of the reasons some major gifts flow to CI: The return on the contribution is enormous and immediate. Gordon Bailey and his family will have transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of children and their siblings and parents through their generosity.
Though CI staff knows the names and specific conditions of each member of each family we visited, I will not use them in this post, except as to Rocio and Franklin, both of whom have turned 18, and then only their first names and with the permission of CI. CI is intensely protective of their children and their sponsors and after seven decades of the work, they know well that ruthless exploitation of children is all too common an occurrence around the globe and thus guard their charges with great care. (The sex tourism trade is a sad feature of the DR that the country struggles to control with limited success, and the stories of attempts over the years to gain access to children through relief work are enough to keep the walls very high against unsupervised contacts or visits. Similarly, children never learn the location or personal information of their sponsors to prevent the exploitation of the sponsors by extended family or unscrupulous con men.)
After a tour of a service center, discussions with the pediatrician and dentist on staff and participation in a youth council meeting and a volunteer training session, we headed into the nearby streets of a densely populated neighborhood of Mendoza. Our first visit was accompanying a CI staffer for the routine work of a quarterly family update, where the staffer calls on the home of a sponsored child to record the condition of the household and check for changes in family status -has a parent died or simply abandoned the children, have the CI provided clothing stayed in the home and not been sold etc.) Family #1 included four children under the age of six, a cousin and a grandmother at the time we visited. Both parents were at work, and the two room shack was stifling in the DR midday heat. Two beds and a gas powered hot plate made up the second room, and there were no chairs. None of the children had shoes, though because one of the children is sponsored the clothing was not threadbare. This was one of the three most desperate families of the nine we encountered. They are refugees from Haiti, and represent the lowest class within the DR.
Of interest to Bud and me was the laminated copy of the 29th Psalm and the dog-eared Bible, the only possession on the single table. The communal outhouse was, as one can only truly experience first hand, an awful but necessary feature of the ally through which we passed, the primitive requirement of every few houses, made even more primitive by the physical limitations of the crowded slum that prevents the frequent digging of new latrines. (One woman on the street dragged the group to see a 20 foot deep hole dug to serve as the new latrine but on which work had been abandoned when the money ran out. She was hoping for a grant, but the CI staff explained patiently that their work is defined and very structured -a display of the discipline needed to achieve results in such settings where the needs are massive and at every level.)
Family #2 had a concrete house and welcomed our party in when one of the summer thunderstorms burst upon us. This was not a sponsored family, and the elderly couple had a picture of their son on the table, the son whose work in Spain allowed him to provide the cash to move up into the relative affluence of the concrete house, though the roof was corrugated steel. Their hospitality was a common feature of the island, and though we were in the very toughest neighborhoods in the country, we had no sense of any physical threat at any time. The Dominicans have a lot of problems, and of course some of the crime and violence that always accompanies poverty, but it is a remarkably safe environment within which CI can accomplish much because the costs of security, so high in some places of the world, are quite low and the ability to work in the distressed neighborhoods very unrestricted by fear of violence against staff and volunteers.
Familes 3, 4, 5 and 6 live in the riverside slum of Los Tres Brazos (Three Arms). If you have seen the opening scenes of this summer’s blockbuster The Hulk, you will have a picture in your mind of the vast slums of Rio in which the movie’s opening scenes are shot. This neighborhood, built on the rapidly rising hill from river’s edge to the commercial thoroughfarefar above, is home to tens of thousands of rickety shacks that could have been the backdrop to those scenes in the movie, so similar is the terrain. The CI team took us to four homes, beginning with one at the very summit of the hill, the most desperate of the families we would visit in this area, as evidenced by the climb each parent and child would have to make to just get to their dilapidated shack. The father and mother greeted us, invited us into their home and offered us the single chair there, and explained how they lived and how infrequently the father could find work.
The sponsored child, a little girl of nine, vanished behind the curtain that partitioned the shack and reappeared with her prized possessions –two dolls, provided by her sponsor as special gifts at Christmas’ past, one of which had been carefully preserved in its original Barbie box. She also wanted me to see a picture of her sponsor, a pleasant faced, gray haired woman of about sixty smiling in her leafy back yard. This sponsor had not visited the island, and I doubt she has any idea how much light she has brought into this little girl’s grim world through her sponsorship and of course the luxury of two dolls.
One of the unique aspects of CI is that it does allow for special gifts, a labor intensive service, but one which is highly valued for the reasons discussed below.
The CI staff is well known in the slum and we were surrounded by little children asking to be sponsored. A list is maintained for future sponsors, and though CI presently has 29,000 children under active sponsorship in the DR, the waiting list is at 3,000. One little girl that went to the top of the hill to ask us to see if she could be sponsored and had us stop at her shack on the way down the hill path, wjhere one of the CI staff discovered that the little girl belonged to the chicken seller who works her middle class street –a very large coincidence given the vastness of the slum and the randomness of the meeting. We spent a few minutes discussing the chicken trade and the dad’s work routine. The point is that he works almost every morning, but that his wages cannot get the family out of the slum. Sponsors help to accomplish that.
The paid CI staff is quite slim -about 120– but the volunteer network of mothers of sponsored children extends the CI network deep into the neighborhood. It is not a requirement of sponsorship that a mom join the volunteer network, but many do, jumping at the opportunity to gain some skills that can help their families out of poverty. The training session for mothers we participated in was covering the basics of hygiene and child record keeping as well as the necessity of regular updates on education and health and education reporting. The volunteers will on occasion receive micro enterprize training as well. The volunteers also act as scouts for children in need of the sponsorship most acutely. Through these legions of moms, the CI teams are capable of keeping track of their flock of 29,000 children. The records at each service center are astonishing for their thoroughness but also for the precision with which they are maintained over many years. Every service provided is carefully accounted for and the childrens’ progress monitored as a means of accountability for the sponsor and the staff.
The next shack, again two rooms, was home to four children and a mom, with the later busy preparing the fruits she would be taking later to sell at a roadside stall. The subsistence economy of Los Tres Brazos survives and a dollar here and a dollar there, and almost everyone is engaged in some sort of buying and selling of anything that can be bought or sold. Indeed, there is great hope for the DR as it is a relatively free, low tax state, and as its middle class emerges a whirl of small businesses line every street. Tourism is of course the country’s major industry and it is growing quickly as many of the world’s newest ultra resorts bring the jet set to the beautiful beaches in previously undeveloped areas of the island while older resorts cater to a less affluent but still valuable part of the tourism business eager to experience a close but very unique country with immense amount of interesting history backing up its extraordinary beauty.
CI’s mission is to get every one of their children prepared for the next rung up into that lower middle class and out of grinding poverty, with an occasional rung jumper, of whom we would meet three over the two days, one of whom was the young woman in house #4, a poised, confident 14 year old girl eager to explain the CI youth council and its work in the slum.
CI stresses leadership development among its sponsored children in adolescence, teaching public speaking and organizational behavior, the sorts of skills the ordinary American teenager picks up through extracurricular activities and organized sports, which are nearly non-existent for the poorest neighborhoods in developing countries. Many of the sponsored children have been together in service center environments for years and develop the sort of peer group that can support the sort of habits critical to escaping poverty. The youth group at one service center were conducting a discussion of a service visit they had conducted to a local orphanage, and Bud and I talked with them about the orphans and the impact they had had, as well as their various plans (a beautician, a graphic artist, a college education.) Away from their houses, they are the picture of an ordinary teenager with a teenager’s hope and big dreams.
House #5 was on the flatland only a few hundred yards from the river, a house actually purchased for a family of five by a sponsor at accost of around $5,000.
The family had had nothing and now it has a shack, and the boys’ sponsor-provided backpacks are carefully maintained by the mom who explained that her boys would use them for everything at every moment but that they were for school only. The sponsor had also provided for some basic furniture and a cobbled together electrical connection brought power to the old refrigerator that was of course a prized procession. The catapult in life style that this $5,000 gift provided is hard to overstate, even though the proximity to the river guarantees that their new house will flood as often as the river does, which is frequent. The sponsors’ funds had also provided for the purchase of a gas grill on which the mom makes two packages of hotdogs a day for resale in the street. This is her micobusiness which is providing for her family’s ongoing income of approximate $200 a month.
Our last stop in the neighborhood was one of the bright spots of the trip, for Rocio is a wonder, now in her first year of college studying accounting and about to accompany CI representatives to a youth gathering in New York where she will deliver a talk on children in poverty and how CI assisted her rise to what will almost certainly be a much improved quality of life for herself and her family. Her family was not desperately poor as the others, and lived in a concrete house with a concrete roof built by her grandfather who at 82 clearly enjoyed talking about the many accomplishments of his oldest grandchild. The mom’s microbusiness appeared to be the sale of very small amounts of beauty products, rationing out a cup of hair treatment or a small offering of perfume in the amounts that the poor of the neighborhood could afford on occasion. Rocio was a wealth of information on how one navigated the neighborhood and the climb to college.
On the next day, a Saturday, we traveled to a much more rural area outside of the Boca Chica resort area, beginning the day with to visit the construction site of the new service center. Bud spent some time talking shop and rebar with the job foreman and I tried to figure out the wage scale on the island. Each of the laborers was making about $20 a day for a 10 hour day in the 100 degree heat, and their work was steady and productive. (Seeing the amount of rebar the CI plans call for -the center will have to survive some hurricanes over its very long expected life-Bud pronounced it a fortress, though we both shook our heads at the idea of an OSHA inspector on the site. We then visited the temporary center that is paving the building up of the region’s sponsored children rolls to the 5,000 children that will be served when the new center opens in November. About 2,500 are already enrolled and have receiving services from the much smaller predecessor service center which had been demolished to make way for the new two story building built on the CI specs used round the world when possible. We met the staff, talked with another of the CI’s amazing pediatricians working on the Saturday with a full room of waiting moms and kids, and then met another extraordinary young person, but this time a young man of 18 entering his last year of high school, Franklin.
Franklin has been a CI sponsored child for nine years, and we met him first at the service center were he was leading the Saturday morning youth club of about 50 teens, all of high school age. It was also a letter-writing day and the patio was a hive of tiny six to ten year olds coloring and penning their letters back to their sponsors. The belief is widespread and often voiced to me about child sponsor organizations that the children really do not have the connection claimed, but the CI practice is to forge and maintain a very real and indeed crucial link between child and sponsor, an approach crucial to the success of CI, and the organization’s emphasis on developing that bond is unique and a core value. One of the benefits it clearly provides the child is a sense of security that the services being provided will be maintained. Even when a sponsor drops their financial support, a child will not be dropped from the program, but instead paired with a new sponsor. Some children never hear from their sponsors, others hear frequently and some very lucky ones receive the supplemental gifts and support beyond the basic sponsorship of $22 a month, special gifts which CI goes to great lengths to deliver and document although the organization does not receive any overhead support from such gifts. CI does not allow cash gifts but will accept gifts of money earmarked for specific purposes such as housing or transportation like a scooter and will provide the requested assistance and document it for the sponsor. Though the workload associated with such special gifts and support is large, CI values the relationships between sponsors and children so much that it goes to great length to accommodate sponsors’ special efforts even though these gifts obviously increase the cost of operations significantly. The staff is thrilled by the impact of such gifts and can regale you with inspiring stories of sponsor-provided breakthroughs beyond the steady progress of the monthly support.
When we appeared on the fringes of the youth club’s meeting, Franklin was delivering a talk on HIV and how it did
not present a threat to people not infected by it unless intimate contact was involved.
CI spends a lot of time talking to the young people about the high cost of children having children and the dangers of STDs, and of the necessity of staying out of the sex trade which is a constant temptation to the young women -and increasingly the young men-because of the easy money sex can provide and the relief from the conditions that money. The toll taken by the sex trade in the DR is similar to the disease’s ravages in many other places though less well known, and the island’s resort culture brings tens of thousands of well-heeled heels to the island. (Street walkers and pimps are ubiquitous near the resorts.) The morning’s youth curriculum covered a number of such subjects and though the day was hot and the room stifled, no one was leaving or complaining. One of the most obvious aspects of poverty is that it leaves the impoverished with nothing to do -no books to read, television to watch, iPods to click on, a web to surf. The listlessness of the neighborhoods -except for the groups of children organized by CI or at the community service centers where the noise and energy level was high-may be a result of the heat, but a lack of calories and of simple activities to pursue has adds to the ennui engulfing many streets. The baseball diamond next to the new service center had two different teams at work in the corners was an exception to this general malaise in the poorest areas. Baseball is a key element of the country’s life and everyone knows all of the MLB starts, though some are much more respected than others for their willingness to bring help back to the island.
Franklin would like to be an engineer. He has done very well in school, and is tackling trigonometry in his senior year. He must take two buses and walk a few kilometers to get from his home to his school. He has been in the CI program for nine years, and the local staff confides that he only blossomed in the last year, startling them with his transformation, and reminding them that incremental investments over many years can have sudden and dramatic payoffs.
CI is non-sectarian, and though many of the staff are people of faith from a variety of Christian denominations, no decisions on which children are enrolled are based in any way on the child or the family’s faith profile. One family was Seventh Day Adventists, a few Catholic, and some Pentecostal. Franklin is a Mormon, one the estimated 40,000 in the country with a population of approximately 9 million. He attends the LDS youth seminary at least once a week and attends the Stake on Sunday. Without any vehicle of any sort -a scooter is beyond reach-Franklin spends a lot of time walking. He hopes to be sent on a mission after completing school.
Franklin accompanied us to the next stop, family 8, perhaps the most desperate of all the shacks we stopped in, as grim an interiors as the Hatian family’s but with no grandmother to help watch the small children. The mother greeted us, and five of her six children were at home though her husband was at work. None of her children are sponsored though three are on the waiting list. A two month old baby was asleep on one of the two beds, and the four other children in the house, all under eight, were quiet and withdrawn, clothed in dirty and ragged clothes, none with shoes. There was no running water, no electricity. The oldest daughter was at church -this was the Adventist family, and they meet on Saturday though only the oldest girl could go as the siblings were too young to leave the house without mom.
Our last stop was at a concrete home of a master mason who had built it himself with the financial help of his child’s sponsor. It was a sturdy structure with running water and electricity, an -a first- a tile floor. Certificates of completed courses hung on the wall (as Franklin’s certificates decorated his home’s walls as well.) Sadly, the mason -just a year ago, we were told, a strapping man who could work nearly continually-is in the late stages of a terminal disease and has wasted away to a rail of a man we chatted with for ten minutes. The progress achieved by the family over many years is now in doubt as none of the children are in a position to earn an income to replace their fathers. (The DR has no public assistance of any sort beyond basic and thinly spread health care and crowded schools operating on triple shifts of four hours each.)
Throughout these visits the energy and optimism of the CI staff defined the encounters with the deeply impoverished. This relentless ethic of cheerful service and compassion is inspiring and also humbling. They know these children can be saved if they do their jobs and the children do theirs. The incentives to attend the classes, visit the doctors, turn in their report cards are small but everything to children with nothing. The service centers are thus alive with activity, and the waiting rooms for the doctors and dentists were jammed to overflowing, the pharmacies stocked with the basics of antibiotics and vitamins. The CI’s DR staff is majority female though not by much, and the men at work with the youth were clearly of the sort you find coaching kids the world over, encouraging, prodding, joking. These are models of men and women who are demonstrating to the masses of kids a real and unconditional love and also an attention to detail and order that can guide them out of the despair that might otherwise engulf them. To be a child sponsored by CI is to win the lottery nin such a country and in neighborhoods such as these, and I doubt many of the sponsors have any idea of the dramatic impact their support provides. It will be one of my aims going forward with CI to encourage sponsors not just to join but to carefully note the progress of their far off adoptees and to, if at all possible, plan sometime in the future to try and visit or have a family member or friend traveling to the country make a visit.
I have asked CI to take on the task of following Rocio and Franklin and the other children in the nine houses we visited, from the tiniest baby to the almost certain to achieve Rocio. There will be inevitably be some very sad developments from among their number -disease and death are of course the constant realities of such lives-but there will also be testaments to the ability of individuals in the US to touch and transform lives, and not in a general sense, but specific children with names and stories and report cards and broken arms and Barbie dolls. If you are looking for an increase in the significance of your life, sponsor a CI child and you will immediately have exactly what you are seeking.
If you are interested in making a similar visit to investigate first hand the opportunities to partner with CI, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like the Baileys, an individual, a family or a church, school or service club can transform thousands of lives with effort and a generous spirit.