Many of you have been asking me, “So you are in the Peace Corps, what is it that you actually do there?”. It has been difficult for me to answer this question because for the last three months my main focus has been gaining to the trust of the community, identifying the community leaders (both adult and youth), conducting focus groups, interviews and holding community meetings in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the community and to assist the community in identifying what are the main priorities, and how can we, together, address them. All of that while switching host family homes, being consolidated due to hurricanes and Cholera and more or less adjusting to being on my own in the Dominican Republic.
Brisas del Norte
Brisas del Norte is a large urban barrio with a population of over 14,000 in the exploited tourist city of Boca Chica. Unemployed single mothers head the majority of homes and many of the women are in their teens or had their first child before the age of 18 (most at or before the age or 16). The most common places of employment are the Zona Franca (industrial factories), hotels or other tourist sites in Boca Chica, or trucking companies. The majority of the families are unemployed.
There are two public elementary schools in the community, niether is big enough to cater to all the youth. The schools run two “tandas” or sessions, one in the morning for the younger children and one in the afternoon for the older children. Some youth attend private schools but many are not enrolled. There are several small “salas de tarea” (places that assist youth in completing homework or provide supplementary education) but are more or less unorganized and generally not attended. There is no high school in the community so many children stop attending school after 8th grade or commute to the other side of the freeway (similar to I-5, and there is no pedestrian bridge) and walk two miles to attend high school.
Many of the children who are not enrolled in school, commute to the beaches of Boca Chica to work as “limpa botas” (shoe cleaners), sell items to tourists, or beg. Prostitution and child sexual exploitation is high in Boca Chica and many of those being exploited are from the poorest part of Brisas del Norte.
The people of Brisas have divided the community into four different parts. Flores del Sur, Brisas del Nortee II, Los Botaos and Los Cocos. Flores del Sur is located near the freeway, and has the most wealth. The majority of the youth living in this section attend private or public school, the houses have access to running water and electricity and most of the adults are employed. Houses are mostly block, but there are many zinc houses as well. All the roads are dirt.
Brisas del Norte II is a little further northeast and includes a main street where most of the businesses are. The main street is paved and there are many colmados where people go to drink, play dominios or cards. There are often reports of theft on the main street and this is where many of the motoconcho drivers congregate (mainly young men who are not positive role models for the youth of the community). Many of the houses are again block, but there are also houses made of zinc and of wood. This is the area where most of the teenagers meet up to drink and “hang out”. There is an unfinished baseball field in this section of the barrio, but no other healthy places for children to meet.
Los Botaos is located behind Brisas del Norte II. Lost Botaos translates to the throwaways. Most of the houses are zinc or wood but there are a number of block houses. There is a catholic church in construction and there are many other small churches peppered throughout barrio. There are a number of houses that are headed by children (about 15 or 16 years of age) (the primary care providers have passed) and almost all the houses have multiple families living in it. There are several unfinished bloc houses where people are currently squatting. There is a small Haitian community hidden in a little compound. None of the Haitian children are allowed to attend the schools and many do not speak Spanish.
Los Cocos is further north, behind los Botaos, and is the poorest part of the barrio. Almost all the houses are of zinc or wood, and very few have cement floors and latrines. There is often no running water, and the community members need to go to a tap in los Botaos or to a cave a mile up the road, in order to get water for their houses. The houses do have access to electricity. Almost all the youth in this part of the barrio are not enrolled in school and many commute to the beaches of Boca Chica daily in order to support their families. There are many Haitian compounds located in Los Cocos but again, the Haitians are isolated and segregated from the rest of the community
The four “communities” of Brisas del Norte are not very far apart from each other but the people generally do not work together or support each other. Each section is fighting for resources for only their “section” and refuse to support anyone from a different part. Each section has its own neighborhood association, but they met irregularly and never arrange meetings to gather all the leaders of Brisas del Norte together.
The community reports that domestic violence, child abuse and neglect are problems as well as hunger and lack of health care. Teen pregnancy and lack of educational opportunities are the two largest challenges facing the youth, as identified by community members through formal interviews. Community members would also like to initiate more organized activities for the youth, especially for girls. Getting birth certificates for mothers and their children is also a need the community identified, as without this document, the person does not legally exist and cannot work or attend school passed the 8th grade.
Casa ENED is a small home for boys located at the edge of Brisas del Norte. Casa ENED houses 18 boys ages 9 – 18, around half of Haitian decent. The majority of the boys have families in or around Boca Chica , Santo Domingo or San Pedro de Marcaris. Many of the boys were found on the streets after leaving abusive or neglectful homes, or leaving homes that could not provide proper food and shelter. Casa ENED works on obtaining birth certificates for the boys, provides financial assistance to their families (if they are not orphaned), and provides scholarships for the boys to attend private schools. All of the boys are behind in educational level and have trouble concentrating for long periods of time. Casa ENED also supports the boys in guitar classes, sports activities and provides classes in French and English (and Spanish for the boys who arrived orphaned from Haiti). Casa ENED also hosts a two hour “sala de tarea” every weekday for the boys in the home and is also open to boys in the community identified as Los Botoas.
While Casa ENED provides a lot of opportunities for the youth who live there, it needs support on an organizational level in order to ensure the sustainability of the organization. The home lacks a vision and a mission statement as well as clear and measurable objectives and goals. There are also no clear criteria for whom and how a boy can enter the casa nor is there case plans or transition plans for the youth. There is also no current monitoring or evaluating process, of the organization as a whole or of the youth who are currently living there. Communication among employees who do the day-to-day work in the house is poor, and they rarely meet to discuss issues in the home or to provide one another with support. There is very little communication and trust between the domestic employees and the founder and the foundation located in Switzerland.
There is also a need to connect the boys with the general community and network and collaborate with other existing community organizations and community leaders. While Casa ENED provides many activities for the boys, the boys have no space to share and show what they have learned and are always part of a large group. Connecting the boys with service learning projects as well as including the boys in decisions that affect the organization and their lives are two needs identified by the domestic employees. Also, there is a need for the home to organize more family strengthening activities for the boys who have families that are safe for them to return to.
That is the summary of the community and organizational diagnostic I prepared for Peace Corps (16 pages in Spanish) and I am currently working on developing and implementing my official projects. The first step is to create a project plan. I am working closely with a former baseball player in starting sports activities in the schools and organizing volleyball teams with the teenage grils. I also currently have a girls group that meets twice a week to talk about the issues females face in the community and to plan gender empowerment activities for mothers and daughters. I am also organizing two different boys groups, one in Casa ENED and one in the community, to work on science and math activities in order to provide further learning activities. Vamos a ver. Working with at risk youth is always a challenge as motivation and interest quickly fades, but hopefully I will have some success, somewhere. My long term goal is to motivate the community to identify an area where we can build a community center that includes a library and a basketball court, but that will come in my second year, si dios quiere (if god wishes, a Dominican saying that follows any talk about the future).
For now, I must go wash my dinner dishes as “llego la luz” (the electricity came back). I hope this gives some idea of what I have been doing. I welcome any ideas or suggestions you may have.