Making a Difference in the Dominican Republic: La Heroína de Mi Propia Vida Project

10 minute read

Volunteer Ana with girls from the Mariposa DR Foundation program

The girls and I. Photo courtesy of Anna Cait.

My name is Anna Cait Wade and I am a recent graduate from the University of Virginia, where I majored in Women and Gender Studies and a concentration in Contemplative Sciences. I am incredibly excited to be partnering with the Mariposa DR Foundation to implement my project La Heroína de Mi Propia Vida (Heroine of My Own Life).

Mariposa, established in 2009, is a young and in-demand organization, which works to end generational poverty through the empowerment of adolescent girls in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. Girls in this community face very high risks of abduction, pornography, and sex trafficking. Additionally, the DR has the 17th highest rate of child brides around the world and early pregnancy is a widespread problem. Fewer than 20% of all girls in the DR will make it past the 8th grade. Many girls are forced to drop out of school to take care of younger siblings or other domestic chores. Often, the cycle of poverty continues for generations with young mothers struggling to care for their teenage daughters who subsequently also get pregnant at an early age. Despite all this there is hope for the future. Although these girls face nearly every problem, with empowerment, I believe they are the key to every solution.

Currently, less than two cents of every development dollar is allocated toward programs for girls, yet enabling girls to stay in school longer means they are more likely to marry four years later, more likely to have fewer, healthier children and less likely to contract HIV/AIDs (UNESCO, 2013). Clearly, empowering the 250 million girls living in poverty could have groundbreaking effects. The crucial question is how this “empowerment” can be done in such a way that truly enables these adolescent girls to go forth and live lives of meaning and richness and lift up their community along the way.

My project aims to widen the scope of leadership skills among the adolescent girls of the Mariposa DR Foundation so that with a strong sense of self, they are enabled to enact change in their lives and communities. I will write the curriculum book for this program with the help and input of community leaders, girls' studies experts, and the Mariposa chicas themselves. After a year, I will hand the curriculum over to the foundation with the hope that it can be sustainably used for years to come.

I discovered the Mariposa DR Foundation in my second year of college after my gender studies professor assigned an NGO profile project. Captivated by their dedication to the girls in their community, I continued to follow Mariposa’s projects and progress via Facebook and their website throughout the year. In my third year, I enrolled in Women and Poverty with the same professor. I was so impassioned by the coursework that I was determined to study poverty on the ground. I applied to several summer volunteer fellowships in developing nations that addressed issues surrounding adolescence, gender and poverty, but when I received an email from Mariposa’s co-founder inviting me to work at the organization for the summer, I knew I had to go.

Although these girls face nearly every problem, with empowerment, I believe they are the key to every solution.

My time in the Dominican Republic with Mariposa was a transformative experience. I learned to solve problems creatively, forged life-changing friendships and gained confidence in myself, as I found my way in a new culture and place. In the beginning, I was certain I had made a mistake in volunteering for the position. I was living in one of the local neighborhoods where many of the girls live, and my job was to teach lessons on English to 14- to 17-year-old girls. I felt I wasn’t brave enough, knowledgeable enough, or tough enough to endure the tasks before me. The girls challenged me continuously, as they navigated the formative teenage years. They talked back, played tricks on me and refused to sit through my classes. I admit, at the end of week one, I checked the price of a flight back home and seriously considered paying the hefty fee to leave. However, back in my apartment with no electricity and ample time to think, I reflected on the realities of my extreme privilege relative to the young women I was working with. Back home, I had a comfortable home and loving, supportive family and friends. I was able to attend a superior high school with guidance counselors that assisted me in getting into one of the U.S.’s finest public universities. There, I formed a wonderful relationship with a professor who encouraged me to volunteer for this very NGO. In this reflection, my perspective shifted, and I became incredibly grateful for the unique opportunity to advocate for these young girls.

I began to see things through their eyes. Living in a tourist destination, they hesitate to make bonds knowing that visitors will ultimately return to where they came from. I realized their trust was a privilege to be earned, and poco a poco – little by little - I could attain it with dedication, open ears and a loving heart. Meeting each other in the middle, we formed some incredible bonds. On their end, the girls gave me their respect and honored what I said considering I traveled so far to be with them. On my end, I never let my amazement at their perseverance subside. Whether it was Lola, who took care of her three younger sisters after her mom passed away, but still found time to write songs and learn English, or Erika, who lived in some of the worst conditions and struggled to read, yet found an older girl to tutor her in the evenings while others played, these girls taught me more about love and gratitude than I ever thought I could know. It didn’t take me long to understand that these girls wanted deeply to rise up to the expectations that had been set for them. They longed for affirmation, encouragement and unconditional support.

Three weeks into my stay, I noticed a marked difference in my outlook. I felt light, without worry and present in the moment. I felt I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It was then that I decided that I would make every effort to continue serving this organization and these girls, and I am incredibly humbled that it is now possible.

Cabarete, Dominican Republic

The young women in the camp live in Cabarete, a popular tourist destionation in the Dominican Repuplic. Photo courtesy of Alex Proimos.

I have only been here a few weeks as an InterExchange Foundation Christianson Grantee, and in my second stay, I feel so much more at ease in this country. I am able to hail a guagua (public bus) without trepidation, I can walk other new volunteers around the local neighborhood introducing them to the colorful, bachata music-filled streets and kind-hearted people, and carry a 20-gallon water bottle to my colmado (neighborhood grocery store) to be re-filled, picking up some plantains for frying while I am there. Still, I recognize that there is still so much I have to learn.

I am taking Spanish classes five days a week for two hours each day. It is rigorous at the end of a long day of summer camp with the energetic Mariposas, but it is necessary and productive. I am grateful to have the opportunity. My language fluidity is coming quickly, but it cannot come soon enough. Tripping over verb tenses at times derails the openness and communication that I long for in this partnership and exchange. Mary Jane, the beloved literature and language teacher at Mariposa, always tells me “Todo es un proceso” – it is all a process. She is right. Patience and persistence carry you the farthest.

Spanish vocabulary

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

In the first days of my arrival, the girls were very challenging to work with. Even though we had made some connections the previous year, and they were initially very excited to see me, they acted out by yelling, telling me I was “the worst,” that I was grumpy, no fun, and ruining their lives. Being a visitor, it can be easy to view them as girls you may have gone to summer camp with, as you watch them compete in the first all-girls surfing competition in their town, all in matching pink t-shirts. True, some of this resistance to connection is typical teenage form, but these girls have surmounted far more than adolescence. They have coped with parental loss. They have wondered where their next meal will come from. They have faced emotional, physical, sexual abuse. Their resilience runs deep. But the converging forces of searching for the self in adolescence, the confusion and uncertainty that comes with this period in one’s life, and the multifaceted stressors of living in poverty create a perfect storm. The heck if they want to listen to a 22-year-old American girl who only just learned how to flush the toilets when the water goes out! I get it. It took me some time to learn this lesson, but eventually, I saw, as I always do, that they have so much more to teach me.

Despite my previous certainty about returning to Mariposa for the long term, I seriously doubted, again, if I was ready to take this on. Things came to a head after a long stretch of bad attendance, terrible attitudes, and disrespect. Their surfing practice was canceled, and a meeting was called to discuss their poor behavior. In trying to understand their problems, the psychologist gave them the opportunity to vent about me, their new teacher who was only a few short years older than them. Knowingly, they hit me in my weak spots: my Spanish isn't good enough, I'm too strict, I seem like a friend, but then try to enforce the rules.

It was a really, really long day, and I was very uncertain about whether I was going to be able to follow through with my work with them. Even though I studied relational aggression for two years, and I know their behavior is coming from a place of fear, it still stings when the girls you care about are whispering and laughing at you - talk about middle school insecurity flashbacks! But during the meeting, Fernanda, who is 19, a mother of two, and math teacher for the little ones, walked over to me. She opened her purse, and she showed me a card that I had written her last summer. It was so heartwarming and thoughtful of her. I couldn't believe that she carries it with her. It was enough to get me through the day. But later, when I was reflecting on how I could best support and teach these girls, I realized that the letter was the answer. I love to write, and I knew my writing skills (at this point in time) were more proficient than my verbal communication. Late that night, I wrote each and every girl a letter. I was exhausted, but full of excitement as my passion for the work was renewed.

The heck if they want to listen to a 22-year-old American girl who only just learned how to flush the toilets when the water goes out! I get it. It took me some time to learn this lesson, but eventually, I saw, as I always do, that they have so much more to teach me.

To Criseld, I shared that I admire that she takes such good care of her friends, fixing the hair for the girls whose mothers don’t have the time, sharing her breakfast with someone who has less food than she does at home. To Maria Angelica, I shared my amazement that she walks with strength and confidence, but always fills the room with laughter and light as well. And to vibrant (and sometimes over-active) Viviana, I said that I hoped she never feels she must make herself smaller because her bright, expansive energy is a gift, not a flaw.

The next morning some of the younger ones who are bit immature snickered and asked, "Oh, Ana, are you mad with us? Are you quitting?" I smiled and said, "No, no. Today is a new day. We will begin again." Of course, they were testing me, pushing me, daring me to quit on them like many others in their lives have.

Nervously, I approached 29 sassy, spunky girls at "circle time" and told them that we were starting over, and I had a card for each of them. I called every name, and they retrieved their letter. They opened them instantly, read them, then read each other's, then read them out loud, then hugged me, said thank you, laughed, and smiled. Finally, I took a breath and knew it would all be okay. Other days and weeks will probably be just as hard, but I know, we are all strong enough to sustain it, together.

I believe that something truly amazing and historical is happening at Mariposa, and that it symbolizes a new chapter in the world’s history. I do think that the collective effort of giving impoverished girls the opportunity to go to school and participate in sports and leadership will change the world. However, my own world has been forever changed by a few big-hearted, energetic, and sometimes mischievous little girls, unbeknownst to them. As I move forward, what I know to be true is that each one of their individual lives matters, each one of their voices deserves to be heard, and their struggles and their determination should be recognized, if not by the whole world, at least by a few. Hereafter, I plan to count myself among those few.

Anna Cait By

Anna volunteered in the Dominican Republic with the help of a Christianson Fellowship, from the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation