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5 posts from November 2011


Learning the organic way – From the Ground Up


CIEE Service Learning students spent a week working with CREAR (the Centro Regional de Estudios de Alternativas Rurales), a high school located in Rio Limpio, Dominican Republic. We were able to work on the organic farm with professors and students to learn hands on the organic farming process.


We spent a morning learning how to make the perfect compost pile - shoveling oro verde or green gold into a 4 by 4 foot square, has a lot more to it than it looks!


After the compost is ready, it’s time to prepare the land planting. The master mind farmer, and our guru for the week, Mingo, taught us with inspiring grace how to dig single and double planting beds - transforming a grassy plot of land into the ideal location for new seeds and plants to grow.


Students from CREAR are leaders for the entire community of Rio Limpio and were able to share their many skills with our students.


Students were able to plant veggies!


Young lettuce plant just planted in the bed we made.


CREAR students,  and I spent an afternoon in the greenhouse hanging supports for pepper plants.


Here are the supported peppers.


The average distance food travels from farm to plate is 1,500 miles. In a week-long (or more) delay from harvest to dinner table, sugars turn to starches, plant cells shrink, and produce loses its vitality. At CREAR, students are able to eat what they grow on site – reducing the distance their food traveled from approximately 1,500 miles to zero! We were lucky to eat this delicious salad for lunch!

Photo essay by Nara Baker

Clark University


Community Advocates


What does a community advocate look like? Would you recognize one if you saw one?

 If you had posed this question to me two months ago, I would have struggled to come up with an intelligent answer. Now, however, I have been fortunate enough to work side-by-side with a handful of women who have shown me an inspiring example of community advocacy in its purest form.

 These women are the promotoras de salud (health promoters) who work with the community organization, Fundación Cuidado Infantil Dominicano (The Dominican Foundation for the Care of Children). FCID is a non-profit organization founded in 1990, with the mission to empower local communities of Santiago by promoting health and integrity through acts of compassionate service.

 Due to lack of funds, promotoras do not receive monetary compensation for their services. Although most of them have families to raise and outside responsibilities to tend to, they still feel called to give of themselves for the sake of their community.

 Within FCID, I am working with the promotoras of the Rehabilitation program which works with families of children with mental and/or physical disabilities. Promotoras make weekly house visits to the families of special-needs children who live in the underserved neighborhoods of Santiago. During these visits, the promotoras work with both the children and the caretakers. They administer physical and occupational therapy to the child while training the caretaker. At the end of their visit, they leave easy-to-understand instructions detailing how to perform the in-home therapy until the next visit, when they will return to assess the child’s progress and set new goals.

 Twenty years ago there was nothing like Fundación in these neighborhoods and when it was founded, Fundación was faced with some challenges. To illustrate the hard reality of these children, Eunice, a member of the FCID staff, shared the following with me:

 “When I was little, there weren’t so many special needs kids then as there are now. You would see them, but hardly ever. And when you saw a child, for instance one with hydrocephaly, who had a large head and couldn’t function properly, you didn’t talk to that child. All the kids would make fun of him.”

 Due to lack of education, most mothers could barely read or write, let alone understand the nature of their child’s disability or offer the level of therapy that he or she required. Additionally, it was almost impossible to get the fathers involved due to the highly machista nature of Dominican society. To add insult to injury, Eunice emphasized how special needs children and their families were highly stigmatized.


“It was an embarrassment for families to have a child like that. The parents would tie him up and leave him in a back room where he would stay so that the neighbors wouldn’t know that there was a disabled person in the family. Sometimes you’d walk in the house and right away you could tell from the smell of urine and feces that something bad was going on there.”

 All in all, the marginalized communities of Santiago were ill-prepared to meet the needs of these precious children.

 Caring for a special-needs child is a difficult task under any circumstances. But for a family living in the barrio, it can seem overwhelming. Promotoras offer support to these families, where no other support exists. Many times, they are the only lifeline available to disabled children and their families in these communities.

 The beauty of this program is that the help comes from within. Each promotora is from the neighborhood in which they work. The barrio is their home and they are fighting to make it a better place for the families who live there.

 It has been twenty years since Fundación Cuidado Infantil Dominican was founded. Yet in this relatively short period of time, FCID’s presence in Santiago has made a notable impression on the community. Today, I am assured by the promotoras, things are changing.

 “A lot has changed since then. Now there is a higher level of awareness. You see ads for special needs children on TV, and handicapped parking at the store. These things did not exist 30 years ago.”

 Although progress has been visible, there is still work to be done. Even in well-to-do circles, a cloud of stigma and misunderstanding surrounds special-needs children and their families. I spoke with a highly-educated Dominican professional who has travelled the world and taught as a university professor. We were discussing my work with the FCID families when he paused to offer me the following assessment:

 “Let me explain something to you. These people are like animals. They lack both knowledge and awareness, and they live in total chaos. The men are like stallions that breed with every female they meet. I met one man who had eight children with eight different women. And these women… they have no self worth. It’s as though they are nothing. I don’t know what goes on in their minds… they must be masochists to live like that. They get pregnant so young and go on to have lots of babies. There is so much incest, malnourishment and promiscuity in these communities. That is why so many of their children are born with disabilities.”

 His words hit me like a splash of cold water, and left me a little stunned. Dominican society has largely abandoned these families, and left them to fight for their own survival. Can you really place blame on young men and women who are born into these pre-existing conditions? How can they be at fault for creating something that was going on long before them?

If their reality is ever to change, someone must speak out against discrimination. Someone needs to advocate on behalf of the victims of this type of thinking and educate the misinformed to promote understanding, respect, and change. In short, someone must act as an advocate to and for the community.

 Here in Santiago, that someone is Fundación Cuidado Infantil Dominicano and their team of health promoters.

Lauren Rodgers

Southern Methodist University

Los Prados and I


After only two months, it has become hard to imagine living in a place where I don’t stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s obvious to me now that I took for granted the ease with which I walked around in the U.S.  Now that I no longer blend in with those around me, I have been painfully aware of how my accent, my hair, and my skin color interact with the work I am trying to accomplish in my community here. The barrio of Los Prados, located in la Zona Sur of Santiago de los Caballeros, has had some experience with American service workers before.  I am the second CIEE SL student to come through within the last year, and my colleagues (health promoters) in the community often talk about “the other Americans” who have worked with them in the past.  Even so, I still sometimes feel hyper aware of how drastically different I appear; occasionally people do not even bother to ask if I speak Spanish but simply turn to the person next to me to relay messages.  I have often found myself wondering if my physical differences hinder the progress I make here; if I am so different that real progress is limited, or if I am the only one focusing on such differences.

When I first arrived here, I did not have the tools to process my conspicuousness that was so abruptly present in my life. I was constantly asking myself: what if I never got past these blocks with the people in my community?  What if I was incapable of building the trust necessary to develop my project with them?  Or worse, what if I only caused more of a disturbance?  Now, having spent over two months in my community, I have developed some answers to these questions.  Difference is often more exciting than off-putting or negative.  My difficulty with Spanish only encourages the people in my community to take on the role of my professors, and my difference of background never allows for a lull in conversation. 

Never underestimate another person’s ability to adapt.  I have found this to be true both in myself as the foreigner, and in my community as the group which welcomes me into their homes and assists me in my daily work.  My Spanish vocabulary and delivery are growing steadily with plenty of assistance and my relationships with the people I work with are developing into friendships. I even go to my colleagues’ houses on the weekends to eat lunch and spend time with their families, and some of the kids have developed a nickname for me.  I have been pleasantly surprised to find that within those questions, which seemed so difficult and brutal to ask in the beginning, lie invaluable lessons of service learning.  The most important of which is that I am only really at risk of losing sight of my purpose when I stop asking myself these questions.  As an American student, I am in the position to take much more than I give.  In order to truly appreciate the gifts my community gives me (tangible and figurative), and in order to reciprocate as much as possible, it is necessary to always remember these questions, and to keep asking them.  As long as I am examining how my personality, appearance, accent, and background influence my work, I can do far more than if I allowed myself to feel comfortable and complacent.

Molly Cooksy

Clark University


Community in the Countryside


For our first rural stay, we traveled to Rio Grande Abajo, a rural community in the campo, or countryside, located in the Altamira province of Puerta Plata, about an hour drive from the city Santiago, Dominican Republic.  Upon arrival, we received a warm welcome to the community on Friday evening from Brigada Verde, the town’s youth group, with whom we participated in our work retreat with, and spent the majority of the weekend alongside. Coming from a beautiful rural community in New York State, I was immediately comforted by the striking mountainous views, the abundance of fruit trees lining the streets, children running freely, a breath of fresh air, and the ability to throw my keys in my backpack and forget about them for the weekend.

Rio Grande Abajo is a close-knit farming community where people are proud of what they are producing and happy to share. Staying with host families all weekend, my host mother generously served us delicious avocados and other vegetables, eggs, juice, fruit, and chocolate, all grown in Rio Grande Abajo. I believe that the ability to eat locally grown food is an UNBELIEVABLE opportunity for a community, and something of which to be very proud. This sustainable and healthy livelihood should not be underestimated or taken for granted no matter where in the world it may be. I have often noticed (at home and abroad) how many people are unaware from where their food comes.,

 In my opinion, being able to eat locally should not be taken for granted. Recently in the United States, eating locally and organically has become a trend, but eating locally grown food should be celebrated! I was relieved to see that this is a concept well understood by the people of Rio Grande.

 An interesting similarity between my hometown and Rio Grande Abajo is the movement of young people. Many of the young people in their community are trying to leave for big cities to find jobs or attend universities. Using the example of my host family from the weekend, they take pride in their eldest daughter, who did well in school, and was able to leave town to study in Santiago. She now lives and works in the city. Leaving to study then work is also a goal of many motivated young people from my hometown, myself included. The farming opportunities still exist, but maintaining and cultivating the family land is becoming less of a priority for many youth. I love my community, and believe it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. My favorite times are spent riding my bicycle with my dad, swimming in the waterfalls with my friends, and enjoying a summer meal with family – all food grown up the road on a small family farm (also the oldest organic farm in NY State).  So in these rural towns, rich in natural resources, why are people trying to leave? What more do we need?

 In a community based on working together to sustain farms, the population of young people is crucial. At a meeting with various organizations from Rio Grande Abajo, this was mentioned as a priority for the community. What will happen to the community when they all leave? I recognize that communities are always changing, so I can only hope that a temporary stress upon the community is just one part of its evolution. Is there a way for small communities with limited resources for job creation, to find a place for young people to remain?

Nara Baker

Clark University

“I’ll have fries with that,” the Globalization of Food

Charlotte 4

In Río Grande Abajo, where CIEE students spent a weekend in October, the landscape contained a lustrous rainbow play of color.  Fruits and flowers hung heavy off the trees: cacoa, oranges, platanos, etc.  The light of dusk illuminated the richness of the resources.  This was Río Grande Abajo. In the morning, I sat down at the table with my host “hermanita” or little host sister. On the table lay oatmeal made with fresh chocolate, fresh bananas, and a fresh avacado.  Then to my surprise, my host mother offered me “cornflakes” which were actually Lucky Charms, and served her daughter a bowl of this cereal.  I was puzzled and asked the mother if her daughter did not like the meal.  The mother told me that her daughter liked those foods but she preferred cereal, which was clearly treated as a delicacy in their household.  The mother said she travelled to Santiago, an hour trip by bus, to buy cereal for her kids. 

This action surprised me, not because cereal is a bad thing, but because the people of Río Grande Abjo had such great food-related resources at their fingertips. I watched the little girl eat processed Lucky Charms or Honey Nut Cheerios for at least two out of three meals per day for the entire weekend.[1] I am not critical of the food choice per say: this example is soley a microcosmic example of a bigger question. When do external influences begin to negatively affect the traditions and culture of a rural community? When does globalization begin to replace unique qualities of a rural community rather than supplement them?

Charlotte 1

I am curious as to whether the mother thought that the cereal had more nutritional value or was better for her child in some way than a fresh avocado, and I regret not asking.  It could have just been what the girl wanted to eat, but I have observed similar food-related choices in Santiago: often I find because something is packaged and imported, my host mother tells me how delicious and healthy the food is despite the fact that there is the option to eat locally grown platanos and avocados. How much does Western packaged “gourmet” foods influence diets across cultures?

Río Grande Abajo is a welcoming community.  They seem to be very open to outside help: the community has two Peace Corp volunteers, a strong relationship with our program and often hosts other volunteers.  Much of the community is interested in further developing the community technologically, infrastructually, and economically.  I just wonder if or when this might detract from the flavor of the campo.

[1] I am not discounting the nature of a child’s pickiness; I understand that kids tend to love sugary cereals with marshmellows no matter what other options they have. 

Charlotte Kaye

Colorado College