Lifestyle

Sister Island Project

Victoria Santos remembers fondly her memories of growing up in Cruz Verde, a small rural village with chickens, pigs and cows wandering about. She remembers being one of her village’s barefoot children, running without shoes, playing soccer and gathering mangoes. There was no potable water system; instead they gathered water from a nearby lake. There was no electricity, only a few rare portable generators people used for special occassions — like birthdays.

But even in lack of luxury, Santos remembers a village of happy people who always made do. The lack of electricity allowed the stars to shine brightly for Santos and the other people of her village.

Cruz Verde is in the Yabacao region of the Dominican Republic, a nation of almost 9 million that occupies two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Santos came to the United States in 1976 at the age of 11, her family seeking better opportunities for their her.

When Santos returned to visit her country in 1999, that adolescent imagery became cloudy. Because, while Cruz Verde is a beautiful place with happy people, Cruz Verde is also a village where its people suffer from malnutrition, environmental degradation, lack of health care, no education and minimal economic opportunity.

A village in trouble

Cruz Verde and the surrounding area has been stripped of its natural resources — the leader once being sugar cane — and its people have been left in the poverty and pollution caused by overharvesting of the land .

“It was sad to see the dissenigration that had occurred,” Santos said.

But looking at those stars again, shining brightly over her childhood village of Cruz Verde, gave Santos a little inspiration to make a change.

She began the Sister Island Project, a nonprofit organization that since 2001 has been dedicated to fostering respectful international friendship and cultural, educational and technical exchange between people of the United States and people of the Dominican Republic. In addition, the Sister Island Project spreads awareness of issues that challenge developing countries and collaborates with Dominicans on mutually beneficial humanitarian projects.

Santos heads the Sister Island Project with Peter Blaustein, a former social worker.

The focus of the Sister Island Project is El Centro D’Ensenanza Luz Maria — the Luz Maria Learning Center — named in honor of a Cruz Verde woman who contributed to her community.

The center, a place for education, was the immediate need that emerged when Santos first met with Ybacao community members and local community organization members. Now its construction consumes Santos and in turn her infectious enthusiasm has recruited Americans and Dominicans to build a dream for the people together.

“The tools and opportunities that students have access to here are far beyond the reach of Dominican kids,” Santos said. “What’s so painful about this is that so many Dominicans never have the basic opportunities they need to lift themselves out of poverty.”

Schools are few and far between in the region, the rare few are only primary schools that educate up to the fourth grade. They are barren on books and supplies, and students as many choose not to attend because the distance they must travel is too far. If students are able to receive an education and seek to pursue it past the eighth grade, a majority are forced to abandon their studies because of accessibility and safety concerns and the increasing poverty. But, ironically, it is with this secondary education Dominicans are able to find better employment opportunities.

The center’s location couldn’t be better. It is a 10-minute walk away from the center of Cruz Verde.

In construction since the summer of 2003, the educational center will not only provide secondary and vocational education for youth in the Yabacao region, but also educational opportunities for the general community in academics, vocational skills, nutrition, health and the arts. The center has also been designed as a hurricane shelter.

“We envision a place that is dynamic, practical and uplifting,” Blaustian said. “Vocational training is urgent, but no piece of the puzzle is unimportant.”

Since groundbreaking, volunteers from South Whidbey and the Puget Sound area, California, New York, New Hampshire, Texas, Kansas, Great Britain, Holland and the Barbados have traveled to Cruz Verde to help contruct the school and interact with the people of Cruz Verde.

While in the Dominican Republic, volunteers spend time working on the school and also on other Sister Island outreach projects such as an arts camp, delivering toilitries, art supplies and medical supplies. They also teach workshops in English and vocational skills.

Ecological sustainability and the best for the people of the area has been crafted into the school and kept in mind during every soil brick of the process.

“We could have done something more simple, but we wanted it to be a modern school with conveniences the whole community could use,” Santos said.

Not much further to go

Now, the school is in the home stretch. Santos and Blaustein hope to complete the school this year and are currently planning so they can be ready to begin educational programming at the new learning facility. The Sister Island Project needs to raise $30,000 to complete construction tasks, which include the well and water system, electric, doors and windows, kitchen and bathroom fixtures, appliances and furniture.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said former Whidbey resident and volunteer Eliza Hudson. “People should realize this work is valuable serves as an example for so many other villages. The work doesn’t end when the school is finished.”

Hudson, now a sophomore at Guilfford College in North Carolina, traveled to Cruz Verde last year with the Sister Island Project. The environmental studies and Spanish student was intrigued by the project’s commitment to building a school that was environmentally friendly.

“It empowering for them and for us to work with them to have these skills to become self-sustaining,” Hudson said. “The resilience of the people was amazing that through all their struggles they were the warmest and happiest people I’ve seen.”

Creating an opportunity for education, Santos and Blaustein believe, is a way to make a change beyond any quick fix aid.

Keeping up the work and the financial support to do go beyond the quick fix, though, has been difficult on a project that has seen 9/11, a presidential election and a Tsunami sway people’s support back and forth. Last year Sister Island Project held an auction on island that helped raise nearly $9,000, but there will be no auction this year. And $30,000 is still needed. Reminder: they are still here.

Santos and Blaustein will take volunteers back to the Dominican Republic June 26-24, with one-, two-, or four-week options for people to volunteer their time. The room and board costs are minimal and go toward helping the host families who are paid for their time and food donated to house the volunteers.

No doubt, bonds will once again form between these hosts and the volunteers they welcome into their homes. Long after the volunteers fly back to their homes, letters and phone calls continue to be exchange with the people they learn to call family.

Community Events, April 2014

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