There’s a sign along the 10 Freeway in Santa Monica that designates it as the “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway.” It’s not something I ever noticed, but since returning home from the Dominican Republic, it’s now taken on a special significance.
Less than a week ago, in Santo Domingo, Jay and I stood overlooking the mouth of the Ozama River which brought Christopher Columbus to the land he designated as “The New World.”
Our return trip to Los Angeles a few days later was much more than a flight from one destination to another. We traveled in two days (with an overnight stay in Ft Lauderdale) what took centuries for explorers to accomplish. We were completing the first leg of an exploration of our own, looking for a new world of purpose to honor the life of our son, Nick. We discovered treasure in the Dominican Republic with nine other wonderful fellow voyagers and the dedicated translators and program administrators who were all part of our journey.
Our ultimate discovery centered around how a united effort can affect transformation within an entire community such as the one in Herrera where we want to continue to focus our resources on the Tia Tatiana school that serves 300 kids in one of the most impoverished sections of Santo Domingo .
While on this trip we had the opportunity to learn a little about the history of the Dominican Republic and the culture of its people . Of course there’s baseball; the reason why Nick had a special place in his heart for the Dominican. But more importantly there’s a spirit of the people, woven from long threads of a colorful but slightly frayed history, that continues to hold this country together all the way from its beginning as the first land in the Americas to experience the European way of life to a country that has one of the most racially intermixed populations while being almost 100% Christian.
The Vision Trust team took us to the site of several national monuments, including the mausoleum where the heroes of the country are entombed. Among the other old buildings on this site is the first fortress in the Americas.
Like any other country, the Dominican Republic has had its struggles. Of those who first welcomed Columbus to the land few, if any, native descendants of the indigenous population are left due to disease brought by the early settlers as well as the trials of enslavement the natives endured. Also Spanish settlers brought their African slaves with them and then brought more slaves directly from Africa to build up and, in some cases, defend the island. Slavery was first abolished in the Dominican in 1801, then reinstated. It was finally abolished permanently in 1822. The history of the island includes invasions by the English and the French and then a war against the Spanish rule by those, mostly from Spain, who had settled the island . And in the 20th Century, despite being a declared democracy, Dominican leaders came into power and became dictators. In 1965 there was an uprising and U.S. troops landed on the island much to the disapproval of many Dominicans. Eventually a truce was reached while fear in the U.S. was that the Dominican Republic would go the way of Cuba.
During each of these periods of turmoil, those who were poor suffered the most. Today a president of the Dominican Republic has a term limit of four consecutive years (but can be re-elected four years later) and within that short time, they try to make an impact on the county. The former president focused on infrastructure by building roads and bridges. The current president has committed to raise the country’s GDP budget allocated to education from a mere 2% to 4% which includes mandating all-day classes for grades 1-12. Currently, students only have a half-day of school. The changes have been a long time coming and are supposed to go into effect soon but the country is realizing there currently aren’t enough classrooms to accommodate this shift as previously classrooms doubled for two grades–one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So until enough classrooms are ready, the mandate can’t be fully activated.
Prior to our trip, Vision Trust sent us information explaining that the Dominican is a conservative country in terms of dress. For the most part, men and women don’t wear shorts (which was almost a deal-breaker for Jay..but he found some great lightweight Nike golf pants and got over it) and women cover their shoulders at least with short sleeves–even when the humidity is 85%.
The Dominican flag, established November 6, 1844 when the Dominican Republic declared independence from Haiti, was designed to tell the story of the country.
The coat of arms that appears at the center depicts an open bible and a cross. The bible verse is believed to state “And the truth shall make you free,” (John 8:32). The bay laurel branch and the palm branch bracket the flag-draped shield and the words “Dios, Patria, Libertad” (God, Fatherland, Liberty) appear overhead. The colors of the flag stand for the blood shed for freedom, the blue skies, and white for peace, dignity, faith, honor and pride. The cross appears again as it divides the flag into quadrants.
The flag is also connected to the national dish called “La Bandera” (translation: “the flag”) referring to the fact that the colors of the food on the plate are like those of the flag (although I’ve yet to see blue appear on any of the plates I was served). The staples of La Bandera are rice, beans and chicken–usually served with salad, a sweet side dish like caramelized ripe plantains, and a fried side dish such as tostones (fried green plantains) or torrejas de berenjena (fried eggplant). Every main meal we ate came with rice and beans, sometimes with chicken and other times with delicious casseroles combining traditional ingredients by mixing the fried, sweet and savory flavors. Only when we ate at Josiah’s house, where they have their own organic garden, were we told it was OK to eat the salad. We were warned never to even sip tap water and the likelihood that salad is washed from the sink kept it off our menu during the trip.
Bottled water is everywhere and you can be fairly sure that ice in all the restaurants is made with purified water. No one in our group had any food or water issues. And speaking of food, breakfast every morning was scrambled eggs, toast, fresh fruit, and–being a big fan of dried cereal–I was very excited to have the option of the Dominican version of “Total.” I looked forward each morning to these big, crunchy, multi-grained flakes that held up nicely in a bowl of milk with sliced bananas on top. Since I tended to be the last one up in the morning, this quick breakfast was just perfect.
We were also treated to the ingredient most critical to starting the day: rich, smooth and toasty Santo Domingo coffee! It gave all of us coffee drinkers the jump-start we needed to accomplish our daily goals. Some on the team couldn’t get enough of it– and there was always a fresh pot available until the last person called it a night.
In terms of the accommodations, we were perfectly comfortable on our bunk bed mattresses and we even had our sheets change half-way through our visit. All eleven of us managed to get fairly decent water pressure and warm temperature when it came to sharing the 3 showers in the house. (there was an additional bath without a shower, too). Most of us packed pretty light for the trip which was never a problem since our “house moms,” would launder anything we needed.
The internet in the house worked great and usually there was an hour or so every evening where everyone silently sat around the table at their computers answering emails or updating friends and family on how the trip was going.
Evenings sometimes involved group excursions walking up the street for ice cream or sweet empeñadas. We also had to visit Bravo, the modern supermarket one block away, that featured a glassed-in exotic bird aviary across the entire front of the store. This store was our source for the coveted bags of ground and whole bean Santo Domingo coffee that us caffeine cravers squeezed into every available space in our suitcases to insure we would have a stash back home.
By the time our trip was coming to an end, the people who facilitated all our activities and needs were like extended family to us. Nelson, who is the Executive Director of Vision Trust Dominicana, was an encouraging presence coming and going from his office in the mission house. He has an amazing staff that supports him in managing the 11 projects they serve including Tia Tatiana School in Herrera and the Remar orphanage, plus an orphanage for deaf children, an orphanage on the Haitian border, and a house for girls who have been rescued from human trafficking . Nelson was with us almost every day either joining us for breakfast, visiting Tia Tatiana School with us as well as taking us to his favorite Dominican rotisserie chicken restaurant (which was right on par with the incredible food his mother and her helper cooked for us every day in the mission house). The last night Nelson shared his fascinating life story with us– which I won’t spoil for you. It’s one of the many reasons that makes it worthwhile to plan a Vision Trust trip to the Dominican to hear it for yourself.
Nacho (real name: Ramón) was our cheerleader, translator, driver, and new best friend. His constant smile and great stories kept us going. Daniel, a Vision Trust Director, was a real trooper in getting us around Santo Domingo shopping for items for the school. And Doris was truly an angelic presence every day, helping with translating and surprising us at the Sunday service where her soulful singing voice and her expressive translation made sharing that morning of thanks for the blessings in each of our lives– without measure or comparison– a deeply emotional experience.
In previous posts I’ve covered our activities day by day so this final recap is just going to focus on what I think our whole team would agree we’re most proud of, namely what we accomplished at Tia Tatiana School.
From speaking with Nelson we learned that the area of Herrera, where we decided to focus our resources at the Tia Tatiana school, came about as people from the country, who had not previously been welcome in the city, built their own community without any planning or government oversight. Herrera is a ramshackle assortment of structures, one on top of the other, with narrow passageways and few streets (see previous Dominican Republic posts). There are no public areas, parks, or playgrounds and it continues to be one of the poorest sections of the Dominican Republic with the lowest per capita income level (average is $200 a month) and only 19% of the students complete a high school education.
We each easily transported through customs the computers that our hero, Mark Haney, was able to secure and distribute to us prior to our trip. With the expertise of Mark, Todd, Sarah, Rosie, Anne, and Judy, the computers were successfully installed, connected to wireless internet service, and received the finishing touch of getting the wires hidden below the tables. These portals to yet another type of new world stood ready to help guide the Herrera children, many of whom have never stepped beyond a 10-mile radius of their neighborhood. Instead of 30 kids peering over each other’s shoulders at only five barely-functioning computers with limited, if any, internet access there are now 30 top quality systems in place. The installation day brought out our sense of accomplishment along with lots of sweat and empty water bottles!
When we found that the computer lab installation task went by so fast, we felt like we needed to take on something else. Knowing we still had the donations from St. Brendan School and some contributions from ROI, we hit on the idea of an extreme classroom makeover. We told Evalise, the principal, what we wanted to do and, with her blessing, we went from classroom to classroom assessing the needs and talking, via a translator, to each teacher to see what they most wanted for their classroom. The number one request was to get rid of the old, dilapidated desks and replace them with communal work stations. Teachers’ desks were also in bad shape and many of the classrooms needed basic supplies, books, and learning aids for math, biology and geography.
Here are examples of what we saw in the various classrooms (and keep in mind that the classrooms for grades 5-8 have to be shared with high school students in the afternoon).
For the extreme classroom makeover we decided to pick the 6th grade classroom with its bare walls, worn-out and desks and lack of storage space and supplies.
Let the shopping begin!
Ikea had exactly the right tables and we were able to find seven where the tabletop color and the table legs would all be the same.
The next challenge was loading …
And the assembly:
The final results blew both the students and the teachers away! Even we were amazed at the complete transformation…
But the best part was when the students came into the classroom the next morning:
When we saw the impact this change made on the students it affirmed that we had discovered a way we could really impact change for these kids. We figured that for $3,500 per classroom/ about $117 per student we could give them another reason to want to learn and reach for goals here at Tia Tatiana school. We could show them that their lives can get better and there is hope for their future. And we saw how these students appreciated this investment we made in their school and we felt certain they would put it to good use.
But if the looks on the students faces weren’t enough to convey their appreciation, the words of the boys who raised their hands to come up to the front on the class and share their feelings with us, left no doubt in our minds that we’ve started something very special at this school.
We knew that if we were going to do one classroom, we’d have to eventually…and in fairly short time…upgrade the other nine. And after that there’s also a library to redo…
Evalise also took us up to the top floor of the school building and shared with us her dream for a vocational training center that could go into an unused space that was formerly Vision Trust’s offices.
The center would teach sewing and other vocational and life skills to those students who may or may not be college-bound.
With the full wish list now compiled, we know we want to stay focused on our first goal of providing every student and teacher the optimal learning environment with new, properly sized work stations, comfortable chairs, modern learning aids, and creative thinking tools.
One generous member of our team who made the trip with us has agreed to match the first $3,000 we raise, which will take us to $6,000. My company, Chain Store Age, has already committed $4,500 and Jay and I are in for $2,000. Another friend of ours said she’ll bake a coffee cake for anyone who donates $50 (and I promise to help her as I make a pretty mean sour cream, bundt coffee cake myself!). So let’s say between the two of us we make 50 coffee cakes (we’re willing to do more though)–that’s another $2,500 which puts us almost half way to our budget of $3,500 per classroom for nine classrooms (total goal is $31,500).
Our next trip is going to be April 16-22. We have four months to raise the money and sign up the volunteers to join us on our return to Santo Domingo. We’re also in the process of setting up the Nick Fagnano Foundation but in the meantime, Wilshire Sports, Nick’s former neighborhood baseball organization is allowing us to use their 501 C3 to provide tax deductible status to all donations made in Nick’s name which will be earmarked for the Tia Tatiana school project.
Like early explorers who sought the riches of the lands they discovered; we, too, made this journey to find a new way to enrich our lives. What we take back with us are treasures in the form of smiles and gratitude from the people and children that we’ve met. We thank Nick for leading us here and filling our hearts with a new sense of purpose where there is still a very large hole that will never completely close. We invite you to join us on this journey whether it be with your well-wishes and prayers or any other way you’d like to come aboard.
Maybe some of us will be sitting here on April 16th, 2015 sharing stories and our first beer in six days (oh, did I forget to tell you that the mission house is dry?). We’ll be waiting for our flight to take us home after a week of impacting positive change throughout an entire community by making a difference at Tia Tatiana school.