Topic: Random

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.

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

Mark Your Calendar for Harvest Development Group’s Latest Webinar

Image

“How Do Women Lead Strategic Philanthropic Initiatives?”

Do you have what it takes? Discover how some of the most successful non profit female executives of today successfully advance their missions over and over again!  Harvest Development Group’s Director of Client Engagement, Jeanne Boyer Roy, just back from Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy Symposium, will highlight important considerations for female executives as they orchestrate strategic philanthropic initiatives. We hope you will join us for this insightful webinar.

Date: Thursday, May 22nd
Time: 12:30pm EST
Link:   https://harvestdevgrp.clickwebinar.com/Women_Leading_Philanthropy?lang=en.

Lessons From My 93-Year-Old Kindergarten Teacher

Mary Beth Washington is the stuff that kindergarten dreams are made of. “She did almost everything contrary to the rules: she took the kids out walking in the rain, she napped with them during naptime, she came to school dressed like a circus performer. She was in love with birds, dancing, poetry and people.” Now in her 93rd year, she is as spirited as ever and still going strong with her walking stick, cheery stockings and shoes, and many layers of scarves. “I teach the big children, now,” she says, in a chance encounter with a parent whose child was one of her students. With hearty chuckles and magical winks, there are many lessons to be learned from this special woman. (10901 reads) 

Lessons From My 93-Year-Old Kindergarten Teacher

The Accidental Fundraiser

Image
“Your body determines your mind, your mind determines your behavior, your behavior determines your outcomes”. Amy Chuddy, TED Talk presenter.
I didn’t aspire to be in this role. In fact, I never knew this existed–this world of goodness, and compassion, and humanitarian promise. I wanted to be a teacher when I was seven. Or a mom. But somewhere over the course of 25 years, between graduating teachers college and being mom to three young kids, I took on some volunteer roles, which translated to part time employment with a large nonprofit, which migrated to director level and finally executive level leadership of a multi-million dollar foundation. And then to this, sharing what I learned through experience and education with other nonprofits.
In some ways I am an accidental fundraiser. And I have come realize that quite possibly you may be as well. The path to nonprofit work is rarely straight, and it’s not lined with specific degrees, tests, or passing of boards. It’s crowded with teachers, lawyers, and social service professionals. With doctors, nurses, and with administrative support personnel. It doesn’t have one face, it has a million faces.
How do we all know what to do? Aside from the academics of seminars and trainings, I’d say we fake it until we become it.
My first board meeting still haunts me. I was the side show, not even the main course, but my palms were so sweaty I was afraid to hold the paper for fear of leaving stains. I paced for a full hour, feeling nauseous and shaky. I was certain I was a fake, that I wasn’t supposed to be there, that I would be found out, and that I would die of embarrassment when I was. I was exactly the person Amy Chuddy speaks of in her terrific TED Talk, “Your body language shapes who you are“.
This twenty minute talk is a grounding starting point for everyone of us who as ever felt like we accidentally ended up in a role we didn’t deserve, couldn’t manage, or didn’t aspire to.  She provides terrific recommendation on how our body language speaks to us and how we can arrange our bodies to increase confidence, power, and authority.  Fake it till you become it. Because you are here, you do deserve it, and you can do it.
 Highly recommended, this talk will change your life.

What is new is not always relevant. What is relevant is not always new.

crowdfunding_special-300x182

Crowd Funding PBS Special

PBS has been blogging about crowdfunding – the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet   – and their latest post engages nonprofits in thinking about the significant opportunity for financial success in crowdfunding.

From PBS’s post:

“The need for alternative fundraising methods clearly varies a lot across organizations. But even comfortable non-profits accept that crowdfunding has the potential to deliver a deep engagement between fundraisers and backers. And, as emergent civic crowdfunding models suggest, it has the potential to produce new alliances”

The post goes on to highlight success stories in the the crowdfunding sphere:

“In April, the Chicago Parks Foundation raised $62,113 for the expansion of the city’s Windy City Hoops basketball social program on IndieGoGo.”

” The Long Now Foundation is using this model for its Salon campaign, which has raised just over half of its $495,000 target. “

The post ends with this note of validation for many nonprofit’s marketing savvy and the opportunity to leverage that expertise for crowdfunding success. “Many non-profits are established experts in these areas. Many of them have stronger and more-established brands than even the best-known crowdfunding platforms. The quality and scale of crowdfunding campaigns would undoubtedly increase if they decided to apply their expertise to the field.”

While I appreciate what these types of articles do for innovative thinking, when they are sent out into the npo-sphere such as this, with no context to the implementation or integration of such a strategy into a broad range of tactics, it sends most charities desperate for money on a wild – and often disappointing- goose chase for their tens of thousands of dollars from ‘the web’. At best this is a distraction and a waste of resources which could go toward raising real money. At worst, it could be the straw that crumbles an already ailing organization.

In reality, what is new is not always relevant. What is relevant is not always new. Basing revenue development on scholarly data and best practices is essential to helping our nonprofits prosper.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Shaping the future of philanthropy

nextgendonors_podcast_slide_final-490x280

Shaping the Future of Philanthropy

From the Foundation Center, this series is interesting and provides insight into the next generation of philanthropists: young people from families of wealth. Despite my misgivings listed below, it is well worth the time invested in listening to the series.

It misses the mark in my opinion on two fronts- it focuses too narrowly on the next generation of philanthropists from a very small slice: those families already heavily invested in philanthropy. I would argue that many leaders of the next generation will find their own path in philanthropy and I would want to know their thoughts as well.

Secondly, it is disappointing in who they interview….. many of these individuals are not necessarily the key age demographic I would position as the next gen of philanthropy. I had hoped for a younger crowd, but many leaned more toward 40 years old.

However, its a start! I suggest listen to this one and then migrate out to the website at Grantcraft.org  to hear the remainder of the podcasts.

Gen Y and Nonprofits

In this interview with WomensRadioDavid J. Neff , co-author of The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age, makes some interesting points. However, his argument does fall short of an explanation. Here is my response to ‘Gen Y Driving Nonprofits to Innovate and Thrive’.

A study by CompassPoint and the Meyers Foundation in 2011 called Daring to Lead 2011 , found that two-thirds of executive directors surveyed indicated that they intend to retire by 2016.  This will create a large gap, which Gen Y will be filling. We need to pay attention to this the incoming executive director generation and think about how we should be forming and evolving our nonprofits to be ready for their leadership.

The big national nonprofits like American Cancer Society, are not necessarily innovative, their behavior is pretty traditional. However, they do have the resources needed to strive for innovation. Resources are critical. Grantors and other funders need to design funding programs aimed at growing innovation in nonprofits.

Nonprofit organizations should definitely remember they are a business. Being tax exempt is just their tax status. They need to behave more like a corporation, strategically designing revenue, resourcing revenue development, creating marketing plans, and conducting research and strategic approaches, not just on programs, but on all four areas of operations – human resources, marketing, and finances as well. To do this, the general public needs to abandon their determination to judge a nonprofit by “how much money goes to program and not administration”. Some of the most successful nonprofits spend more on administration, but still achieve amazing results in mission delivery.

Nonprofit employees are actually compensated well, considering their limited sector specific education. Most nonprofit employees do not have a degree in nonprofit management. Many don’t have finance or business backgrounds either.  So the $55k salary for a director at a nonprofit organization, with no educational background specific to the nonprofit sector, is pretty decent. More colleges need to offer nonprofit management degrees, and more nonprofit organizations need to hire specifically for the job. This means not promoting a Program Manager to Executive Director or Fundraising Director for their dedication or their longevity to the organization, as that rarely if ever works out well. Nonprofit organizations should hire professionals with the education and experience background suitable for the specific job role.

Teamwork is important. It always has been. I wrote a white paper on retaining talent, innovative talent. Gen Y works differently. Nonprofit organizations need to change the silo mindset that each person is responsible for their individual tasks and performance measures, and move toward group managed, dynamically measured projects.

Where nonprofits find their supporters is also changing.  SXSW is one great idea. The old stodgy nonprofit organizations don’t think of being there. Bad for them, that’s where the new future donors are. And what Gen Y wants to support is unique; they want ownership and specific outcomes. They want to see a start, finish and most importantly an end. We need to change the way we prospect for donors, cultivate, and solicit donors.

Many of the start-up nonprofits we are working with have been started by executives who have aged out of the corporate sector or young Gen Y/X entrepreneurs. They are excited and passionate about starting their nonprofit and need the business guidance to start up well. They bring high risk tolerance, drive for outcomes, aren’t afraid to fund-raise and understand the need for marketing and publicity.  It’s the new nonprofit.

Innovation as a Culture…..

It all started with a statistic in 2006, repeated in 2011: Two thirds of all executive directors of US nonprofits intend to retire by 2016 (Cornelius, Moyers, & Bell, 2011).

That led to a thought: Filling those positions are Gen X and Y, who work so very differently and embrace a culture of Innovation

That led to a fear: Is our industry prepared?

That lead to a revelation: We need to focus hard on developing Innovative Cultures now, in order to weather the shift.

Innovate: Verb

1: to introduce as, or as if, new
2: to effect a change in 
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2012
 

Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation builds on existing ideas. It is not to be confused with Invention. The Printing Press was Invented, the Kindle was Innovative.

If our Grandparents were Inventors, then Gen X/Y are Innovators. They may not own the market on Innovation, but lead the charge and drive the process. Their Innovative spirit causes them to see work differently, and for those working in the Nonprofit Sector, and stepping into the vacuum of leadership soon to be created, that could be a challenge.

The exiting generation of Boomers tend to believe work was for life and WAS life. After all, they created the ‘workaholic’ and ‘superwoman’ concepts. The Gen X/Y to come, view work and their work life much differently. They are traditionally seen as individualistic, self-reliant and skeptical of authority. They expect great workplace flexibility. They are tech savvy and seek diverse groups. The speed and ease of the Internet  and its subsequent vast knowledge base, has led the ‘Net Generation’ of Y and Xer’s to be flexible and changing in its consciousness and with how it is communicated. We can see how this is in great contrast to the current environment of the risk averse, staid and steady world of the nonprofit.

However, we have seen some break-outs in the industry, nonprofits that have jumped the fence to do things differently, and with great results. For these nonprofits, we see that Innovation provides bold, new approaches to the way they work; they have decidedly replicated and integrated what can be learned from other disciplines; and they have provided ideas and strategies to our industry on how organizations can better foster new ideas and solutions to challenges and mission need.

Which is just the type of culture required to manage through such a massive shift in leadership, that is pending in our industry in the coming years.

What is needed for your organization to jump the fence into a culture of Innovation and to stand apart and excel in the approaching change?

Here are some simple and manageable ideas to get started.

1) Create and/or Embrace Your Constraints:

An excellent line from Marnie Webb, CEO of TechSoup Global, reflects “Innovation happens when people work within constraints — in an environment of not enough — and they figure out how to do it anyway.”  (Webb, 2011).   Well, doesn’t that just describe the EVER PRESENT environment of most, if not all, nonprofit organizations? So lack of resources, lack of time, lack of experience is a benefit and not a detriment to your Innovation.

Inspire a spirit of can do in your team: Teach them to routinely say to the world, “I know you said we can’t do this, but we are  going to figure a way that we can.”  A fun way to do this is to challenge your staff each month with one new problem to solve. It can be simple or complex, but make sure there are no single ‘right’ answers expected, and that all respondents get an encouraging word about their creativity in designing a solution. Take a look at the monthly responses and find one or two things that can be implemented from each, to make this activity actionable and inspiring.

2) Data is fuel for Innovation:

Research has had its day recently in the public square of discussion among the nonprofit set. It wasn’t until this recent decade though, that many nonprofits began to wake up to the fact that data drives exceptional performance. Metrics on outcomes of service and mission performance, as required now by grantors; benchmarks on philanthropy, collected and aggregated to drive decisions on fundraising expenditures; demographics on constituency that support political advocacy and marketing investments – all data driven for enhanced results.

Data drives Innovation as well.  How many experiments do you have currently going in your organization? What are you currently testing? If the answer is nothing, the future may look bleak for you. Testing gives you all the raw data you need to begin to get creative and innovate existing projects and services. Without it, you’re shooting in the dark.

It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you start. Test something every week, every month and have a few tests going at the same time. Overall, testing does not significantly impact resources devoted to your project: You’re already completing the project with all the resources you have and need. Testing requires a simple tracking methodology.

A simple trial test, to get yourself and your staff acquainted with a culture of testing, is to develop a survey used with every donor/donation received. The survey can ask some common demographic questions, but also some quirky ones:  What color would you paint your car if you could paint it any color? What did you want to be when you grew up? What’s your favorite treat food?

The resulting data can be a rich playground for your team to get creative. What if more than 75% of your donors said Popcorn was their favorite treat food? How could you use this information to better your appeals, raise more money, sign up more volunteers, get more people to your programs? You could also take that quirky data, create an info-graphic and share with your constituency, giving them all an intimate look at the tribe they are part of in supporting your mission!

3) Free Access, Embrace Risk:

Let your staff play. Open up their access to the internet, create an environment of walking around to work, withhold judgement, encourage impossible dreams, create shared spaces for interaction. Let go of your organizational fear, and strict fence posts, and let your staff bloom! Additionally, inspire and ask you constituents and donor base to get involved. Create spaces for shared ideas, allow your donors to see their own giving histories, to watch projects unfold and to openly track progress of service delivery and program development.  Yes, even the warts and the odd parts.

Try this for one month: Using a cloud based program, like Dropbox or Google+, create a shared folder or a group for idea generation. Invite staff, board, donors, clients, to get involved. Post a problem or question of the month. Then encourage everyone to drop a comment. People love to give their feedback, so encourage that sharing on your real issues. Why not start with this question: What one thing would you change about us? Interact with the group, asking further questions, exploring responses, challenging perceptions.

4) Allow process, iteration, pivoting. Don’t kill the messenger or the message – massage it.

If you don’t give Innovation the time and attention it deserves, it will not produce and it will not gel as a culture. There are no bad ideas, only ideas which have not matured yet. Like a fine wine, an idea becomes innovative after taking some time to develop. Too often we rush to judgement on a solution, concept or strategy. Keep all ideas generative and don’t lose any along the way. Pop them open every so often, encourage follow through and push back on development on those that look promising or have some immediate potential application. Use data to tweak them along the way and send them out for more testing. Turn them over, look at them differently.  One of my favorite examples of this is asking the question: How is your_____________  like a ________? For instance, “How is your Nonprofit, like a Toaster?”.

5) Be sincere

Finally, don’t offer lip service on Innovation. It knows when you are lying and it knows when you are passionate about serving it well. Innovation is not a tactic, or a business management style. It is truly a culture, one which can only come from authentic, inspired and patient nurturing. Making it part of the spirit of your organization will yield powerful results.