I’ve just spent a week in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, with my daughter and two wonderful friends. This was not an ordinary vacation. We were there to volunteer at Dove Missions, an organization that advocates for the local Dominican and Haitian kids who live in poverty.
Puerto Plata is situated at the base of mountains on the northern coast looking out at the North Atlantic Ocean. The land and the people are naturally beautiful. Our resort, the Iberostar Costa Dorada, was lovely: clean, picturesque, and the perfect size to wander between the pool, ocean and lobby areas. The service was exceptional.
I had planned to write a blog on the differences in décor for a hot, sunny climate. As you can imagine, though, décor is not a priority for most of the people of Puerto Plata and I have titled this blog somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In a week of travelling the roads I saw just one décor store; it looked very much like design shops in Canada with modern, high end furniture on display. Except for the security surrounding it.
We saw a wide variety of home styles on Puerto Plata, ranging from the very rich to the very poor. There are gated communities of newer homes which can be glimpsed over the walls and elaborate gardening techniques used to ensure privacy. The tourist resorts are close by, with high security gates blocking the street from the fantasy world of vacation. There are original estate homes, some turned into restaurants and hostels, dating back to the time when Christopher Columbus landed and conquered. There are neighborhoods of modest housing which offer a community feel, there are unattractive apartment blocks for the working poor, and there are rows of two story structures which we would call one or two room flats for the less fortunate.
Less than twenty minutes away from the indulgence of resort life, there are shanties grouped on the shore. Made from whatever boards can be nailed together, sometimes concrete, and roofs of scavenged tin or other metals, these homes are interconnected and share an outhouse, have no running water, might have an exposed electrical wire to hang a bulb or charge a cell phone. The narrow paths between homes are rough and dirty, with a trickle of sewage making its way to the sea. We were privileged to be invited into a few of these homes by families who are registered with Dove Missions. The mothers were proud to have us visit and showed us such a welcome. The kids were excited to have guests and generous with their smiles and hugs.
One day we went a little further out and a little ways up the mountainside to visit a settlement of Haitian folks who live in huts they have built with banana leaves. The Haitians have no rights or respect in Dominican, dating back to fights over land hundreds of years ago, and speak a different language, yet many have come across the border after being left homeless and destitute from the 2010 Hurricane Tomas. The people who greeted us warmly in this settlement are some of the lucky ones; they have a roof and a bed, work at a nearby farm, raise animals and have a nearby river for drinking, washing, bathing and swimming. All the kids we saw in Puerto Plata were well dressed. I wonder if our Canadian popularity with donating gently used clothing has made a difference.
The driving is crazy. Two narrow lanes with vehicles scooting in all directions, plus motorcycles weaving in and out everywhere. The taxis are motorcycles, helmets are rare, as many as five people cram on one bike, and kids of all ages ride without anyone holding onto them. Everything gets carried on the motorcycles too, including washing machines, ladders, even another bike.
We were so impressed with Dove Missions. Do you wonder with charitable organizations how much donated money actually goes to those in need? Sometimes this keeps us from making a commitment to help. It was a privilege to experience firsthand what a difference Dove Missions makes to the Dominican and Haitian kids it serves. We all came away feeling we received more than we gave; the kids give love like I’ve never experienced.
A very sad fact is that a predominant source of money for these folks is through the sex trade. As young as 5 years old, girls and boys are used to barter sexual favours for food. Kids go missing all the time. Being a member means they have to stay in school and come regularly to the Centre. One of each child’s parents is required to help out at the Centre so that they stay connected and involved. The kids are fed, loved, appreciated and encouraged. There are classes and play time. English is being taught as a means to work in the local resorts, considered an excellent job. Most of these kids have no toys at home and live with alcoholic or absent parents, sometimes with one bed for the whole family. We met a young woman who is studying to be a doctor thanks to her drive and the Centre’s influence and financial support. A pedophile ring has been identified and ousted thanks to the Centre. Quality jewelry making is being taught as a trade. People from around the world have helped out with their time, resources, and skills. I am proud to say that our trip resulted in eight kids so far being sponsored, we brought suitcases full of donated supplies and toys and crafts, and our volunteer fees will contribute to the food, vitamins, education, games, support and love that the kids receive at the Centre.
We were so sad to leave the kids and Puerto Plata. This was an unforgettable experience, which will continue on with our sponsored kids. I wish I could sponsor them all! Want more info on Dove Missions? Check out their website http://dovemissions.org/index.html or book a day with Trip Advisor http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Attraction_Review-g147290-d2649431-Reviews-Dove_Missions_Voluntourism_1_Day_Volunteer_with_Youth-Puerto_Plata_Puerto_Plata_P.html