Project Esperanza

The Problem

Entering into college at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2003, I had not yet visited another country. Throughout that year, I grew deeper in my relationship with Jesus Christ, and felt a strong pull to other parts of the world where life is so different and the opportunities are fewer. In January 2005, I volunteered at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic for a week along with friends. During this trip, I was overcome with the amount of potential I was surrounded by and the pathways that could be built allowing growth toward this potential. One problem I saw was a university full of over 25,000 students, all preparing for their adult lives, but many using their opportunity of educational training to serve themselves or to serve already successful businesses/organizations. Many appeared apathetic to lives of the estimated 1.4 billion others living in extreme poverty: something I had seen through clips on television screens until this point. On the other hand, I saw a community that was rich in qualities such as hospitality, patience, and perseverance, but lacked simple resources that prevent daily challenges and increase productivity. Additionally, the pathways that lead one to such resources seemed few. The solution appeared to be the uniting of these two communities and the sharing of resources. My biggest attributes that make me a strong leader in the efforts Project Esperanza takes toward combating these problems are my dedication to all of our programs, as well as my sensitivity for those in the lower social situations. I have made great sacrifices in order to further understand their lives. My biggest goal is to empower the powerless, educate the uneducated, and to provide opportunities where they are lacking. My degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Leadership and Social Change was undoubtedly preparatory as well.

Plan of Action

Since the beginning of our boys’ home, school, and program in January, 2007, we have housed and schooled 30 boys and sent 40 boys to be reunited with their families in Haiti. This program has also employed 10 Haitians that were without work. Several teenage boys that had never been schooled learned to read and write well within a year and are now completing work at the fifth grade level. Three boys are registered high school students, working toward their diplomas. Our three grassroots schools currently educate 150 students and employ 14 teachers and directors. Three more schools we plan to fund once funding is available will add 104 students, and 11 employees, bringing us to a total of 254 students and 25 educators. Massie’s Learning Center has had four separate functioning programs, although just two are currently functioning, with 30 Virginia Tech students volunteering their time and 40 community members attending regularly since it’s founding in October 2007. The international volunteer program has led 81 volunteers to provide services, see Project Esperanza activities in person, and have the experience of witnessing a completely different life, which many state to be life-changing. We have reached these results through great sacrifice, faithful risk-taking, trustful teamwork, and commitment, as well as initiatives taken by churches, volunteer leaders, and Project Esperanza volunteers. We have worked together with a variety of Haitian, Dominican, and American individuals and churches, as well as several other service schools and organizations including Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Virginia Tech Service Learning Center, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Students in Free Enterprise, YMCA, Kipps Elementary School in Blacksburg, Virginia, and OyM Hostos School in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. We also have a group of loyal sponsors that help financially, as well as several fundraisers that have been put on by the student organization and other supporting individuals.

Project Updates

Lots has happened since the project page was created in February 2009. Our organization has taken shape and is more strongly rooted as we have been working together with community members to develop the aforementioned programs. Massie's Learning Center in Blacksburg, VA, our only real service program in the U.S., has not been functioning due to insurance issues that have caused the mobile home park's owner to be against the program. We are still attempting to work out these insurance issues. Mentoring relationships are still maintained between Project Esperanza volunteers and youth in the mobile home park. Therefore, all of our functioning service programs serve the Haitian immigrant community in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Additionally, we took two trips to Haiti in 2010 and have built relationships and investigated possibilities in Port-au-Prince as well as Grizonguarde which is outside of Cap Haitian in the north. We do not plan to spread ourselves thin by expanding to Haiti without bringing on capable staff or long term volunteers that can dedicate themselves to that area.

Since the project page was created, five short term volunteer groups have served with us here in Puerto Plata, as well as four long term interns. Volunteers and interns have started new projects in order to develop the communities in which we serve and efforts are being successfully passed between groups and individuals to ensure that the potential of these efforts are maximized over the long term and we are not executing short term activities that do not create long term change. The communities we work in are growing in the way that they interact with volunteers as well, treating the relationship as an equal partnership and not attempting to take advantage of the situation or treat volunteers as celebrity figures. We have also learned how to orient volunteers effectively so that they engage in an equal partnership as well.

Our board of directors has developed to include more established professionals whereas it began as a group of university students and recent graduates. This new group gives our organization much more stable oversight with the ability to give advice and service in necessary areas such as accounting and legal issues.

We are in the process of creating a new website which will more clearly categorize our programs into three areas: education, social aid, and community development. In the area of education we have our grassroots schools for Haitian immigrant/refugee children and adults who face challenges in entering the Dominican public schools. We also are beginning two scholarship funds. One fund, the Change My Stars Scholarship Fund is for lower class Dominican children who attend the poorly run public schools but show the potential and desire to achieve highly if given the chance. These scholarships will register these children into private schools which provide higher quality education. This education is sometimes bilingual: Spanish and English. This sets these students onto a more professional path, leading them to break the cycle of poverty. The second fund is the Searching for Life Scholarship Fund for Haitians who have come to the country and hope to take advantage of educational opportunities such as computer classes, nursing school, building construction courses, etc. Applications will be received and managed scholarships awarded.

In the area of social aid we have our Searching for Life Boys' Home, School, & Program. This program continues to develop as positive behavior is rewarded, negative behavior is punished, and those with exemplary behavior rise into positions of leadership. (http://lavidaidealist.org/2010/12/24/santa-claus-in-haiti-and-the-dr/)This has caused the group's behavior to shift dramatically since our program began in 2006 where we saw horrific things that were hard to understand. Regretfully, two of our boys have passed away, both while visiting family in Haiti, from illnesses that basic medical care could have treated. (http://lavidaidealist.org/2010/11/05/a-tribute-to-those-weve-lost-2/). We have continued to face many challenges as these boys face discrimination being Haitians in the Dominican Republic, as well as being from the streets, although their behavior and appearance is changing to the point where that fact is not as apparent anymore. Renting facilities for housing in desirable areas of town has been difficult as landlords have little patience with these boys. It is easier for them to find places to live in rough areas of town where drugs, prostitution, theft, and violence are prevalant. But we continue to strive to integrate them into a healthier environment. We hope to purchase a plot of land with a small house and room to garden in our desired area. This would remove the challenges that come along with renting.

We also provide social aid to Haitians in the area who are struggling with housing, medical care, and other such issues. Lots of times poor Spanish skills, lack of confidence in the community, and lack of experience with institutions such as hospitals in general, deter Haitians from utilizing services in the community. We intervene in such cases in order to assist. (http://lavidaidealist.org/2010/07/18/our-smallest-patient/)

In the area of community development, we have partnered with community development organizations begun in Haitian communities here in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. We have served as a liason between these organizations and universities in the United States, helping them to create documents outlining the history of their organizations, the services they provide, and their future goals. In two communities, these development organizations are in conjunction with our grassroots schools. Two interns recently partnered with community members in one community to conduct a census which allowed us to rate the socioeconomic status of community members by gaining information such as the population density of the household, whether or not the household cooks with charcoal or gas, whether or not there is running water in the home or river water is utilized for bathing and washing, etc. One intern recently designed a rain barrel and the census information was used as a tool to determine which households received the first three rain barrels. This has completely solved the issue of a lack of water for these families, although the design could use additional modifications to purify the water. But the intern also trained community members to create the PVC gutter system and install the rain barrels. Future volunteer groups can participate in installations under the direction of these trained community members and those trained can also market their services to higher class members of society.

Lastly, we are preparing to launch (within the year) three small businesses here in Puerto Plata that will create jobs for beneficiaries of our programs and generate income for the organization. These small businesses include an internet center/gift shop, a small movie theater held in the evenings in one of our grassroots schools, and a Haitian food stand. The Haitian food stand will introduce Haitian food to the Dominican community in a more marketable way than is primarily seen through street vending and, we believe, will actually create more respect in the area for Haitian culture.

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