Sister Island Project hopes to plant seeds of change
June 25, 2008 · Updated 12:32 PM
"Norma Jean Young, Victoria Santos, Greta Reid, Kitty Adams and Gordon Adams believe the growing aspirations they cultivated in the Sister Island garden this summer will be the start of long-lasting cultural exchange between South Whidbey and the Dominican Republic.Jon Jensen/staff photosSister Island fundraiserTo fund its expedition to the Dominican Republic, the Sister Island Project will host a fund-raising night of international food and music on Saturday, Oct. 28.The benefit will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Smilin' Dog Cafe and Bayview Gallery at Bayview Corner. Dishes such as stuffed Belgian endive and Thai and Dominican foods will be served, and musicians from the island and Seattle will play world beat and classical music for the gathering. Tickets are $25, with discounts for families and students. They are available in advance at the Smilin' Dog, the CyberC@fe in Clinton, or Joe's Island Music in Langley. For more information call Victoria Santos at 341-1337.At a spot where the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet, there is an island nation that is almost nothing like Whidbey Island -- the island we call home.The Dominican Republic is a warm place, and is home to trees, flowers, bushes and animals that would not last even through a Whidbey Island summer. Its people are of African and Spanish descent and speak Spanish as their official language.And yet, within a few years, a small part of Whidbey Island may have more in common with the Dominican Republic than it does with New York, Texas, or even Oregon. Throughout the past year, a small group of South Whidbey residents have been preparing to make a two-week culture and work-centered trip to the Dominican Republic as part of the Sister Island Project. Modeled after the Bainbridge/Ometepe Sister Island Project, this local effort is designed to bring technical assistance and expertise to some struggling Dominicans.The project's organizers also hope it will work as a cultural exchange, bringing Dominican people to Whidbey Island and sending Whidbey Islanders to the Dominican Republic on an annual basis.Clinton resident Victoria Santos is one of the project's original organizers. A native of the Dominican Republic, Santos said she has been watching her homeland struggle economically for years. Since sugar production shifted away from the cane fields in the island nation to the sugar beet fields in the midwestern United States, the country's economy has been in a tailspin. Its formerly export-driven economy is no longer providing a living for the Dominican people, Santos said. Once productive farms used up the nutrients in the island's fragile soils, which nourished tropical forests until a few hundred years ago.The soil is decimated, Santos said this week.It is ironic that the Sister Island project started this summer with a garden. To raise money to send project participants to the Dominican Republic, Santos and other team members planted two large gardens, one on Bayview Road and another at the Wahl Road property of Scott and Anne Mauk. The team members harvested sunflowers, squash, and other vegetables to sell at the Bayview Farmer's Market and South Whidbey Tilth Farmer's Market.The gardening work should be good training. There is a lot of work to be done in the Dominican Republic to make these lands productive again -- a lot of work South Whidbey people can do. From Dec. 16 to Dec. 30, an eight-person team of Sister Island participants will work with people in the rural Dominican village of Cruz Verde, helping reforest an old sugar plantation. They will also help them try to create markets in the U.S. for their products so they can make a living.This is the sort of effort that is dear to the heart of Norma Jean Young. A Langley resident, Young has spent the last 15 years traveling to third-world countries and to the homes of indigenous people to teach them subtle-energy healing and some Western medical techniques. She has visited Inuit people in Greenland, the Maori in New Zealand, and people in 12 other countries. All people, she said, should have the right to make a good living.Everyone in the world should be equal, Young said.This first trip for the Sister Island team may not involve as much hands on work as later ones. Santos said she and her teammates will have to find out which of their talents are most useful to the Dominicans in Cruz Verde. To do that, they will have to watch and learn.We will spend some time documenting their community and gathering their stories, she said.Young said the team will then try to find ways to bring a better income to the people in Cruz Verde.Do they need machinery or lines of trade? she said. How can we help them make money?The team members do not know what conditions they are getting into as they get set to travel to the Dominican Republic. They might stay with some of the people they meet, or they might wind up camping in tents. Young said it doesn't matter to her. No place could be as rough as it the area in Thailand she visited some years ago.I slept in Thailand next to oxen, she said.At 55, Young will be the oldest member of the team. Also making the journey will be Kitty and Gordon Adams, Scott and Anne Mauk, and high school students Greta Reed, Maria Zontine, and Joe Epstein-Sofield. But the youngest member of the Sister Island team will be the Mauks' son, 4-year-old Sage.Scott Mauk said traveling with his wife and son will let the people in Cruz Verde know more about the people of Whidbey Island than a collection of unrelated people could.It became clear how powerful it would be for a whole family to be there, Mauk said.Victoria Santos said she hopes exchanges between Whidbey Island and Cruz Verde will be at least an annual occurrence. "