Giving Back In The DR
I have been living in Las Terrenas for 12 years. I raised my kids here. Two years after we made our move, we realized that we wanted to do more than live in Las Terrenas. We wanted to be a real part of the community. More than that, we wanted to give something back to our new community.
We began a foundation, a very grassroots organization. We started by asking around to find out what was really needed.
Of the needs we identified, the one that really struck a chord with us was to do with the general lack of education in the area. Kids weren’t necessarily going to school, and they had no access to books. Without an education, the employment options here, as anywhere, are really limited. Plus, kids who see no other option are the most vulnerable to the sex trade, which, unfortunately, is a problem in this country.
So we decided we wanted to help provide an education and access to books for as many kids as we could. The foundation became an umbrella structure for a number of projects. Mariposas is for young teen girls, a program for education and self-esteem, especially sex education. Proyecto Esperanza gives reading lessons to kids who otherwise would have been left illiterate. It’s a four-month literacy program. It’s moving to see the parents of the kids who learn to read through this program. They understand what this means for their children’s lives, how many doors are opened.
We have built one of the largest libraries on the island. We started with 600 donated books and today have more than 10,000 books.
The foundation is staffed by 440 volunteers from more than 34 countries. We paint park walls… we build playgrounds… we offer after-school tutoring and homework programs…
Perhaps our greatest accomplishment is the international school we’ve started, a program of the Mahatma Ghandi Foundation.
When we began working with students on their homework, we saw so much deficiency in education. We had to work backwards to teach them basic math and English skills so they could do their work. Finally, we decided that we wanted to offer a much higher standard of education to as many children as we could, so we started the school. I am the director. We started with one class of six kids. Our goal was to run a school that we would want to send our own kids to. Today, we have some foreign students whose parents pay tuition, but 50% of the kids are local, attending thanks to scholarships.
We have a courtyard with a fish pond and flowers in the middle, open classrooms, and puzzles and interesting materials that kids here had never seen before. In the middle of the school is the library, a haven for all kids in town. In the afternoons, it’s open as a public lending library. We have 800 registered library users. In a culture that does not value reading, I consider this a real accomplishment.
In every room, we want a mix of kids. Right now we have about 20 nationalities enrolled, including Swiss, Italian, Finnish, Irish, British, Haitians, and Dominicans from all backgrounds. In total, we have 60 students this year, and we have 75 enrolled already for next year.
All programs are run by volunteers, and we depend a lot on donations. Our challenges are budget and space.
One of our students, Oscauris, is a local boy who lives with grandparents. Oscauris was 9 when we met him and should have been in the third grade, but he had never been to school. He started coming to our school, “auditing” an English class. He would sit in the doorway, fascinated. A group from Minnesota came to visit about this time. One of the women asked how she could help. I told her about this boy Oscauris who was so hungry to learn. She sponsored him. That was two years ago. Today Oscauris is learning at a level appropriate for his age and speaking English…
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