Topic: Discussables

Side by Side

It is raining on our last morning. A warm spray from the fat Caribbean raindrops that hit the louvers at the foot of my bunk mists my feet. Through the night, the wet air magnified the smell of cinnamon wafting from the kitchen below. This was the sweet scent that engulfed us all evening, instead of chicken poop, it was a welcome relief.

Our team leader leans into her daughter’s bunk next to mine, waking her gently.  Then I overhear her speaking in low tones to another member of our team.  She shares there was a terrible car crash involving a drunk driver as they drove home. They were on the new (unopened) freeway heading back to the school when the driver crossed into them. They avoided a head-on, with the drunk driver just barely skimming their car. But the truck behind them was not so lucky, although they did see the driver get out of the truck after being hit. We are grateful they are ok. Further conversation about the crash reveals that no one involved seemed to stop, at least not as far as our team leader and others in her car could see in their rearview. And it seems to be the norm, we uncover as we speak with others later about the incidence. Someone probably called 911 but it’s not a full-on disaster reaction like we would find in the US. This island is on the razor’s edge of primitive. Such a juxtaposition of Christ-like love and self-preservation. More primitive than I anticipated.

We pack as we get up, wash up, and dress. Breakfast is at 7am and the van arrives at 7:30 for our departure to La Romana. I pull the band from my hair- I’m still trying to tame this mess in this climate and condition- and peer one last time into the single mirror in our dorm room. Seeing keenly through the foggy glass, peeling mercury back, and the grime, peering back at me is someone I maybe remember. Someone who once didn’t require thirteen different hair products and designer face wash. Someone who spent warm summer days barefoot in the New England grass, digging her toes into the dirt pushed up by earthworms into little mounds. The face of a girl who braved cold mornings to muck a stall, feed, and water a horse, before even brushing her teeth. Someone who was connected to more spiritually revealing and soul-nourishing things- like listening to others chatter about nothing of any importance and yet knowing it truly mattered. She blinks back at me and smiles. I invite her to stay.

Down in the dining hall, the morning’s breakfast is rushed, as the guys are moving quickly to pack the van. We peek into the kitchen to hug Mari and others goodbye. The morning seems anti-climactic.  After last night’s let down- no departure talks, no debriefing from the week-  I’m sad it ends like this.

Yada enters the hall, smiles hello and says “I go with you today!” I notice her little black wheelie suitcase, and Neomi and Emanuel and Jadiel in tow. I’m thrilled she and others will join us at the resort. I look forward to sharing fellowship in downtime with them all. It’s funny how quickly you can make an attachment to people, desiring to know more about them and seeking their friendship. Especially with so little in common on earthly comparisons.  God-driven.

We fill our water bottles one last time from the bubbler, the rush of clear water from Juan Tomas for our trip. I reflect on my arrival just a short week earlier, I was so concerned about the quality of the water in Juan Tomas. It felt like potential poison, pain, and distress.  Little did I know that the Juan Tomas water at the Fountain of Life school would be so sweet. So fresh, so thirst-quenching. So reliable. I take two big swigs and refill my bottle. For the road.

Our bags get tucked into the trailer attached to the now-familiar white van. The same van that spirited us away from the Santo Domingo airport. In reverse play, we now load back into the van, with a few extra. A van that I thought was built to hold 15, held 17 on the way here, no holds 21 on our departure with Richard, Yada, her niece Haiti, their daughter Neomi and sons Jadiel and Emanuel, as well as Pumpa. I marvel at how but leave that little miracle to God. We are full.

The van is now surrounded by villagers. Now our friends. Yoan. Willi. Anabelle. Ingrid. Rosmery. More than I can name gather around the van. As we pull away, they smile and wave and step forward. We arch our necks to continue our goodbyes and then turn to settle into our long ride.  We still have a full day of visiting a mission in La Romana before we can rejuvenate ourselves at the resort. We guard ourselves for the final stretch.

Soon we turn off the red dirt-packed road and onto the tarmac. The narrow-paved street widens and then we are back in the Santo Domingo city center traffic. It’s even crazier than it was last week. Slowly, as I watch the passing traffic and buildings in various states of disrepair, the pillars of the overhead highways, and the crowds of people passing by, I am reminded of the Bronx. The similarity is now undeniable and for a moment I think I am driving under the el on Jerome Ave near Yankee Stadium. I realize that our immigrant citizens recreate the land of their comfort and familiarity. My grandfather did the same at one time. I close my eyes to the swirl of activity outside my seat window and the rocking, jolting images through the front windshield and try to rest for the two-hour ride east.

An hour in, I have to pee. I open my eyes and see the ocean ahead. As the van veers left, the ocean is vast and the small narrow park that runs along it is empty. How is no one there—it’s beautiful. The day is sunny. The water is sparkling. The sand looks like sugar. Every metaphor known to man about the blue ocean is true here.  I reflect that we immortalize the Caribbean ocean and yet it is just home to the people of Hispaniola. Just the saltwater that surrounds this hot rock in the middle of the south sea.

I lean forward and ask if we can possibly stop somewhere. Richard translates to Javier our driver and they talk for a minute. I receive no response, but I am confident we are ok.  Soon we are pulling into a Sunoco on the left side of the highway that runs along the ocean. We pile out, aware of how much we look like tourists. Except for our hosts. This is the first time in seven days we have seen commercial food. It looks pale and weak in its bright packaged cellophane and foil bags- Doritos, Sour Cream Chips, Gummy Bears. Cokes. The young girls gather bags of chips and soda, thrilled at this chance. I spend time waiting in line for the bano thinking about how fortunate we truly are to be able to obtain such food at will. Or maybe not.

We are all packed into the van and continue our trek east. Another forty-five minutes and we arrive at La Romana. This part of the trip is mostly for the two volunteers who have been our team leaders here. They support a school and church and hospital here with another mission trip in which they participate. The countryside here is so vastly different- the jungles of Juan Tomas and the parched, fauna-less, pale pink dust and cement of La Romana.  The streets are not so dissimilar, they are the same narrow, hilly, and pothole-filled paths that crisscross Juan Tomas. But as you gaze over the landscape you can see farther, sightlines uninterrupted by the palm trees and brush with which we have become accustomed.

The van lurches forward up a steep hill, past a landfill and some whitewashed factory looking building, Recycling Factory I am told.  We turn right and merge left, resting briefly along a curb in front of a gated schoolyard, with a looming cement building at its center, the color of Band-Aids. The name of this school stands out in contrast against its flesh-colored walls, “Colegio Evangelica Joe Hartman”.

The gates roll back and our van enters into the courtyard, coming to a halt. We pile out in groups, our leaders first in eager anticipation of seeing their friends once again. I think I get that now. I’m not even gone and I already anticipate with joy my return to Juan Tomas.  As I step down onto the white crushed rock driveway, they are greeting everyone at the school. Our leaders are thrilled to see their friends.

Escorted into the building, which is pristine compared to Fountain of Life, we are greeted and quickly given the history of the school. This building is much more contemporary than Juan Tomas. It is a self-contained, single building with three floors, with a central courtyard open to the sky, and outside hallways around the perimeter. Our guide continues with her tour, and we follow along class to class. It is strikingly beautiful when I compare it to Fountain of Life.  But it doesn’t feel like family here. It feels like a school.

The children are sharp in their uniforms. The teachers are friendly. We move from the school building to the preschool area. Children rush forth out the classroom and scramble in the yard way, their eyes scanning the crowd, seeking out someone to grab onto and hug. I’m not sure how to react and so I hang back. It doesn’t feel authentic. But then again, this is a sharp juxtaposition from where we have just spent seven days. The tour moves on, some of my teammates peeling arms and children off from around their waists. We enter the newly built cafeteria. It is gorgeous and big and empty. It was finished last year, and our leaders seem momentarily surprised that it is not in use. The director of the school mentions that they cannot use it until they have something in place in the kitchen that the government demands. Before this particular thing, it was something else. And before that something else again. At that moment I am happy for the little Fountain of Life school, hidden from government eyes in the jungles of Juan Tomas. Richard and Yada talk to the school’s director about the new and gleaming cafeteria.  I can see their eyes dreaming.

Today, thanks to the coordination of our volunteer leaders, we are serving lunch to the 198 kids at this school. While our team waits, sipping our bottles of Juan Tomas water at pristine tables in the new cafeteria, our kitchen team from Fountain of Life arrives with tubs of beans and rice, chicken, pasta, and salad. We are called into the kitchen space, empty except for a sink and a line of small tables, groaning under the weight of the tubs of food, now uncovered and steaming into the damp air. Some of our team are organized into an assembly line and begin to make massive plates, bugger than I can imagine any child of the age of 10 and under could eat! Each plate has no less than a cup of rice, a cup of beans, a large chicken leg, a cup of pasta with a creamy red sauce and a cup of dressed salad. A large slice of bread is tossed on top for good measure. I turn to my teammates and question the size of these portions- how can such little people eat so much I wonder?

Kids begin to file in, in orderly lines, directed by their classroom teachers. We won’t see this in Juan Tomas, I think!  They are seated at tables by class- pre-K, 1st, 2nd, all the way up to 8th grade. I notice sadly this last class level is much, much smaller than the elementary classes.

The noise level slowly rises and soon exceeds 100 decibels! We scurry to place plates in front of children. Someone hosts to extra-large Gatorade orange-colored water coolers onto the new granite counter. We shift it closer to the edge and begin to pour fruit juice from the spigot into plastic cups. Pretty soon we are scurrying behind plate fetchers, dropping cups of juice in front of hungry children.  

Within minutes everyone is served. We retreat to the kitchen central and grab the last of the stack of plates once piled high a few shorts minutes ago.  We look to make our own lunch plates, but the buckets once heaped with beans and rice and chicken are now clearly empty We scrape some rice from the edges and bean and chicken juice from the corners and eat, observing the noisy, joyful, Festa happening just on the other side of the service window. A line begins again at the Gatorade cooler and we move to help out, pouring until the cooler is dry. I just can’t imagine this happening in America’s schools for lunchtime. I’m still fretting about the size of the dishes, waste is such a present concern for me now when I see a young boy, no older than 6, ask for an empty plate. A teacher scrounges up a clean on and he carefully covers the remains of his dish and, balancing it between his two small hands, goes to stand in line with his class. I look around and notice more teachers helping more students to do the same.  Aside from the piles of rice and beans that hit the floor, none of these plates will be wasted These precious gifts are for Moms, and maybe Dads or siblings, back home. No sense worrying about refrigeration or careful packaging. If just a portion makes it home, that is a feast. Food is scarce in this community, and it is not only appreciated by shared.

My water bottle is empty and I check on the water tub next to the kitchen, to ensure it is good to drink. I’m feeling dehydrated, tired, and somehow lacking purpose. I look around to be productive and see the cleanup crew from this school in action. I join in to begin to clear tables and chairs and sweep floors. Piles of rice and beans collect in mounds across the shiny tile floor. I see a plastic garbage bag filling up with the remains and ask how this will be used. Animals I am told. I feel satisfied that this is sound. It’s such a unique concern for me, I guess.

Soon we are called outside as our volunteer leaders hand out gifts from large trash bags to the children and teachers assembled. It starts to rain.

I sneak a peek at my watch and see it is only 12:30 pm. Just an hour and a half has passed since we arrived. The team is being encouraged to go visit the director’s new house, built last year by the mission our leaders were on. I want to be excited and pleased, but I am just not connecting. My mind wanders back to the orange crème homes of Richard and Argenis, across the red dirt path road, and feel that anything new and shiny just wouldn’t feel grounded right now. I check in with God- is this judgment on my part?  Jealousy? I pray for him to clear my heart and reveal my purpose as I sit out the house visit. Argenis, who also has passed on the home tour, sits down beside me and the few other teammates resting on the low stone wall next to the school courtyard and we begin to talk.  I’m not so eager to move on from Juan Tomas.

Argenis suddenly asks me to pray for him as his role changes in the school. He feels more drawn, more inspired to be the school advocate, the one reaching out to mission leaders, and churches, and donors, to help grow, through God’s grace, the finances and facilities of the school, church, and medical mission. We discuss how to connect with people who want to help the school, who desire to support their mission. He asks me to read 1Samuel 3:9 to understand what he is feeling. Later in the night, I do. It reads in part “If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.  So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.”

God’s word revealed to a woman, in a foreign land, struggling with purpose in the moment, by a man struggling with his own purpose in his role. Speak Lord for your servant is listening. I pray that God will shout into my ears and glean my path of everything NOT in his will for my purpose. Dangerous, risky, and bold prayers with abandon!

As we chat, Argenis disciplines Emanuel, Richard’s son, and I’m amazed again at how fluid parenting is in this community. Everyone is a parent to anyone. Argenis reveals that it’s because they are all grounded on God’s word and trust each other. They all have the same foundational belief and they all believe that God, in this community, is leading their thoughts and actions every day. Dear Lord, please lead me to this.

The house tour group returns and we reload people into our van for the hospital tour. Our travels through La Romana are narrated by Javier our driver. He shares that it is the hotspot of the area, these narrow city streets with boutiques and bodegas, next to trimmed parks and classic stone sculptures. Just 40 minutes from the slums in which the school sat, we arrive at a tall hospital in a city that is decidedly more civilized than Santo Domingo and certainly much more than Juan Tomas. We enter an open-air lobby and are guided on our tour by a man known well by our volunteer leaders. The hospital has no working elevator it appears, so we slowly trudge up one, two, four, five flights of stairs. We lose half our team on each floor as they choose to sit the tour out. This day doesn’t feel connected to the purpose of this trip at all, and I think the team all feels that now. Just a few more hours until we can rest.

The hospital is lovely and it is very meaningful to our leaders who helped build it. It is shiny and new and still being built. The raw construction is happening right next to the patient rooms, exposing sky, bird, and bacteria to everything in reach. So close to quality and yet so far.

The hospital guide is asked if the group can see a room. The first room he shows us is occupied, but that doesn’t stop him. I remain in the hall. A second room houses an infant child born with hydro encephalitis. He has a bacterial infection. The very young parents ask us to come in and pray for him. Of course, this we will do, it has a purpose. Yada leads us in prayer. She speaks with the parents once we are through. It turns out they live near Juan Tomas. Yada invites them to her church. I am reminded that I should not stress when this trip seems to brush against the grain of my moral fibers. God knows what he is doing and uses all things for his purpose.

The hospital tour completes and we are back in the van for the hour and a half ride back to the resort we will stay in tonight, courtesy of Richard and Yada. For the entire ride, the van is deathly silent. We have reached the end of our resiliency as a team. We need to rest.

The van exits in Juan Dolio, drives 10km east then does a u-turn and drives 5km west, exits again and we turn off the exit ramp amongst the hotels that cover the shoreline of the Dominican Republic. Things are decidedly commercial here. Bursting floral plants in brilliant oranges, and pinks, and greens, overflowing from ceramic tureens four feet high. Amber glass front stores and neon signs compelling tourists to come inside. Soon we pull into a small gate with the name of our resort. We are here.

In an instant, we can see that our van and trailer are a stark visual contrast to the black SUVs and silver Mercedes sedans pulling into the Porte Cochere of the resort. Javier squeezes the white box van for 15, seating 21, into a space between two luxury cars. He jumps out of the driver’s seat and begins to open our passenger doors. We disembark, blinking into the sun and the glare of the commercial space surrounding us: tropical print fabrics against dark wood wicker settees, glass ball lamps hanging from brass chains, planters and ceramic tile screening the electrical boxes of the resort from the eyes of guests. In Juan Tomas, the metal box covering the well mechanics is home base in stickball. We gather under the outside seating area for resort arrivals. Richard takes the copies that have been made of our passports and heads inside, telling us to wait. Time passes. A hotel waitress mingles around the Porte Cochere, greeting new guests with a tray of mesmerizing ruby pink drinks. But she avoids us. Our clothes are markedly more camp counselor than camp. And our hair and nails are in desperate need of a wash and trim.

We wander a bit to view the pool, bars, restaurants and coffee shops of this all-inclusive. Soon Richard emerges and calls us into the cool lobby. It is understated and filled with foreign languages, guests speaking amongst themselves in German, Dutch, French, Spanish. Richard is at the desk speaking with a friend who helps book these rooms for mission workers on their last night in Juan Tomas. As a thank you for their work. Grace and Mercy received, thank you very much!

One by one, we are called up to the lobby desk to get registered and receive our keys. We sign, get wristbands and are set free. My roommate and I head up to our VIP suite on the beach overlooking the bars and pools. We enter, drop our bags and shower. Forever.

My roommate and I have booked massages at the resort spa for 6PM. With glowing skin, scrubbed free of red dirt in the powerful and warm shower, almost too warm for me, we wander through the resort toward our muscle rejuvenation. The quietness of the spa sinks into our souls and we are in meditation for the next two hours.

Our crew is at the buffet when we emerge and we join them for some interesting cuisine. Shortly after, Argenis approaches our table and invites everyone out to the beachfront for an evening meeting. Argenis leads us in a sharing circle to debrief from the week on blessings, God’s insight, and our dreams. There under the yellow light circles cast from the palm tree floods, with beetles, and palmettos, and other bugs hopping around the sand at our feet, the spirit that is Juan Tomas is unpacked and shared. The trip feels complete.

Day Five

I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. In the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.

Day five and I wake up with the realization that the dorm in which we are currently housed- with its slatted walls that reveal spotlights at night which pierce our sleeping eyes, with its semi-open lavatories where full-on conversations continue between us all without missing a beat, with its cold water shower that propels water in a single weak stream, with its constant smell of chicken poop and it’s nighttime parade of bugs and spiders and other unidentifiable skittering critters, this space we have had to learn to endure, is better living conditions than 100% of the places we visited yesterday. I appreciate this space.

Breakfast this morning is a flavorless oatmeal bread, with sides of papaya and pina. I wonder if the papaya and ina are from school payments made this month by villagers. That’s a real thing here- trade for services still exists and it is remarkably valuable and a reasonable approach. Along with our dry bread is our strong coffee. We eat quietly. Tiredness, both physical and emotional has set in for all of us. I can see the age of our group showing around our edges and the neophyte energy, brought on by the excitement early on in our mission, waning day by day.

Can we talk about my hair? Yes, it is now clean. But good lord! It’s untamable and bushy. I pull out the clips I placed into is last night to sleep and it literally stands up straight facing north, east, and west. I have captured it under a wide Lycra band and for the moment it behaves. But I feel it trying to escape at every minute of hard work. On my next mission, I will shave my head before I go. One less thing to worry about.

It is with a tired body and soul that we rise from the picnic benches in the dining hall and prepare ourselves for a morning of games and devotion with 5,6, and 7 graders. But today we do not have our Converge missionary teacher, Stephanie, to guide and organize the school. We are on our own, floating on Dominican Time. And so our start time of 9 am comes and goes. At 9:15 Richard appears and we ask if the classes are ready. He says he can help assemble everyone and he mentions the size of the combined grades. 70 children at a minimum! So we decide to divide and conquer. Half the class will go to games, half to devotion and then we will switch. The seventh graders arrive and our teammates begin devotions. At the halfway mark, we attempt to switch. But no, a change of school schedule. It appears that today is another half day of school, so they now have recess. We sit momentarily, stealing precious moments of peaceful rest before we decide to go paint the vocational school instead. Painting is possibly the one task I despise the most. And yet here it has become a spiritual activity. Communal. Shared. I relish the opportunity to pace through the brush strokes quietly in conversation with the six other women of this group. We work through the morning this way, talking of nothing and everything until Pumpa arrives to announce lunch.

After our lunch of pork, rice and pigeon peas, as well as coleslaw, we go out to do bubbles with the kids. It’s 1:30 and school is out. But the yard is still filled. Young girls say “Halo”, practicing their English. They smile and hug our waists. They love to practice their Inglese! We teach them the words for lollipop, soda, lunch, and other common items. When we are done with bubble play (when the boys turned it into killed the guy with the bubble jar), we walk once more to the vocational high school building to do some more painting. Pumpa now joins us and soon, because this is what we do what we aspire to solve in life, the women all begin to discuss who she should marry. Yoan is a wonderful choice. And maybe some others. We talk about our own sons. I offer my pictures. “I like their eyes” she says. Its resolved then, she will somehow marry into one of our families “But they must live here” she says. Pumpa, along with everyone in this village, is devoted to staying, or returning as the case may be from colleges, and building up this little Juan Tomas. What a dream. What a purpose. I think of our ancient forefathers growing distant lands they claim as home. What a joy to be a part of that legacy.

At 3pm a teammate and I prepare to transition to more village work. We await Yada who will be leading us in delivering the final five bags of food in the village. After the parade that was inspired a few days ago doing the same thing, we have agreed it is better to go in much, much smaller groups. Or at least that’s the plan. It is Juan Tomas after all. Every outing is an adventure for all to join. Yada tells us to meet at 4pm. We realize after six days that the time noted is an average time of day, but we do arrive in the dining hall at 4pm as directed. And wait. Pumpa comes through. Ishmael wanders in. Village children play outside, yelling through the screens “Halo Americana’s!”. At 4:30 Yada comes in, she points to me and says “Do you drive?” Me? Visions of the Santo Domingo city center cross my thoughts. But I quickly realize that we won’t be going that far. “Sure!” I’m always up for an adventure.

The three of us carry the final four bags to the school compound courtyard. Yada walks through the commons wall door and beckons me to walk with her to her house across the dirt road. She hands me a ring of keys and we get into her van. The van has seen better days. The windows have months of Juan Tomas dust and grime embedded in them, along with children’s fingerprints. The interior is lived in. I stress about the dashboard, brake, and gas pedals. Is it standard!?! No, it’s automatic. That’s a relief. I put the key in the ignition, release the parking brake and start her up. All good!

We swing the van around in the narrow red dirt-packed road and park in front of the compound door. Four-year-old Naomi appears and her mother hoists her into the van. She climbs to the far back. Car seats not required. Willi appears and helps to load the four bags of food laden with rice and beans, and sardines, and oatmeal, and more into the back. We wait for the salami’s which have been kept in the fridge. They arrive and we close the doors – Off we go!

We bump along more divots and potholes than flat lane ahead of us. I quickly learn the most important thing is to avoid killing dogs. They are everywhere. Lying on the road. Crossing the road. Standing in it.
Yada points us to a house on the right. She says “This is me Mamas house.” Next to it and up a set of cement stairs, Yada explains, lives a Haitian refugee family. The father was a deacon at a church in Haiti. Richard met him at a conference. The family needed to get out of Haiti and so Richard and Yada got them to the Dominican. They rent this three-room flat from Yada’s mom.

We park the car in front of the two-family buildings and disembark. Yada calls hello between the iron fencing to her Mom’s house. Small cousins emerge and shout back to Yada. Yada laughs and waves her hands at them, while they giggle and scamper toward us, curious as to our mission. We climb the stairs with the hoisted bag between the three of us. It is heavy but we make it.

At the top of the crumbling steps we are greeted by an open door (open doors are so common I wonder why they have any at all). Inside is a radiant woman, petite, with a perfect smile. Yada introduces us, she is Liliana, and my teammate speaks to the woman in Spanish, asking the names of her children. My teammate explains who we are and from where. She asks if the woman has any “peticiones” for us, as we would like to pray for her. Liliana asks for prayer for someone from her church back in Haiti. He has broken his arm. Now obviously in the U.S. that’s not necessarily always a dire situation. But in a torn and squalidly poor country like Haiti, it can mean life or death. We pray in Spanish and hug and kiss goodbye all around.

We descend the stairs and head back to the van. Our next stop is one of the cleaning women from school. I’ve seen her all week. Yada approaches her yard and reaches to unhook a makeshift gate, contrived from tree limbs and barbed wire. It is held up by a wire looped around a tree. Once released, it collapses to the ground in a heap, a trap for dogs and children. We enter her yard and she sits in a chair on the front cement slab that abuts the front door- which is open. Inside is a jumble of furniture and curtains separate the spaces. A TV plays from the back of the small house. On her lap is a baby no more than 10 months. At her knees is a young girl about five, half of her hair unbraided and she is holding a jar of Vaseline. The woman has a pink wide-toothed comb in her hand, as she uses the Vaseline and comb to try to capture the hair. From the house emerge two young boys, between ages 8 and 9. One takes the baby from the woman. My teammate introduces us and offers the bag of food we have brought from the van. We also offer a bag of clothes. The other boy takes them both inside. My teammate asks the woman if we can pray. She tells us of her needs: her husband wants to go back to Haiti, and he has been ‘being away from her” could we pray for her matrimony? Yada later explains what “being away” means- infidelity. The woman also asks that we pray fervently that her children will stay close to God as they grow. We pray and make our goodbyes.

Back in the car, on the travel back toward the school, Yada reveals that she doesn’t drive, but wants to learn. I tell her I can teach her and we laugh.
Our next stop on the return trip is a small (even smaller than any we have been in) house. We enter and Jarri calls our greetings. Inside is another beautiful young woman, also Haitian. She tells us of her trouble having children. She has lost two already. Her face is sad and I feel torn. On the one hand, she has nothing. This small house, her husband and … nothing. On the other- well she has nothing. Children would be a blessing. They would give her purpose. They would help pay expenses through work as they come of age. They would take care of her someday when she is old. We pray for healing and lay hands upon her and then say goodbye.

We head back to the van, as I come around to the driver’s side a pack of no less than eight dogs is hanging around my driver’s side door. I stop and call Yada, who saunters around the front and chases them off.

We drive back toward the school compound. One more bag but Yada does not know the address. Who are we kidding, there ARE no addresses lol! Yada needs someone from the school to come with us in the AM and point directions. I say we can give her a driving lesson then as well. She seems skeptical but pleased.

We park and enter the gates of the school. Bone tired and ready for a shower we head upstairs to the dorm. Dinner is at 6:30 and Wednesday service is at 7. Or thereabout.

At 6:30pm, Yada and others serve us fried salami, mashed plantain, mashed potato, and more coleslaw. This food is heeeeeavy. I eat only half. I contemplate skipping the worship service. I look over at our teammate who has been stomach sick since Monday evening. If he is up, I can be, so a few minutes of rest on the dining table bench and I rally.

The church looks amazing after the work from the men in our team all week. Walking in I see Annabelle, who was so upset yesterday at one of the homes we blessed. We wave hello. Over the week the staff and villagers have warmed up. Gone are the wary glances. The frozen stares. Yada hugged me hello today and laughed at our conversation. She even promised to tell me more about how she and Richard met. All she revealed today was that she was thirteen and helping her father work on Paul’s goat farm. Richard also worked there milking goats. They went to school together and then Richard went into college getting his MBA.

The 7pm service starts at 7:20. Close. We sing in Spanish, the words becoming easier. Then we break into prayer groups before coming back together as a congregation. I catch sight of the petite Haitian woman whose husband is a deacon, seated a few rows back, I go over and we hug. She smiles.

Later we drag ourselves back to the dorm. It’s been a long week. Tomorrow is our last day here before we move on to La Romana. Until then we have more children to Bless and walls to be painted.

Day Two. Or Day Ten

I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. In the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.

One day feels like a week here. Was it just yesterday we landed? The school compound is so intimately familiar all at once – like a memory from long ago. The vibrant chatter of Spanish from the women in the kitchen wakes me this morning as it drifts up to the jalousied window with no glass that sits at the foot of my bunk bed. The sound is amplified by the clear sky.

We shuffle through the morning routine of seven women getting dressed and primped for the day. We remember the important things that require us to behave differently:
Don’t flush the paper down the toilet.
Don’t use the sink water to brush your teeth.
Tuck in your Mosquito Netting before you leave. This one for me is critical. Geckos and lizards, and tarantulas are not my friends.

The day is only at dawn and we can feel the heat. We assemble in the dining hall. Coffee greets us. Not just coffee. Dominican coffee. Cuba has nothing on the Dominicans when it comes to caffe! We savor the deep darkness of our first cups made lighter with powder creamer. And real sugar. From sugar cane. The kind of sugar that sparkles in the bowl like crystal sand.
We pray before breakfast that God will guide us in how to be a blessing and to do his will this week.

Breakfast this morning is a massive pancake and bananas.
And flies.
Everywhere flies. On the honey bottle. On the syrup bottle. In our cups. We have paper napkins over our food while we eat. We wave our hands and sit under the fans to help keep them at bay.

What strikes me here, is how aware I am of food waste. This pancake is massive. And dry. And not very good. Eating three meals a day in a village that clearly needs resources heightens one’s senses on responsible living. Being the granddaughter – and daughter- of immigrants, I was raised with an appreciation for frugality. My grandparents rarely ate meat and most of the meals were beans, greens, and a starch. My mother still saves everything. And yet even with that, this experience is different. More humbling. Almost spiritual.
I cannot finish my massive pancake. I’m sure the flies would love it, but it all seems wasteful. I ask timidly if anyone in our group would like to have the remainder of my breakfast. I would never offer this with strangers back in the states. But here it seems almost ritual. One of my teammates takes it and I am relieved. I’m dreading lunch and dinner because of the leftovers. The food here is heavy and the sizes they serve are massive. Even by American standards.
I bring the remainder of my plate, cup, and utensils to the dish bins. I swallow a fly as I head there. It goes right down. I am barely fazed.

As we linger after breakfast in the dining hall, word comes back from the dorm that there’s a huge spider in the shower. Pumpa, the young school nurse who stays in the dorm with us, grabs it with her hand and tosses it out the window, claiming it was already dead. I’m not convinced. And later today, when I find a dead tarantula at the bottom of our staircase I am CERTAIN that was lurking in the damp depths of our shower. I may never sleep again this week!

We move from breakfast to the tin barn church across the street for Sunday worship service. The worship team is spirited and on the overhead screen projects lyrics to the worship songs, in Spanish. I sing along, not knowing the words but truly feeling the meaning. If that makes sense. The church fills with many families, many more than last night. Church clothes are in order and beautiful. Families come in lined up. Old men shake hands along the pews. Women of my age gather together in the pew in front of me, hugging and chatting brightly. Everyone seems so connected but more connected than an American suburb connection. This village is a family, a community that raises each other. One people. An eco habitat complete in itself.

Argenis Taveras, the principal of the school, is preaching this morning. His wife Rosmery is translating. She is beautiful. Not just physically but you can see the beauty of her soul as she gazes at him, awaiting the words she will repeat in English for our benefit. I am humbled by this – this school and church have made special accommodations to be certain we can be part of God’s gathering here.
Not expected, but deeply grace-filled.

We muster after church and head out on a tour of the school and extended campus. I need to remind you that the term school in America means a building. We have a very clear image of what that would look like, the school building, sleek and efficient, brick or wood, windows, recreation equipment, desks, and lockers……. This is not that.

The alcove outdoor classroom

The low slung buildings at Fountain of Life School, with rusted tins roofs and cement slab pillars, have jalousie shutters for windows. No Glass. Most have four walls and a door that closes. One classroom is simply an alcove along the building perimeter with a roof. An outdoor classroom. Of course, the weather here suits that, always warm, sultry mostly, and a bit of a breeze at all times. I’m thinking parents in California would pay thousands to send their children to an outside school. Here it is a necessity.

The compound of the school is walled off and gated with barbed wire over the top. We all try to avoid thinking about the grounds for the barbed wire. I’ll soon come to learn that the little village of Juan Tomas loves barbed wire. \Small dogs roam inside the compound as they do along the road. Children of Richard and Argenis, who live in two school housing units across from the compound, play in the cement and dirt courtyard that doubles as a gathering place for school assemblies, a basketball court and a volleyball court, Other children from down the road in the village center jin them daily.

Fountain of Life School is a Private Christian school in the district of Santo Domingo Norte. The small village in which it exists, along with its church Iglesia Biblico de Jesus, is called Juan Tomas and it has no street names. That small.
This school teaches 439 students from the surrounding area in grades Pre-k thru 12. Just three years ago the registration of students was hanging at 240. But God.
The school was formed, by chance, 30 yrs ago as part of a mission effort of the Bible Institute. The founders Paul and Linda still live nearby tending their goats on a fairly large farm. As missionaries, Linda was homeschooling her three young girls and found village children coming by more and more, to sit and participate in the lessons.

Argenis Taveras, Principal
Fountain of Life School

Argenis is leading our tour this morning, his duties as pastor for Sunday service now over. He walks us to a brightly colored play area with picnic tables and benches to talk about the school. The message he delivers is simple. They teach to save God’s children here on the island. They aspire to teach more of them. The work of our mission group this week and others like us- dozens over the year- make it possible to use all the funds raised by their fiduciary parent nonprofit on study materials. equipment, and on teachers- who make $350. A month.
My mind stops on that fact. How is this possible. It’s like a treadmill backward in time. When was $350 a month a basic salary in America? 1960? 1950? 1910??

Argenis leads us out of the compound and across the way to the tin church where we are told about the American donor who gave four “new classrooms” built next to the church building. And then four more. These classrooms are used for teaching but also serve as offices and a space for the school counselor.

The new Vocational School

We walk single file in the narrow alleyway that serves as the walkway along with the eight classrooms from the American donor. At the end of the walkway, we step down newly poured cement stairs that are set in a small rubble strewn hill and navigate across a gap of mud. We turn and see a very large cement cinder block structure- the bottom level painted bright blue and pale butter yellow, the top-level looking like a building leveled in WWII.

This, Argenis tells us, is the new vocational high school. We climb up onto the first floor wide front porch that acts as the outside hallway to all the classrooms. The flooring is polished tile. The doors to the classrooms are locked but the jalousie louvers in the windows are open. We peer into a beautiful classroom, a perfect size for 24 students. Our guide tells us the plan is to finish this first floor for use. Then to continue to build the second floor as money becomes available.

The whole story of how they even acquired this property is faith-building. Originally, with an eye on another piece of land owned by a Dominican family who was asking $500k for it, the school leaders felt that they could not make that happen. That amount, that dream, was much, much too big.
And so when another parcel came up for sale for $30k, this parcel on which the vocational school is being built they made a promise to buy it.
As Argenis tells the story- they had no money. But when God gives a direction you don’t ask how.
Soon after purchasing this parcel, another parcel came for sale for $60k and they bought that too with God’s help. This land is special to Argenis and Richard, the school administrator, who has now joined our tour with his toddler son Emanuel.

They take us across a field from the school being built and stand us in front of a parcel of land that is just pure brush. Here, Argenis states, we will build a baseball field. To save the children.

In the DR God is king, but baseball is God. As most often happen with a market that lights up, such as baseball has done for Dominican players in the US, the athlete (or actor or musician, whatever the market may be) are taken advantage of by predatory characters. Young boys that show a little promise, are removed from school as young as 12 to train and practice full time with the promise (hope) of making it in baseball. At 18 they are shopped around to minor and major league teams. And after a few years, if they are not picked up, they are sent back to Santo Domingo where they are now young men with no education, no valuable skills. Argenis tells us many young men you see in the streets in the city are such tragedies.

But Argenis’ dream for this parcel of land in front of which we now stand is vivid. To build this baseball field. To have a major sponsor support the young men of this school to gain BOTH an education and a baseball career. To ensure that these children are not throwaways if their talent does not emerge. It is a good dream and one that solves a real problem. I want to help. We promise to talk more during the week.

Argenis also shares that the other part of this parcel of land will be developed into a futbol field – soccer. The young people of the village do not play futbol. These poor boys only play baseball, all gambling on the big break. But the wealthy men in gated communities of Santo Domingo play soccer. And so Argenis plans to build this soccer field to rent to them, generating more earned revenue for the school and bringing wealthy prospective donors to see the school regularly. This schools leadership team has excellent business sense.

Our tour has ended. We spend a moment in prayer as a group with Argenis and Richard. We pray for dreams to be revealed and fulfilled. We pray for Gods will. We pray for encouragement in this leadership every day. We pray for hope and we thank God for what he is already doing.

When we get back lunch is ready- rice, beans, strips of beef, and a coleslaw. This meal could easily last me until tomorrow. We rest a bit after lunch and then are led in a walking tour into the village. Johan guides us and Pumpa joins too.

No vacation in the world can compare to this experience of touring the village of Juan Tomas. I try desperately to place myself in the shoes of these villagers. Living their whole lives in scrabbled together tin, wood, and cement homes, 400 sq ft at most, along a hard caked rock-strewn red dirt road, watching our crew meander by on this hot Sunday afternoon.

The Goat Farm

We leave the confines of the school and head east past the goat farm of Linda and Paul and the tin church. We pass a fenced compound with statues in the courtyard, clothes hanging from wires strung between trees. Here is a beauty salon with no front wall, women in two chairs getting braids and being washed. Next is a manicurist with two customers in various stages of toe beautification. The new highway we heard about yesterday comes into sight and we cross a bridge over it. Not yet open, the Dominicans are undeterred and here come two cars, both driving north on either side of the two-lane divided highway. Father down a man sits aside on the center dividing rail. In the other direction, a horse and rider step down off the highways knoll and onto the tarmac, turn and head north.
This will take some time for the local people to understand, once the highway does officially open if there are to be limited deaths on this freeway!

Over the highway bridge, music is banging from an open-walled bar, pristine compared to the buildings surrounding it. All along the road we tread are groups of villagers in various tableau’s of life: laundry, sweeping, sewing, playing cards, gathering families on a Sunday afternoon. They all stop and watch our growing crew of Americans and Juan Tomas villagers We are the parade. We realize this. Our Spanish speaking colleague calls out greetings as we proceed, that get a range of responses from timid to bewildered to friendly. The public school is pointed out on our tour. at the end of what must me Main St (no street signs), we arrive at a baseball field – not the kind your children play on but a Dominican semblance of that – and Johan proudly points out that here is where he played is league winning games. Baseball is God.

Hot and dusty, we purchase a dozen sodas from a local stand and distribute them to our group, to Johan and Pumpa and the growing number of young people they have picked up along the way. This walking tour is more like a crusade it seems. By the end, we may have a whole small city joining in our stroll. Including goats and dogs.

We pass the eleventh lottery hut along the side of the road and remark how extraordinary to have so many in such a small rural place. In such a poor place.

We head down a side lane where Johan points out the local witch doctor’s place- straight out of a Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp. He shares some terrific stories of headless chickens and dead cows, rumors of what goes on. Then we turn left past the public school and are back on our way home.

Witch Doctor

It’s now late afternoon. We are all dog tired, sunburnt, sweaty with literally the dirt of the village on our feet. A quick shower, an early dinner of a ham and cheese sandwich and back to the church where our leader gives a terrific Sunday evening sermon in English, translated in Spanish to the two dozen families there with gaggles of kids, all come to receive our colleagues generous gifts of toys for them from America.

It’s 8pm. But we are not done yet. A planning meeting in the dining area – what to do for 45 minutes the next morning as an outdoor activity with 70 children ages 4-6? And then another 45 minutes with them for bible study. We toss one idea after another. Honestly, I think we are fried! We land on three solid games for this age group and a very simple study. We discuss the construction teams for the next afternoon. And then we break.

I am done. But some of the team keeps on, setting up to play cards in the hall. I walk back with a teammate and ready for bed. This day is complete.

1600 miles around the corner

I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. The next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.

Fountain of Life School Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Nort, Dominican Republic

Dia Uno

First of all the Dominican Republic- away from the resorts- is another world. I can’t quite describe the smell- earth, and animal, and plants. Musky, jungle smell, deep and resonant. The ground is hard and absent much vegetation. The buildings are cement and in disrepair. The people are vibrant and alive.

The usual chaos at JFK as we arrive at 5am and prepare to depart the US – TSA two miles long, extra care given with bomb and drug sniffing dogs. We stand in a line of no less than two hundred watching the agents periodically play ball with the beautiful chocolate brown pup in front of us. We try to guess its breed- Weimereiner? Coonhound? Lab mix? We decide it would be fun to watch the dog catch a bomb. Or at least some drugs. We’re disappointed that it doesn’t happen during our watch and we make plans to come back someday just to watch again.

We have arrived plenty early and have two hours before our 8:15am flight. We settle in at our gate until we are called.

The flight to Santo Domingo is unremarkable. Easy take off and landing. We fly a very large 737 which takes forever to load and unload. About 45 minutes before we land, the stewards come through with two forms, one slightly larger blue form and one small blue form. They ask if we are born in America and if we say yes, they hand these two forms to us. My seat mates set about filling them out. Squinting at the tiny print, smaller than 6 font at least, I barely make out the indicators under each line: name, birthday, country of origin, residency. Address of where we are staying stumps me. All we have is The Fountain of Life School, Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Nort. So I enter that and place both papers into my passport as I see others doing. I gather I will need them later.

The humidity and heat hit us on the gangway disembarking in Santo Domingo. This airport means business. All very stark as we enter the country- no shops or food booths when you get off the plane. Just directions to customs. I need a restroom but none is to be found, yet.

When we round the last corner to customs, the mass of humanity spread out before us is unsettling. Here there is no efficiency. There is no order or rules either it seems. Just a swarm of travelers with backpacks and bags and passports and papers. I follow our volunteer leaders into what passes as a semblance of a line. A cluster more like it.

And here we wait.

And wait

And wait.

Three hours later, I step over the red line at the front of this swarm and walk up to the immigration booth. I face a young women who points to my passport. I give her the booklet and all the papers in it as well. I pray silently that she doesn’t seek an address for the school. She hands the papers back to me without even looking at them. She looks at me. Looks at my passport. Then points to an electronic box with a screen and symbols of hands in three different positions. As a green light ignites atop each symbol, I place the corresponding hand in the corresponding position. It scans and the light blinks off.

She smiles at me and nods as she hands me my passport. I am through.

One of our colleagues is not so lucky. Facing a different agent she is being grilled on the address of where we were staying. That dreaded question on the form. Her agent calls someone else over. Our colleague being retained speaks fluent Spanish. She has citizenship in both El Salvador and the US. I can hear and see the voices and actions rising. Her agent suddenly waves a hand at her as if to shoo her away. Our colleague approaches our group and states that she has to get the address of the school, and go back to him with it, or she can’t go through. Our volunteer leader quickly places calls to our contacts. No, no address. Just the schools name, and the village of Juan Tomas. Our colleague returns to the agent who impatiently shoos her away once more. We all start Googling but find nothing to help. Suddenly, the agent who passed me through leaves her booth at the far end of the row of sequential booths each filled with an agent or two. She strides confidently over to the obstinate agent and in a firm voice says something in Spanish that changes the whole dynamic. Suddenly our colleagues passport is stamped and she is through.

We emerge from customs, to locate our bags. Retrieved, we approach another check point. I hand my passport and the papers, which are again immediately returned to me without review. I’m feeling a little offended now- my efforts to write in less than 6 point font was an arduous task that I would like someone to appreciate!Plus I don’t know the address. Doesn’t that matter? We run through two more check points with passport reviews and this time a paper is snatched up at each one. I am satisfied. One final check of our bags tags and then we are in!

We enter the commercial part of the airport where bar kiosks and fruit stands and fast food places surround us. Our Spanish speaking colleague and I go to purchase 12 waters for us all. Seeing no price board, my colleague asks “Que Cuesta?“. The attendant counts up the bottles and replies “Ochocientos Cincuenta y uno”. 851 dollars!? “No, no” my colleague quickly responds “En dolares Americanos” “Ah, dieciseis dolares” Sixteen dollars. We peel off the bills and hand them over. As we were turning to leave, a Dominican woman approaches the same kiosk and also orders a bottle of water. My Spanish speaking colleague hears the attendant say “eso será cincuenta centavos”. That will be fifty cents.

Our first lesson in being foreigners.

David and his wife Stephanie met us outside the doors of the airport arrivals gate. He is with Converge church and they just moved their family- the two of them and their three teenage children- to the Dominican Republic in June for his work. They’ll live thee for the next five years. He serves the Latin American region supporting pastors.

We greet hello and introductions all around, then David guides us to a large white van with a trailer attached. It’s enclosed and locked. We load into the van. Two young Dominican boys help to haul the luggage into the trailer and lock it. The van seats 12 but we squeeze in 16, with David, the two young boys, and their father Richard.

What happens over the next 45 minutes is beyond description. I will not do it justice but I will try.

Let me start by saying, driving in this country is an art. Or a challenge. There are no lanes. I’m not exaggerating – no painted lanes and none of the drivers create lanes. Also there are no streets signs. At all. No wonder we couldn’t fill out our forms- the customs agent was just playing with us because not a Street has a Sign.

Speaking of signs there are no stop signs. Or very few. And the ones that are there are merely suggestions. Not only does no one stop for the few stop signs that do exist, but they don’t stop for each other not stopping for the stop signs either.

And the people. And the mini bikes. They are everywhere and they are fearless. Maybe they don’t know the cars don’t stop for the stop signs and that they don’t stop for other cars either, because if the pedestrians knew this they certainly would realize that they aren’t going to stop for them as well! But apparently they haven’t noticed. A colleague remarks how much better the traffic would be if people walked on the sidewalks. Indeed. Better traffic perhaps, but not as interesting and heart raising as this real life game of Frogger we are participating in!

We narrowly miss no less than a dozen people and mini bikes as we navigate through Santo Domingo. I believe our driver Javier is a God. His van glides through without so much as a scratch. That’s more than I can say for the other cars on the road, most of which look like competitors in a demolition derby. Cross streets are clogged with vehicles as we weave and nudge our way through. Despite the traffic nightmare, there is no road rage. None at all. Instead drivers wave and signal thumbs up. It’s surreal.

The streets of this city of Santo Domingo are a visual mirage of color, sound, and smells. Open air markets burning meats, scrap built stands selling bananas and mangos. Trucks heralding from 1978, with beds filled with yams and yucca and taro. Hawkers ignoring traffic and knocking on your window to sell wipers, and feather dusters, and steering wheel covers. Yes, I thought it an odd combo too. People shouting and crossing and sitting and waving.

At one intersection, we pass no less than 100 people all dressed in purple, white, and green, waving flags marked PLD. The Dominican Liberation Party. This is the current governing political party in the Dominican Republic. They are a Social democracy platform founded in 1973 by former president Juan Bosch, and have pretty much dominated politics in the country since the establishment of democracy.

Election season is upon the island. There are no less than 62 different parties running this year. The PLD people are all wearing beautiful clothes rich in color and brand new. They are a clean and healthy looking group. Quite jarring against the squalor and unavoidable poverty we have driven through. In Spanish, Javier tells us that they are given clothes and food to stand out here. Our colleague interprets.

Snippets of music from open air cars pass public buses with their fancy curtained windows – rides 25 cents one way. And then rising above a crest on the main Road- Gondolas.

Yes. I have video here to prove it. Gondolas strung over the road and into the palm trees and brush. Javier tells us it’s local transportation and it goes from East to West on the island.

I want gondolas in my state. They would resolve a lot about I95.

Our overloaded van takes a sharp turn and suddenly the pavement is gone and there are wire fences. And goats. And chickens. And dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. The busy city streets have given way to countryside, with shacks tucked into the hills. We turn again and the road narrows. A group of women move aside to let us pass. The van dips and shakes. I fear we may not make it up the next knoll but we do and there in the country is a long low blue wall topped with hurricane fencing and barbed wire. The Fountain of Life School.

An older gentleman waves us over along the wall where a solid metal door stands ajar and the van lurches to a halt. We are no sooner out than a swarm of young men descend on the trailer and move our luggage quickly into the compound. We follow. The metal door closes behind us.

The yard inside is filled with young people playing volleyball and children tottering over the cement, stone, red dirt, and rubble. A toddler in heavy shoes waddles by carrying a plastic bowl with what appear to be latex gloves in it. She stops and crouches down to add some stones from the dirt into the bowl and gloves.

Two girls no older than 5 and 7 stride by on a small bicycle. The younger, in a brilliant purple sleeveless dress festooned with yellow flowers, peddles as the older girl pushes her along. They smile widely and wave as they pass. “Hola!”

David and Stephanie introduce us to the staff on site. Richard the administrator and his wife Yajaira, their children Jariel, Neomi, and baby Emanuel. Argenis the school principal, his wife Rosmery. A half dozen other teachers and aides and facility crew. Many live right nearby. I look beyond the cement slab that currently serves as the volleyball court to a far wall of one of the many buildings inside this compound. A group of young people hang out at this wall, lounging on old desks and plastic picnic chairs, watching the volleyball players, teasing each other. Comfortable in their togetherness.

After introductions, we are guided to our dorm by Stephanie. She also teaches at the school. English. Our dorm is above the small kitchen and dining hall, up a set of crumbling cement stairs. I note no windows, just jalousie louvres. The door to the dorm has a lock on the outside. Two kittens sit on the tin corrugated roof of the dining hall that abuts the small cement balcony outside our door, their stature unmoving, their faces curious.

Although private, this school is not Hogwarts. It’s barely even identifiable as a school. And yet it teaches and educates exceptionally well, graduating dozens of students each year who go into college and masters programs, underscoring the fact that learning is not about a building.

Our dorm is cluttered with bunkbeds, each equipped with mosquito netting. Stephanie has given us a welcome basket of prepackaged cookies, granola bars and some personal products. It sits next to the single sink with the dangling water spigot.

Do not drink the water she reminds us again. In the dining hall below is a water cooler with fresh purified water, which the school produces.

The toilets are behind a half door. Do not put the toilet paper in the toilet after use. Place it in the waste bin next to you.

The showers have a single pipe coming out of the wall and one temperature. Cool. Not warm. Not cold. Just cool.

We set up our beds quickly, positioning the netting so bugs won’t get in, and head back down to the volleyball game. We sit and observe and attempt to chat with the older kids. I sense a wariness. Of course. I would too if a bunch of white Americans traipsed into my school all cheery faced and dew-eyed. I remind myself to listen to God, seek counsel, open up and encourage the Holy Spirit.

Stephanie and I chat for a while about their life back in Ohio and the transition of her kids to this new life. We realize she and her husband stayed at our house through Air BnB last summer while we were gone, as they visited our church. God is funny like this.

We’re called into dinner where we pray and then receive a plate of mangu, iceberg lettuce and tomato salad, and what looks like fried chunks of salami. Which they turn out to be. They are fried and then sautéed in a red pepper sauce. The mangu is a mash of plantains and other goodness. And the salad is just a salad. It is filling. It is now 6:45 and we still have a youth service to attend. David collects our passports and wallets to place in the safe. He warns us to hold onto our phone at all time.

Dinner finished, we head down the road outside the compound to a small tin barn like building. The church. Inside we hear singing. Loud vibrant singing from young voices. The pews are filled with the volleyball kids, now singing from their hearts. Soon the pastor steps up. Another young man proudly goes up and stands next to him. He will use his English lessons from the school to translate for us. He beams as he does this. He is proud. A young girl gazing and giggling at him in the front row is proud. We are proud.

During this service, the electricity goes off no less than a dozen times. Each time, we see a young man spring to the back and hear the whine of a generator. And yet through it all, the service and the singing continues, not missing a note, praising Jesus.

I have so much to learn.

After the service, on the wall behind the pastor, an LCD projection of a baseball game in progress suddenly appears. The girls go wild and the boys cheer. It’s clearly a Latin team they favor. As their team makes a play, the ancient Dell computer freezes in a buffer. The group erupts in noise and action. Boys run out and sprint down the road to pastors house to try to catch the game there.

We walk down the road behind this whooping and running group of kids and we re-enter the compound. Although only 8pm it feels like midnight. A quick cool shower and we crawl into our netted beds. Sleep.

#santodomingo #dominicanrepublic #Missiontrip #FountainofLifeSchool

Donor Relationships

By Melanie Cecarelli

When I’m in a social setting and people learn I’m with a nonprofit consulting firm, it’s like being a CPA being asked a tax question or a physician being asked, “Does this look infected to you?” I usually get questions or comments about how nonprofits are missing an important feature when it comes to their donors, and that is the relationship.
A colleague shared their recent experience with me. They contacted a nonprofit three times within a three month period regarding a restricted gift they wanted to make to the organization. Now one would think the organization would jump at a non-solicited gift coming across their desk. There was no ask, no cultivation or stewardship involved. It was theirs for the taking. Then why would they let the offer stand idle? Is it because the nonprofit didn’t understand the need and the importance of a good donor relationship?
As nonprofit leaders, you know it takes time and energy to cultivate and build a relationship with a donor, especially one that you hope will grow into a major gift. Little stumbles like this have a lasting impression. Remember the saying it takes years to build a good reputation and only takes a minute to ruin it? Think about that when you ignore your donor or just see them as a means to an end to help you get achieve your philanthropy goals.

So, how do you think this story ends? Was the donor persistent in trying to make their gift? Did the organization finally contact them? And what did the organization do after the gift was received? Sounds a bit like a cliffhanger for a TV serial. At the end of the day, it’s up to nonprofits to embrace donors for their value and your worth…but that’s a topic for another day.

Ask yourself these questions.
How do you view your donors? Are you treating them as a one collective group? What are you doing to cultivate your repeat donors from a transactional into the translational relationship, especially when comes knocking at your door? Do you know the art and science behind the cultivation process?
It’s much more than frequent communications and the request for a gift. It’s about connecting the donor to your organization, and not to what you think is important to you but what is important to them and being sure it aligns with your overall goals. A donor suggested a “buy a brick” concept for a walkway at an art gallery and the program director ran with it. The few donations they received were outweighed by the actual cost of the materials and labor to install, and didn’t align with the gallery’s overall development initiative. Yes they had donors, but at what cost? And were these opportunities that could have been cultivated for something else?

How do you know what’s important to your donor? By listening and connecting with them, and not just once but multiple times. It’s not about coming out of the gate and asking for their gift, but understanding what motivates them to give to your organization. Are they interested in the outcomes or more interested in how the program operates? Do they want their dollars going to a program or are they more interested in capital improvements or longevity through an endowment or planned gift? It’s all about helping the donor grow alongside your organization. Cultivation.
And most of all, be responsive to your donors. Don’t keep them waiting especially when they come to you with a gift. Opportunity may knock more than once, but it’s not going to keep on knocking until you are ready to answer.

Give Back Tuesday

By Melanie Cecarelli

With the holiday season upon us, how many emails, text alerts, and Facebook ads did you receive for Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales? And now there’s “Give Back Tuesday”, a way for nonprofits to maximize year end giving with donors.

On “Give Back Tuesday”, I’m struck by the number of appeals that are flooding my inbox and social media pages. I think I received as many requests on “Give Back Tuesday” as I did for all the store and online sales. Many are from friends or colleagues who perhaps sit on a particular nonprofit board or maybe have given to the organization in the past.

Does it work? Some of the organizations are brave enough to post their progress toward a goal, and there’s little to no movement for donations. One organization tried “Give Back Tuesday” when it was first introduced as a concept. Out of the hundreds of emails and posting sent to their donor and membership base, only one gift was received. Why? Because organizations are reaching out to their donors who in turn are reaching out to individuals who have little or no knowledge of them. And a short 140 byte message isn’t going to move someone to give ‘sight unseen’ to your cause.

So ask yourself, “Is the squeeze worth the juice?” Are you putting time and resources toward an appeal that isn’t yielding results?
Like most things, one organization may have tremendous success with crowdsourcing and everyone jumps into the game. As a friend once said to me, “You need to know how deep the pool is before you jump in with cement shoes”. And that goes for “Give Back Tuesday”. How big is your social media footprint? Are these individuals who are connected to your work and mission or are you just jumping into the pool without knowing your audience? And what is your strategy for keeping the one or two new donors connected to your mission.

Many organizations see “Give Back Tuesday” as a way to close the gap for their overall development fund. While it may work for some, more attention needs to be given to creating a culture of philanthropy that engages donors and prospects throughout the year. Loyal donors are going to respond to your annual appeal and the cultivation you work on throughout the year. You don’t want to wait to year end to close gaps. The time to plan for next year is now.

So, how did Give Back Tuesday work for you?

Servers and Rewarders

Not everyone is a giver. Connecticut Public Radio recently completed a two year project on ‘Giving’, and while many (most) of the people they interviewed applied to participate because they were givers, I’m sure the ones who did not respond to be interviewed were not givers. Not everyone is a giver.

One thing is for certain though – if you have donors then you have givers. These givers are people who have a desire to impact another’s life; offer themselves and their possessions to others. There are non-givers in the world, people who care nothing about other’s needs, but people in this latter category usually fall under the heading Narcissists and Sociopaths. For the most part, the majority of people are givers; it’s an innate part of our DNA. From infancy we have empathy for others that causes us to act to help.

But givers are not at all alike. In fact it is my opinion that there are two distinct types of givers.

SERVERS AND REWARDERS:

Husband and I are celebrating thirty years of marriage this year. This is remarkable because 1) Most marriages don’t last that long and 2) it’s a miracle that despite our vast differences, we are still together 30 years later. Ketchup on eggs/no ketchup on eggs; music as an alarm clock/silence is golden; Volunteer for everything/volunteer for nothing; in all ways he and I are as different as the proverbial night and day.

And when it comes to giving we remain distinctly at odds: fundamentally, I am a Server and he is a Rewarder.

As a server I tend to see others’ needs as they appear to me and then act to assist in some way. I seek to put others first, looking for ways to be a blessing upon someone who has done virtually nothing to ask or ‘earn’ it in anyway. If a person is struggling with full hands and is trying to enter the subway car, I’ll reach out to help. If I see someone being uncomfortable with silence or with a comment I jump in to comfort them (usually inserting foot into mouth along the way, but hey…). In most situations where I am moved to empathy by a person’s situation, I am also moved to act.

That’s not to say at all that my husband is not empathetic, kind, or not a giver. He is very much so, and often is brought to the brink of tears by others’ stories of struggle or injustice. It’s just that his pragmatic nature causes him to be more of a rewarder than a server.

For him, giving is triggered by people’s actions towards him or towards themselves. In this way giving is a reward, a reward for action. Recently we had a young visitor stay with us. My husband was his cordial self. But not very giving. The young man had a 16-foot truck full of stuff. Only after he asked my husband to help did hubby jump into full blown action, clearing places in the garage and hauling boxes. I on the other hand was already making virtual plans for assistance when I heard the news of the truck arriving.

During a recent visit to NYC, we passed by one after another of types of people needing assistance; some homeless, some were able bodied individual’s just experiencing life’s nuanced challenges. By days end, I was an exhausted drained mess, having depleted my reserves and brain power in trying to ensure I helped each and every person in some small way possible. Hubby was surprised that the number of people I counted needing help even existed. He did hold the door for a gentleman who asked nicely. And he was grateful to do so. Raising our kids, Hubby was so very generous when a child overcame a struggle or performed an action that made hubby feel proud, inspired, or just dog gone emotional about his kid. But he allowed the struggle to occur, whereas I had blisters from gripping the broom I used to sweep the path of struggle for each one of my three children.

Rewarders often appreciate the self-reliance necessary to be built in order for gratitude to kick in, in order for the reward of giving to have a lasting impact. Often rewarders want the individual in need to acknowledge their need for a deeper meaning, a learning that occurs in building character and in forming a bond between helper and the one being helped. Additionally, some rewarders don’t always see the obvious and might not be inclined to fore think the needs that others might have, but that does not make them any less of a giver. Rewarders give based on need AND actions, whereas servers give based on needs alone. Servers are driven innately by their own desire to serve and feel good about serving. Rewarders are driven by the need that exists and the call to action from the one needing help.

Your DONORS are Servers and Rewarders as well. Which is why it is so very important to have a continual stream of consciousness flowing by them of not only your constituents’ needs, but ALSO your constituents and organizations’ actions and your call to help. I recently facilitated a strategic planning session where the ED implied that more publicity would raise more funds. Her rationale was that when people see what we are doing and the people we serve, they will say, “Hey that’s a good cause, I’ll send them money”. She wasn’t wrong. But she wasn’t totally right either. She only had half the equation; she was speaking to the Server givers in her donor pool, who would see the article and intuit the need and be moved to action, their own defined action, based on what they read that caused them to emote.

The other half is that a rewarder would read the news article, close the paper and walk away. They would certainly appreciate the work that was being performed, but would not be moved to action because there was no call to action; there was no request for help nor any evidence of the organization doing something that a rewarder could well, reward with their assistance. To complete the cycle and speak to both groups of givers – servers and rewarders – the organization would also have to show action, maybe a piece on the results of their activity or a testimonial from a constituent served on what they did because of this group, as well as a request spelled out –“We Need Your help Now. Please send us $25 today to take this work to the next level”.

Servers and Rewarders are both equally giving, they are just compelled to act based on different criteria.Recognizing this, preparing for it, and employing different techniques in communication and solicitation will help you meet both of their needs.

New Means of Funding for Nonprofits

As demands escalate, nonprofits have found themselves in a battle to maintain a stable funding for their programming. With nonprofits generating more than 14% of the state’s private workforce, 78% of these organizations have reported increase in demand. However, insufficient government funds have made it difficult for nonprofits to meet their demands. Federal aid has continued to either decrease or remain stagnant, which causes tight budgets for these organizations.

Tight budgets equal less employees, which leaves the remaining employees exhausted from the additional workload. So, what can these organizations do to avoid this from happening? Nonprofits have begun cultivating strong relationships with public and private partners in order to bring in and increase corporate sponsorship. Though this may seem like a reasonable idea in times of need for these organizations, it can also backfire quickly. Harvest’s own, Sondra Lintelmann-Dellaripa, says, “Nonprofits are essential; they represent a large value to workforce and GDP. New means of funding are needed. Individual giving is the greatest asset. Mergers and acquisitions of npo’s might be necessary.” However, she continues by saying “I don’t agree with events or corporate sponsorship as an answer. That’s a dying and dead end revenue stream for many reasons.” Read the full article here.

Let’s get to talking! Connect with us on Social Media and share your thoughts!.

“A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month’s study of books.” – Chinese Proverb

Capacity Building

Image: jscreationzs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If we ask any of our nonprofit prospects and clients, what is there biggest challenge besides fundraising, the answer is invariably “building capacity“.

Capacity building is a broad term that encompasses “actions that improve nonprofit effectiveness”. According to a journal released by the Foundation Center in 2003 entitled “Investing in Capacity Building: A Guide to High-Impact Approaches”, capacity building can take many forms, including:

  • Professional development for staff and board members
  • Opportunities for peer learning, networking or leadership development
  • Creating or re-examining organizational plans
  • Initiating collaboration with other nonprofits
  • Developing new sources for earned income
  • Utilizing pro bono support for high-impact projects

Many of the community foundations and professional associations for nonprofits with whom we work offer numerous opportunities for capacity building- from grants directly to the organizations to bring on talent, expand knowledge and build strategy; to offering workshops, seminars and conferences from which the nonprofits can learn.

Yet we are still talking about capacity building over a decade later. If we know these things mentioned prior can work, what isn’t working?

Our firm has studied this issue for two years. We have worked with over 1000 prospective clients in trying to establish a solution set that met their needs and their budget.  We’ve heard from each of them as to what they have tried to do on their own and with help from foundations, associations and in some cases universities. What we learned was that for each one, where the process of capacity building fell apart was in execution.

Good ideas, strategy, recommendations, action steps, all are excellent in theory but will fail the nonprofit if they feel unable to execute. Some obstacles to execution are time and resources, confidence and experience, and accountability.

Of the thousands of prospects and clients we spoke with, about 80% were deserving, viable nonprofits. They have neither the resources nor the time or support needed to truly benefit from a contract for private consulting support.

after our study of this issue, we built what we believe to be a game changing answer to the capacity building issue for these nonprofits.

BLOSSOM

When we realized the scope of this problem, we thought, what if we could create a learning lab, curating the best of educational videos, podcasts, journal articles, and books, in which nonprofit executives could reliably and affordably access these tools in an online workspace, at any time. And what if we supported each learner with a private coach, who would have complete access to their learning progress in the lab, evaluating and mentoring them through assignment completion and assessments, and meet with the learner by phone, skype or google hangout once a month for 90 minutes.

And then what if we could provide an upfront assessment for the learner and the coach and learner could identify one looming key performance issue in the organization that they want to create a long term project around, affecting real time change to the nonprofits outcomes.

And finally what if we assembled six learners in a team, where they could interact, share ideas and have rich discussions around topics relevant to the nonprofit industry, effecting their organizations?

Around these assumptions we built BLOSSOM: The Virtual Incubator for Nonprofit Executives.

The incubator is a twelve month program, covering fifteen different nonprofits business topics. Learners start with an assessment on their influence style and on their organizations health. From these assessments the coach will develop leadership learning opportunities and will define with the learner their long term project. The Learner receives an online workspace that has the best of curated educational materials, tools, and templates, along with a resource library of additional information and downloadables. Learners are assembled with five other executives, for teams of six, who meet once per month online to discuss general nonprofit topics of interest. They also hold each other accountable for the progress and completion of their long term projects. The program culminates with a review of real time outcomes acheived, completion of the long term project, and a new network of colleagues and support members to continue the growth and sustainability acheived.

Early feedback was overwhelmingly rejoiceful! Yes, rejoiceful, lol!  Brilliant was one word used, Something I can really rely on for change in my organization was another phrase heard often.

We would love to get your feedback. Request access to the Free Trial Module and tell us what you think!

Email us for acccess to your FREE TRIAL MODULE

[email protected] or call us at 888-586-1103 ex2 to get immediate entry to the trial.

Patience and Trust

BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY

Twenty-two of the dogs most in need of care after being rescued from Michael Vick’s horrifying dogfighting ring were sent to Best Friends Animal Society for rehabilitation. Each of those dogs was special, but from the start there was a standout: Lance. The best dog trainers in the world worked with the 22 dogs, and over time, each passed the court-ordered Canine Good Citizen test and was placed in a loving home. Except for Lance. Even though a wonderful family was interested in adopting him, he was not allowed to leave until he passed his test, and he had so much anxiety that every time he took the test, he would freeze….

Best Friends Animal Society