What if people were more curious? Would it open our minds more, to be less judgmental, less fearful and less disappointed perhaps?
Victoria Santos says she’s been curious about everything since she was a child growing up in the Dominican Republic.
Jean Adams, a former South Whidbey student says, “I credit my own curiosity and interest about life from observing Ms. Santos.
“I was 14 when I first met Victoria. She instantly became a role model for me. Her natural inquisitiveness drew people out.”
Adams recalls the time a student in class said “education was a total waste of time.”
“I figured Ms. Santos would tell him why he was wrong, but instead of condemning him or trying to convince him otherwise, she asked him thought-provoking questions. Victoria’s open interest and honest questions brought the student around on his own to re-think his views.
“To me, this was a stark contrast to political parties fighting and TV talk shows putting down other people that didn’t view life as they do,” Adams says. “And once more, Victoria’s inquisitive style brings about positive change.”
It’s Santos curiosity, coupled with compassion, that underscores her action as a social activist in her home country of the Dominican Republic, and here on Whidbey. In 1999, she spearheaded a group she named the Sister Island Project that brings her homeland together with hundreds of people on Whidbey and across America to do volunteer work in the Dominican Republic, or DR, as she calls it. Projects have included the construction of a school and a new community well.
Susie Richards, co-director of Service Education Adventure, first met Santos as an educational colleague.
“Victoria radiates energy, love and joy. In working with her for eight years, there is no one I have learned more from on how to take a vision and make it a reality,” Richards says.
“She has been the driving force behind so many projects in this community; from the first healthy Youth Fair, Island Coffeehouse for youth, the MLK mural project at the middle school, girls technology program, the Sister Island Project and the list goes on and on. My vision of her in each of these is watching her surrounded by students — whom she supported, empowered and partnered with.”
Sipping coffee with Santos, one knows immediately she is open and friendly.
She shares old photos of her home country and family, along with funny stories and heart-warming memories.
She moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was 11. She recalls the vivid memory of stepping off the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“My mouth dropped open. I had never seen anything like this,” she remembers. “Just then my mother was wrapping me in this heavy coat over my sundress I still had on from DR. I would have been so very homesick if it hadn’t been for being curious about all of these people here and this big city.”
Her openness and interest in everything causes her to look at situations from all angles, she says.
“Looking back, I know I am very fortunate that our parents moved us here to this country so we could have opportunities and could help more people.”
As an adult, she landed her dream position as a program coordinator for a yoga center in Massachusetts and felt she had found her place in life.
That was until she went to a presentation where she met one of the presenters, Suzanne Fageol from Whidbey. They talked about the “Power of Hope,” a youth empowerment program which was based on Whidbey Island.
She later spoke about the program with Peggy Taylor and Charlie Murphy of South Whidbey, “and felt called to move to Whidbey, leave my job and the home that I loved.”
She either sold or gave away just about everything she owned, and Santos and a friend jumped into her friend’s truck and headed west.
“With the help of so many people here on Whidbey, I was able to volunteer for the Power of Hope for eight months,” she notes, recalling how another door quickly opened. She was offered another opportunity as a program coordinator between the middle school, the Langley Police Department and the then-South Whidbey Youth Center.
“It was another dream position, and I met and worked with Susie Richards. Susie and I would dream up all kinds of service projects for the kids to do. We wanted the kids to serve their community and world with their natural gifts,” Santos says.
“I think too many times we are told to improve ourselves, and this can become a trap where we never accept who we are and miss our inborn gifts.
She says she wants to accept people with unconditional love.
“I want to honor people’s humanity,” she explains. “My life and my spiritual journey has led me away from an ‘us-and-them’ perspective, and more toward an ‘us-and-us’ perspective.
“Poverty and desperate circumstances and limited choices drive many people to hard acts. We think of criminals as ‘them,’ but we all have that potential inside of us, and many of us are fortunate never to have been so severely tested,” she says. “In that sense, we’re all criminals, or could be … but most fundamentally, we’re all human beings.”
She points to the work of Bo Lozoff, a spiritual teacher who has done decades of work with prisoners. One of his books is called “We’re All Doing Time.”
“He frames life as a spiritual journey full of opportunities, open to all of us, whether our confinement is due to concrete and steel, greed, grief, physical health challenges or anything else,” Santos says.
“If someone performs a hideous crime they may need to go to jail for life to protect other people. But while in jail we need to treat them as humans so we don’t make a worse monster — making them go down even a worse path of destruction.
As Martin Luther King said, ‘The only way to conquer evil is through love,’” she says.
“Victoria has an enormous capacity to love and to act on her dreams,” notes Scott Mauk, assistant principal at South Whidbey Elementary School. “She is one of the most compassionate and dedicated people I know.”
“Her work with our Whidbey teens has been invaluable and she seems to have connected with all of them in some way! The Sister Island Project, now in its 10th year, has been a transformational program providing service opportunities for people all over the U.S. The project has not only worked to build community connections, do environmental outreach, and provide material assistance, but it has built a rural high school for Dominican youth from our sister village of Cruz Verde who lived far away from it before. This Herculean feat was not possible without Victoria and her partner Peter.”
Santos’ inspiration is long-lasting. Sean Janssen, a 2001 graduate of South Whidbey High School and currently a missionary in the Dominican Republic, writes, “Victoria spoke to us in Spanish class almost 10 years ago and I still remember her passion for her country and enthusiasm for the Sister Island Project as it was just getting off the ground.”
“Having lived in the Dominican Republic the past four months, it is encouraging to know of projects like hers that can have a long and lasting impact on a country so greatly in need.”
What others say about Victoria Santos
“Victoria has worked tirelessly for the benefit of our kids here on South Whidbey and overseas. She demonstrates every day that one’s inner light and resources are the true source of joy and purpose in life. I have learned from Victoria that one cannot give too much of one’s self, that one’s own capacity to give and love is limitless. To her, every day is an opportunity to make the world a better place. Her motivation is her golden heart.”
Richard Epstein, volunteer
“With Victoria, it isn’t simply what she has done for other people, which is a huge list — it’s who she is and how she is with others. Victoria is able to connect with the very best in people, support and nourish that with a loving presence, smile and laugh. She helps people to believe in themselves and feel better about who they are. That in itself qualifies her as a Hometown Hero in my book.”
Christie Cave, friend
“She is filled with compassion and has a passion for her work and life, and you can feel it. The young people she works with know she cares about them and that she is genuine and authentic. She’s a great role model of how to live from the heart.”
Charlene Suzuki, educator and mental health supervisor
“She works at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor three days a week. She is such a wonderful addition to our staff. She provides counseling and positive interactions for many students each day she is here. In addition to being a counselor, she shares her talents in dancing and yoga with students and staff as well. Her lively laugh and caring personality make her a great part of our school community.”
Laura Aesoph, principal at North Whidbey Middle School
“In 30 years of professional social work, I have encountered perhaps fewer than a dozen truly gifted helping professionals. Victoria Santos is one who makes the world a better place just by the way she walks through life. Everyone whose life Victoria touches comes away better for the experience. She has skill, she has uncompromising values, she sees what is really important in life with uncommon clarity. She’s gifted, and a gift to all of us.”
Dan N. Bond, Island County Children’s Commission
“Victoria represents the best in human spirit, truly one of the most generous people I have ever met. Her warm friendly smile goes with one of the most amazing hugs on the planet, and her heart is open to everyone. Her dedication through the Sister Island Project and her dedication to improving the human condition wherever she is, has been an inspiration to us all.”
Leslie Hoelting, teacher
“Victoria is an agent for positive change in this world. When she sees a need she actively works to fill it — whether it be through her work with youth on South Whidbey, with Dominicans through the Sister Island Project, sustainable organic agriculture or a friend in need of a listening ear. She is energy, kindness and generosity.”
Jenny Gochanour, teacher and friend
“I have been fortunate to work with her in multiple capacities at Langley Middle School and am currently blessed to be working on the same team with Victoria, serving children and families in Island County. Victoria brings a generous spirit of love and laughter wherever she goes. Victoria overflows with generosity to serve others at home and abroad, building bridges and connections, offering others the experience to stretch their wings and fly.”
Kathy Hein, school-based mental health counselor
“Victoria’s vitality and passion for making the world a better place is contagious. She has worked with me and my K-1 students to develop a four-year cultural exchange between our kids here and the children of Cruz Verde. It has been a meaningful and rich experience for South Whidbey children to get to know children by name and story, and share art and letters. Two years ago, my son, Dylan, and I volunteered in Cruz Verde and had the fun and life-changing experience of living and working with Victoria’s family and friends in this small, rural village. The warmth and her dedication and devotion to her work in the world, which is never motivated by ego, comes with lots of joy and laughter.”
Susan Milan, teacher at South Whidbey Elementary School
“Victoria is such a deeply caring and creative person. There is always some degree of ‘CAN’ in whatever she takes on, never a ‘can’t.’ She is inspiring and motivating to be around. She touches so many lives, I am thankful to be one who’s life she has touched.”
Barb Bennett, community volunteer
“Her true love is the children. The first time I had a meeting with her, I brought my grandson with me. No sooner had we walked in when Victoria pulled out the paints and paper and asked Will if he would like to paint — such kindness! I have worked with Victoria and
I have never felt so valued as a volunteer. She truly is an exceptional young woman, and I am pleased to have been in her constellation.”
Kathy Habel, community volunteer
Born: Feb. 23, 1967 in the Cruz Verde Yabaco region of the Dominican Republic; moved to the U.S. at age 11.
Parents: Her father was a janitor; her mother, now deceased, was a
Siblings: Two brothers, Frank and Eddi.
Education: College University of Albany, N.Y.; master’s degree in political science and Latin studies.
Partner: Peter Blaustein.
Years on Whidbey: 11.
Some of the people you admire on South Whidbey?
“I love the generosity that permeates this community. Richard Epstein, Jim Shelver, Myra Twomey (deceased), Judy Yeakel, Rod Merrell, Nancy Kennedy, Barb Bennett, Ric Prael, Nancy Nordhoff, Peggy Taylor, Suzanne Fagoel, Peter Bennet, David and Candy Hagen, Bob Alexandra, aka ‘Mr. A,’ Kathy Hein, Kitty and Gordie Adams, Susie Richards, Ross Chapin, Patty Sievers, Jenny Gochanour, Peter Blaustein, Joy Moulton, Charlene Suzuki, Dana Thomas and so many others.”
Your favorite book?
“The Pilgrim Kamanita.”
What bores you?
“People complaining about a loss of conveniences we are fortunate to even have in the first place.”
Hardest thing you have had to do?
“Dealing with my brother’s death two years ago. He died saving two swimmers who were drowning.”
If you could ask God one question?
“I can ask today or any day. The question for me is why don’t I listen for the answer.”