Wednesday, May 14, 2014


        Accomplishments are a funny thing to describe because each person has their own definition of accomplishment. Some people believe an accomplishment can be just waking up in the morning, and others believe an accomplishment has to be that feeling after some great achievement. This semester, I have had many different kinds of accomplishments because I believe since living in the Dominican Republic I have been “Ruined for Life”. Cliche as it sounds, this experience has changed me, and changed me for the better. It is because of all the accomplishments I have made that I know that the unsuspecting future, scary as it maybe, is full of endless possibilities and great wonder.

When the Encuentro Dominicano program was over, that’s when I really realized that I and everyone else in my Comunidad has accomplished so much. When looking back at all the many things we had done, we did them well, and we had fun. An accomplishment, that feeling of success or successfully doing something, was shown especially in our use of the Spanish language and acclimating into the Dominican culture. I believe these were important personal accomplishments for me because these were very pertinent to semester abroad and for personal growth. Another accomplishment for everyone and especially me was creating life-long relationships with the people in the campo, our service sites, and at ILAC.

These accomplishments were made using what we learned in our studies and understanding ourselves in different situations. An example of this is, is when we used the pillars from ELP class in our daily routines at ILAC and at our service sites. We had to be self aware of our surroundings, and our abilities of what we can and should do. In doing our actions we had to use ingenuity, be creative and flexible. Everyday regardless of what we did we had to be and were loving with everyone we met and interacted with. Also through this the overall result was becoming a hero in a sense or having heroic characteristics with actions that are commendable.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Cienfuegos: The Phoenix of Santiago

“Una comunidad que emergía desde las cenizas como el ave fénix para volar incansablemente para siempre, por los cielos del desarrollo integral.” 
It is a community, whose own existence has emerged out of the ashes like a phoenix flying tirelessly forever through the heavens of integral development.

This quote from Hipolito Martinez exemplifies the incredible and almost Cinderella-like story of Cienfuegos, un barrio in Santiago de los Caballeros whose own name clings tightly to its fiery origins. From the ashes that destroyed one hundred homes, through the late 20th century issues of corruption and violence, and now currently to an industrial hub of north-central Dominican Republic, Cienfuegos truly embodies the title ‘underdog’.

From the first glance, our eyes saw many traditional Dominican sights of the neighborhood that most people told us was ‘rotting’ and ‘decaying from violence’. There were obviously the colorful colmados, bustling with smiling faces whose value of time puts the conversation first and the business second. A baseball field with young aspiring jugadores dressed in matching blue-grey uniforms was situated next to an empanada stand, giving off the fantastic smell of fried dough and melted cheese-covered chicken. The roads, with the ever-constant speed bumps tapping at your muffler were packed with commerce and energy as the men, women and children of Cienfuegos resumed their daily duties. In fact, this neighborhood seemed pretty awesome – a great example of semi-urban Dominican life. Had I not heard of the story behind such a place before our exploration of Cienfuegos, I would never have imagined the history and incredible obstacles faced by this hustling little district.

Pedro Almonte, a Catholic deacon and inspirational game-changer in the Cienfuegos neighborhood, reassured us that the Cienfuegos that was humming with energy in front of us in the year 2014 was a starkly dimmer and dangerous area just a few decades before. As we sat in the first-floor apartment, whose humble cinder-blocked walls were decorated with colorful paintings of Dominican rural life, Almonte treated us with the story of One Hundred Fires - the phoenix of Santiago de los Caballeros. In the summer of 1975, a fire destroyed one hundred residential homes in an area outside of Santiago called El Ejido. The name Cienfuegos comes from that original inferno, meaning One Hundred Fires – a reminder of the ashes that gave birth to its existence. The families of this inferno were relocated to an uninhabited area where they endured extraordinarily difficult conditions, our modern day Cienfuegos. The tin and cardboard houses lacked water, sanitation, sewage systems, electricity and even adequate roads for inter-connection. However, a hope was born alongside these shanties. Something as simple as a church and a crude structure that substituted as a school sprouting out of the ashes proved overtime that investment in the public infrastructure could literally turn cardboard into cinderblock (the picture below shows the incredible progress, especially with paved roads, that has developed in Cienfuegos). Yet, the setbacks were severe.

With its origination, Deacon Almonte noted that Cienfuegos became a hub of violence – a categorization that still afflicts the minds of most citizens of Santiago today. Prostitution houses were swooning along with drug lords and gang members. The social issues exploded, as did the hazards of daily life in Cienfuegos. Impoverished rural workers began migrating towards this neighborhood, in search of jobs and opportunities; that poverty followed them and spread. Add the fact that Cienfuegos was home (and still is) to Santiago’s largest landfill and what one is left with is a neighborhood in desperate need of reform. Things were so terrifyingly bad that the own residents, afraid for their families’ safety and disgruntled about the lack of basic infrastructure, threatened the local community leaders of burning down the entire town – an action that would put Cienfuegos back into its state of birth.

The threat, and many more that followed, eventually revamped the society that ran Cienfuegos. Soon, the cardboard houses took the form of cement walls. Social organizations and schools became commonplace, each with electricity and running water. Industrial zones have brought in jobs for migrant rural workers and expanded the population into an income-receiving body of workers. The trash dump required its pickers (individuals who make a living by sorting through material and recycling what they find valuable) to even register and self-identify as ‘workers’ to effectively utilize every facet – even the ones filled with trash – for the betterment of the society.

I do not, however, want to ignore some chronic issues that still afflict Cienfuegos. There is no doubt that poverty ensues with an enduring distress in the area. The picture above shows a district of Cienfuegos in which infrastructure and development is crucially needed. Many still live without electricity, roads, or potable running water. The landfill causes nightmares in terms of health and safety – a hazard that looms over the neighborhood. Furthermore, the value of education, from the eyes of current Encuentro students Shayna Bartow and Erin Kurvers, is absent. Shayna and Erin, who spend two mornings out of the week teaching English at a public school in Cienfuegos, assured me that the most obvious issue that they can see is the lack of educational sincerity. The children, who are often violent and ill mannered, regularly display a disinterest to learning. With that, there are a disappointingly small number of students with educational materials – pens, books, and pencils. While the Cienfuegos that I saw showed a side of hope and success, the setbacks are still extremely evident.

A connection can then be made between these areas of poverty and the crime and lack of education that still plagues Cienfuegos. The poor farmers who have moved toward the city have brought more than just their scarce belongings; they have brought their poverty. Urbanized destitution then colors the darker side of Cienfuegos. Why are children disinterested in schooling? Perhaps their parents do not have the sufficient income to purchase the necessary educational materials. What is the result of this? These children find themselves already behind their classmates. With a lack of education and guidance, prolonged for years, crime and violence will surely follow. Those are the major issues facing Cienfuegos today – something that I perhaps overlooked as I was awed by the obvious progress the neighborhood had made.

What did I take away from our tour of Cienfuegos and the history that was shared? The ability to overcome obstacles and situations of strife are subject to the individuals who endure the madness of it all. Deacon Almonte is one such individual. His work in Cienfuegos for over 20 years has culminated with soup kitchens, education programs and neighborhood groups whose soul purpose is to protect the citizens and eliminate crime. While the dump will forever cast an ever-smoldering shadow on this neighborhood, reminding its citizens of the fire that once engulfed the meager houses of El Ejido, individuals like Deacon Almonte will continue to mold the ashy ruins into the baseball fields, colmados and smiling faces that we happily see today. There is something to be said about the ‘Phoenix of Santiago’. Yes, there are still some very real, ugly, and urgent problems facing the area. Yet, if the world is willing to look past the misconceptions and categorizations, address the issues without fear or hesitation, then one can see how truly amazing and how vibrant the story of Cienfuegos, and districts around the globe whose names perhaps strike visions of violence (Harlem, Washington Heights, North Omaha, East St. Louis, South Chicago, Oakland, Baltimore – just to name a few) truly is. Rising from the ashes, Cienfuegos is the phoenix of potential – a potential whose very existence began with the ash water and splintered lives of poverty.

Friday, May 9, 2014

by: Tyler Badding
            It sounds like a silly title – starfish. How could I possibly surmount my four-month, love-filled, adventure-driven, relationship molding, eye-opening experience into the single word starfish? The problems we have studied both in literature and by sight, the issues of injustice and inhumanity that run rampant across this bleeding earth, the daily struggles of voiceless young’uns who clamber for pencils and notebooks – how could I possibly illuminate all these tribulations and their emotional connections with a sentence, let a lone a single word? I know that action is not required of me, but I find solace in the idea of starfish. Allow me explain.
            When we begin to question the validity of our world’s ‘norms’, we step into a dangerous arena of personal questioning and daunting challenges. We uncover a planet of undeniable pain, innocent bloodshed, destructive hunger, and lonely nights spent by both the victim and the oppressor. A damaged world is revealed to us and scars our thinking and our actions. We can never turn around to our own lifestyle because we ourselves are gloriously ruined – glorious in the idea that we have become enlightened, ruined in the idea that this enlightenment will haunt us. How does one deal with such a blow to their rationalities of this world? Many become paralyzed. My mother, on the other hand, has taught me to run against the wind with my eyes wide open; she does so with the story of the starfish. It reads as follows:
            There was an elderly man who walked along the shore of the sea. This daily habit gave him peace, comfort, and an easy purpose in life – enjoy what is before you. One day, however, the man noticed that thousands upon thousands of starfish had washed up along the shore the night before and were hopelessly dying as the rising sun dried their bodies. The man did what a good man should do; he began picking up the starfish one-by-one and began tossing them back into the sea. The number of starfish was endless, and another passerby noticed this sad fact. He approached the old man and questioned his actions. “Why do you waste your time? Can’t you see how many of these helpless creatures there are? You will never save all of them. What difference can you make?” The old man, tossing another starfish as he spoke, said “Because it made a difference for that one”.
            This is how we must live! The world is in pain, and we ourselves suffer with her as we expose the sad truths and realities that are often masked by our comfortable lives. However, we must acknowledge that pain and act. Yes, it is daunting! No, there is no possible way that one human can repair this hemorrhaging planet. But nevertheless, one must act. For me, the greatest way I can act is to recognize the many starfish in my life, and consequently, recognize my vulnerability of being a starfish at times. The Encuentro Dominicano program revealed to me many situations where simply focusing on the individual can be impacting. I look back at my time at Caritas in Licey, a before and after school program for children, some of which are homeless and rely heavily on the program for their daily meals. I look back at my time in the campo of Juana Diaz and peer deeply into the relationships and many memories that were created. I can think back to our excursions to Dajabón, our studies of Haitian immigration, our tours of cacao fields and our physical visions of urban and rural poverty. The problems we encountered were real, painful, and large. Yet, with the starfish story in mind, I think I had success both personally and communally. It has taken the shape of many actions and interactions, some filled with love and some filled with discipline. Nevertheless, there was success.
            Caritas, I do believe, was perhaps the most challenging amongst my experiences. The children, whose adorable faces and squeaky Spanish-speaking voices, swiftly stole our hearts. As my partner-in-crime Annie Townley and I learned rather quickly, these children were facing a lot of issues that seemed very foreign to us. Hunger, homelessness, lack of education, lack of decent shoes/clothing and aggressive violence – these were all apparent and soon haunted us, who as volunteers were called upon to teach English and show love. How could we ever repair the familial damage done to little Robinson and his brothers, who currently live their lives between neighbors’ houses, searching desperately for some source of structure and security? I found success by not avoiding the issues of violence and rude-behavior. If my role needed to be more of a ‘big brother’ approach, then that is what these kids deserved out of me. I did just that! There were days when they were not too happy that we had returned. The americanos meant rules, regulations and lessons. However, we balanced that with activities and games. At the end of the day, and even at the end of the semester, the success we achieved was simply love. I do love those kids! They are energetic, witty, clever, independent and creative! I hope that my impact is this: love can come in many forms, and the form I gave was unconditional care, whether that be through discipline or hugs, teaching lessons or airplane rides. They may forget my name, but I know I can leave Caritas with an impression of genuine care. Leaving them was difficult, as I know our paths will most likely not cross. However, as 12-year-old Bobby so sweetly states it, “If I don’t see you again in this life, I hope to see you in the next.” Wise words from a wise kid.
            Juana Diaz, a place that I can call my Dominican home, was a source of many achievements for our group and for me personally. A family was created that will last throughout the remainder of my life. My host mother Isabel and her son Javier remain close to my heart. The hospitality that was shown to our group and myself was immense and overflowing. With that, I have learned the importance of acceptance and unconditional love. I had just met these individuals, yet they awarded me the best of everything to assure my happiness. I think that sense of immense love has stuck with me. Yes, there were issues in the community. The lack of running water was of primary concern. While our group did offer a helping hand and encouragement in their aqueduct project, we obviously knew that our 10-day work experience paled in comparison to the years of planning and dedication that had rested upon the shoulders of these loving people. However, I could use the love shown to me to reflect upon those who I was working and living with. My success in Juan Diaz was the ability to connect and create loving relationships with others. By learning to lead by love, I absorbed the many facets, emotions, and intricacies of the human life. The doors of one’s life are therefore opened to us; that is something beautiful. 
            I think any success that was achieved during this semester first required self-awareness. At Caritas, I knew that I didn’t have the power to change the familial situations of those children. I didn’t have the adequate Spanish to explain the importance of kindness and gentleness. However, self-awareness is not just the acceptance of what you are faulting, but more so of the gifts and talents you have grown. For me, I love working with children. They bring such a joy into my life! I love working in an educational environment, especially teaching English. Yet, self-awareness does not stop there – strengths and weaknesses scratch just the surface. For instance, understanding your personal privilege is crucial for self-awareness. Understanding what makes others a starfish is the knowledge of their lack of privilege (water, food, education) while also recognizing my personal starfish (faulting in love, faulting in community, relying on material goods). It is a beautiful relationship of sharing.
            Love then follows. With love comes a beauty that is simply indescribable. It has many levels, which are not all clean and fun to observe! Love requires you to know that a suffering child will not receive a meal tonight. Love requires you to question the evil that births in this world. Love requires you to be human and denounce anything that threatens that idea. For me, love came in the form of my friendship with a young boy from Juana Diaz named Ivan. He was just as any other 9-year-old child should be – creative, energetic, and mischievous. However, the holes in his shoes and the somewhat obvious lack of adequate clothing depicted a challenging picture. Love acknowledges those factors, but never harps upon them. Love suffers along with the suffering, yet safeguards the beautiful moments of innocence and joy. Yet, one must be willing to work with the challenges of love. The best approach to such obstacles is ingenuity.
            Ingenuity takes the situation at present, searches through the privilege or lack of, understands the complexity of love and suffering, and attempts to give an action that is completely unique and self-giving. For instance, my time at Caritas was met with much frustration. The value of education was minimal while violence took center stage. I understood that maybe my role was not so much a fun-loving, super popular volunteer. Rather, my role required discipline. My role required guidance. They deserved my ingenuity of understanding what exactly is my role and consequently how I will address those situations. Tossing the starfish back into the sea depicts a simple answer, yet showing love and achieving results with real human examples requires originality and patience. That originality understands failure and accepts its presence. It remains hungry and observant, always ready to alter its approach and technique.

            That hunger gives way to a certain form of restlessness. When we remain hungry to give ourselves, to learn more about our world and its people, we become human-centered heroes. A hero focuses on others, remains restless, is bothered by the fact of hunger, and challenges him or herself with action. For me, this type of hero is acknowledged by the simple fact that the elderly man kept walking down the beach. Before him, he knew that many would perish. He knew he would not reach them all in time. However, he also knew that he had a job and that job made a difference – maybe even just to one. This semester, I hope that I have made a positive impact on one individual. Perhaps they won’t remember my name or my face. Perhaps that is not all that important. However, they will be different in some minuscule way – a way that is better.

Ruined for Life

            They say I have been ruined for life. I will go back to the United States and never be the same. The scary part is, I believe them. I have spent the past semester in the Dominican Republic studying through the Encuentro Dominicano program and it has given me the opportunity to experience things that are far from the life I live in the United States. The fact that I have been changed is not scary in the sense that I do not want to do it, but it is scary in the fact that I will never fully be able to go back and live the same life I lived before coming here. It will be impossible not to make changes in my lifestyle because it would be denying the emotions I have felt when I have seen so many injustices.
            I am not saying I needed to come to another country to see the injustices; I was just lucky enough to have been a part of a program that made a conscious effort to educate its students on many of the existing issues in our world today. There are so many simple life choices we make each day that can make a difference in the lives of others. It has made me aware of the amount of time I spend in the shower while others do not have running water. It has made me aware that maybe the difference in me spending that extra money on my clothing item means a family is paid a just wage. It has made me aware that having citizenship in the country I live in has opened up a world of opportunities.
            This experience has changed me, and I could easily argue it was for the better. I have formed relationships that have made the statistics personal. The numbers I used to hear about how many people’s lives change when I buy fair trade, those numbers are now the faces of the people I met and the personal stories I have heard. Beyond becoming aware of ways in which simple choices can make a positive impact, I have seen and felt a deep sense of love.
            Love, not in the romantic sense, but in the selfless gift, the no strings attached, the pure giving and caring for others. I have been touched by this love. Whether it was through the hospitality my family in the campo showed me, or in the love I felt for the children I worked with at Caritas en Licey, the love transformed me. I have learned what it means to lead with love and the vulnerability that comes with it.  I have watched Sister Carmen (my service site director) give her whole self to helping the children at Caritas and the impact she makes with the love she shares. Love is powerful. Showing love and leading with love can change lives.  I am now more aware than ever that I am to live a life than can make a positive impact, and this past semester has helped shape me into a person who can really do that.

Annie Townley