Monday, February 27, 2006
After about 20 hours of travel I arrived in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic just before midnight. It really doesn’t take 20 hours to travel to this country from Oregon, but due to tight connections I was forced to have an 8-hour layover in Fort Lauderdale. Of all the airports I have had to kill time in, I would rank this airport near the bottom of the heap. It is a major destination airport for those going on cruises and the place was packed!
Anyway I had a good night’s sleep and was able to relax part of the next day at the pool. I later hooked up with Bruce Cripe, who is a 30-plus year veteran with the WV Artist program and will be our guide/host on this venture. I have come on this trip in part to learn from Bruce and how he organizes these trips. The plan is for me to lead a trip later in the year with some other artists. Bruce is a great guy and knows his stuff. I decided to join Bruce on a trip to the airport to get the rest of the team who arrived today. The team is Jennifer LaMountain and her husband Lynell, Christy Janzen and husband Jim, the Martin family (John, Doty and Debbie), Alan Atwood, and Joey Nicholson. Also along for the trip is our photographer, Jon Morgan and our videographer Heidi Groff. I am delighted to have Jon and Heidi along, as they were also on the trip to Africa!
After returning from the Airport we all went out to eat at a nice Italian place near our hotel (El Embajador). We then hit the sack, as we are to depart at 6:00 the next morning.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Today we traveled to the other side of the island to an Enriquillo Area Development Project (ADP) that is on the border of Haiti. It was a long bus ride (between 5 and 6 hours) and we were able to see much of the beautiful countryside: a mix between tropical and then high desert in the mountains. Bruce was masterful at preparing us for the day. Since we had a long bus ride, he took advantage of the time to tell us a bit about what to expect. He had each artist share a bit about themself, share a devotional and pray, laying the groundwork for us to bond over the next three days. Joining us for the three days is our guide and interpreter, Raphael. He is one impressive man. He is a former professional baseball player (once drafted by the Yankees, though he never played for them), very intelligent and a very loving and warm individual. It is easy to tell that we could not have had a better person to aid us on this trip. Raphael spent much time telling us more about the Dominican culture and some of the challenges they face in their work here. He reinforces something we have heard before. The men are very into machismo, and it is not uncommon for a man to have more than one wife. One of the difficulties in helping a family is the risk that as a family starts to better itself, the man will often want to take a second wife. This is a huge problem, as the man will then start a second family with less resources to provide for them. For this reason and others, most aid and micro enterprise is focused on women. Women, according to Raphael, are more honest and trustworthy.
Upon arrival we met with the leaders of the ADP and they were proud to give us a report on what is being done here. This area was devastated by a flood a little over a year ago. Several were killed in the flood (including some sponsored children) and a number of homes destroyed. World Vision is working to rebuild homes. Because of the limited funds we asked how it is determined who will get a new home. The answer is the best possible under the circumstances: “whoever has the greatest need.” Huge in the selection process will be the children affected and helped. One interesting thing we noted is the excellent job that World Vision does in making sure the people receiving benefit are also involved in the work. They are expected to help build, to learn and to teach others. We hear the word “multiplier” used over and over again. They want each person to multiply themself, and through this process true “development” takes place.
Around us in the room where we met was a large mural painted by the kids. The theme of the mural is child abuse. We learned that one of the biggest problems in these communities is child abuse, including children being sold and sexual abuse. I found the mural chilling to view. Central to the mural is a picture of Jesus crying—very moving.
After the meeting we went to lunch. Sitting outdoors on a patio that serves as a restaurant, we ate a typical Dominican meal: juice, rice and beans, chicken, goat meat, salad and grilled plantain. For dessert, a coconut and milk pudding–all and all not bad. (Note: we didn’t eat the salad… when traveling in a third world country you learn to avoid raw veggies and drink only bottled water and soft drinks).
After lunch we traveled to a project run entirely by single mothers: a tilapia farm. These women have dug the pond and stocked it with tilapia as a means of micro-enterprise. In about 4 months’ time the fish are ready for harvest. I am amazed at the incredible ingenuity of this idea. Here in a high desert location a plot of barren land has been transformed into a life-sustaining project providing both food and income! Way to go!
We take a short drive to the border of Haiti. Raphael has shared with us that there are many from Haiti who try to sneak into the DR. There are armed guards at several checkpoints along the road, the DR army looking for Haitians trying to get into the country. While the two countries share this small island they are very different countries. The DR has Spanish influence and Spanish is the spoken language. Haiti, on the other hand, is French influenced with French being the spoken language. Both have an African influence. Haitians are a darker-colored race for the most part. And there is some tension between the two countries. Raphael has been careful to point out that at this ADP there are many Haitians as well. We are allowed, without even showing our passports, to cross over on foot into Haiti. Even though both are poor countries, we as a group sense a more oppressed and desperate feel to Haiti. We walked about the marketplace, which consisted of mostly flea market stuff. Not a market for tourists, to be sure. It is dark, dirty and oppressive, and I stepped over a dead rat in the aisle between the rows of merchandise. I was not eager to stay here long and indeed we left after only about 5 minutes of walking around—we had seen enough.
Next we are off to a Children’s Festival in town. When World Vision artists come to a project, a highlight for both artists and community is opportunities for both to perform for each other. Bruce has set this up in advance and so in a park in the middle of town we met about 300-plus school children, most in uniforms and busting with energy. I was impressed right off the bat with the behavior and had serious doubts that 300 children in a park setting in the US would be so well behaved. We took turns with them performing for us and we for them—music and dance (no drama in this setting).
Joey Nicholson proved to be the “rock star” today. He took the stage with his guitar and started singing, “I Could Sing of His Love Forever.” It was obvious this was a familiar tune to them, but not the English words. Then Joey started the second time through in Spanish and the crowd came alive singing with him. Very cool!
We said our goodbyes to the kids and started the long ride back to Santo Domingo. We were tired but felt very glad we came. On the way back we stopped for some fast food fried chicken for our dinner. After dinner we decided to play charades on the bus. This turned out to be great fun for all and created some memorable moments. Bruce came up with the winning song title: They Girdle the Globe With Salvation. He claims it is a real old hymn title, but some of us are not so sure!
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Today was not so much of an endurance test as yesterday. I slept well last night and was able to sleep in a bit. Hard to get out of bed this AM. After a bite of breakfast we visited the national office of World Vision in the DR. Met the President of WV DR, Claudio. What a wonderful, intelligent and passionate man. We spoke with him through translators and I was very impressed with this man’s zeal and his heart. We also visited with the department that handles all the letters, translations, and such. Fascinating to see how they work. There are some major differences between WV here and what I observed in Africa. The DR has been established with WV so much longer and thus has programs that have been working well for several years. Africa was more primitive and in earlier stages by comparison.
After our visit to the office we did a bit of sightseeing in Old Santo Domingo. I didn’t remember this from my history classes (I should have been paying attention) but Santo Domingo is the oldest city in the Americas. It is where Columbus landed. We visited the home of his son, Diego, walked the very first street in the Americas, and visited the oldest church in the Americas. I had to capitalize on this opportunity, so I gathered several of the team around me and performed a few lines from Sacred Diary, just so I can now say, “I have performed in the oldest church in the Americas!” It will sound great on my resumé and on the website!
We walked around Old Town and looked in some shops and then went to lunch. Ate at a nice place but service took way too long. About 2 hours later we were done with our meal. We then visited a really neat ADP. It is an inner-city project that is driven by youth volunteers. Think of it as kind of a drop-in center, continuing education center, health club and fine arts academy all rolled into one. The highlight was sitting outside with these incredible youth who sang and performed for us and we for them. Awesome atmosphere. I actually performed the Bible Backrub with Rafael translating. It went over great. The whole thing ended in a time of worship together. Joey brought back “I Could Sing of His Love Forever” and we sang it… forever. (But it was cool.)
This center made such a great impression on all of us. We think of World Vision in terms of relief—feeding the hungry, helping after a disaster, caring for orphans, etc. And I have seen that in action. But it is great to be reminded that it is also a development organization. I found out that Raphael was himself a sponsored child, but with a different organization. Without being asked to choose favorites, he told me that while he is grateful to the organization he was sponsored by, if he had to choose he would pick World Vision over it. I asked him why and he said it was because WV deals with every area: not just basic physical needs, but spiritual, educational and every area of development. As artists we were delighted to see kids have an opportunity to be in a place like this center that could help them realize their potential in areas of talent and passion. What a blessing!
Drove home in rush hour traffic (or should I say we crawled home). We then had a nice dinner outside at the hotel as we unwound and shared our impressions of the day.
Thursday, March 2, 2006
Today we visited some schools that World Vision has built. Fascinating to see the before and after of the school rooms that these people have used in the past. Mostly outdoor, open-air classrooms with dilapidated desks.
Once again we met the staff of this ADP and they shared their individual projects with us. It is so important for these people to share with us what they do. It is important for us to encourage them and pray for them. They do the really hard work and we are privileged to see it and acknowledge it. As a staff they had prepared a song for us and sang it beautifully. We, of course, sang “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” (this song my be stuck in my head “forever!”) We also found out that our group makes a nice little choir doing a very good job on Amazing Grace!
In the afternoon we met and shared quality time with families affected by HIV/AIDS. Found out that the Hope Child Program in the DR is not the same as in Africa. (Note: Hope Child is the program put in place by World Vision to aid people affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.) In Africa the kids in a country like Lesotho are automatically Hope Children, whether or not they are personally at risk, as such a large part of the population is affected. The DR offers both Hope and Traditional sponsorships. So a Hope Child in the DR either has AIDS or has a family member with AIDS. Today we went to a program put on by some of these children. They sang and then we sang. They danced and sang some more. Then we played a game in which I was “volunteered.” I had to place a cookie on my forehead and try to get it into my mouth without using my hands. I failed but got lots of laughs in the process. It is possible and a couple people succeeded!
Then went into another room and each of us in our group sat at a separate table with a “family” affected by AIDS. We were asked not to talk about AIDS or their situation, but just to be with them and participate in an activity with them. This is where I met Ruth. There was some awkwardness, as we could not understand each other (at times like this I wish I had been a better student in life and learned another language). I asked, “como se yama” (don’t know if I spelled it right but it means “what is your name?”) Also at the table, in addition to Ruth, was a woman probably in late 20s named Carmen and an older woman named Tata. I started to bond with Ruth by playing volleyball with a balloon that I had given her. This progressed to volleyball using only our noses (I mean to bat the balloon… we were not hitting each other’s noses!) Next we were given paper and glue and told to make a card for each other with a message on it. So I did this. All was well.
I assumed that Carmen was Ruth’s mother and that Tata was the Grandmother. I decided to ask, thinking they would understand “Mama.” So I looked at Carmen and said, “Mama?” Carmen gave me a sharp look and wagged her finger at me to say “no.” I then looked at Tata and said, “Grandmama?” and again got another sharp look and sort of a reprimand from both ladies. Carmen was wagging her finger again and Tata was running her finger across her throat with the universal symbol of “slit your throat” meaning STOP! It was then that I understood. Ruth was an orphan. These two ladies were not family but simply filling a role to be caretakers. I felt about one inch tall. We were told not to talk about anything related to AIDS and here I was crossing the line in a way they clearly did not want me to broach. Thankfully, either Ruth was oblivious or gracious as she did not let on and we went back to playing volleyball and eating a snack of juice and crackers.
I was struck by just how hard it must be not only for a child like Ruth, but for all those working in this situation to be sensitive and loving caretakers in an extremely difficult circumstance. Not only are your parents dead, they are dead from a disease that nobody wants to talk about. Her parents died with a “stigma” attached to them. Like leprosy, AIDS results in people being shunned and outcast. The truly heartbreaking part of that is what it does to these children—children who are truly innocent victims… children like Ruth.
That evening we gathered one last time as a group for a nice dinner at the hotel. Bruce went all out to make this last night special for us. We shared our insights, our impacts, even some tears as we reflected on all we have seen the last three days. We resolved to do our best to try to share what this trip has meant to us. We want to communicate the needs that we have witnessed. We want to do more to help World Vision accomplish the wonderful work it is doing. This trip, like my trip to Lesotho, brings poverty, pain and disease close to home. It gives it a name and a face. For me that name and face is Ruth.
Posted by Chuck Neighbors