Today, we spent the day with 36 boys and young men who now call Niños de Cristo and their dedicated staff their home. We were joined by Donnie Hodge and his wife Ana. Donny is the owner of Altagracia Apparel. I’ll write more about this tomorrow after we visit his “fair wage and working conditions” factory in Villa Altagracia and talk with some of the families whose lives have been changed because of these jobs.
Sadly, some children cannot be raised and nurtured safely with their own families for many different reasons. Niños de Cristo provides the “family” for about 40 of these youth in the Dominican Republic. This home is located in the countryside of La Romana, about 1 hour west of Punta Cana. The home is only 4 years old and took the place of a much more crowded and outdated facility. This one is simple, clean and warm with a great amount of open outdoor space. (This is not what we New Yorkers are used to.) Speaking of New Yorkers, the facility’s current psychologist, Karina, is a transplanted New Yorker – Dominican Republic born, but New York raised and educated. Two years ago she returned to the Dominican Republic and is now the on-site psychologist trying to help these youth that have experienced hurt and scars rebuild lives. Karina guided us through the facility and she demonstrated knowledge, competence, and compassion. These same qualities were present in the home’s program director, Franklin, who oversees the day-to-day life of the home. He clearly knew everybody by name and they knew him. He was not a distant administrator but a caring professional that understands the individuality of each young person under the care of Niños de Cristo. This sense seemed to flow through all the staff we met at the orphanage.
Luz Tavarez, our Catholic Charities Director of Government and Community Relations who coordinated and participated in the entire trip, quickly became all the boys’ “titi,” which is derived from the Spanish word for aunt. She introduced Donnie Hodge and his wife to the group and they presented each of the boys with a matching set of Notre Dame T-shirts from their factory in Altagracia. Luz brought her sense of caring and humanity to all the boys she met.
Luz made sure Catholic Charities also provided personal gifts for each of the youth. We handed a personal tote bag kit to each of the boys. We also presented the orphanage with one of the crosses blessed by Pope Francis during his visit with immigrants in New York two years ago. This will hang prominently as a sign of solidarity with Catholic Charities of New York.
There are many similarities and certain differences between this program and those of Catholic Charities in New York. I was struck by the informality of the Niños de Cristo program and its familiar feel. The number of staff appeared to be far fewer than programs in New York. The outdoor’s spacious setting lent a lightness that is often hard to achieve in a more dense urban space. In New York, there are now very few large congregate homes housing 40 youth. Individual homes, or small residences, are now the norm.
Although large, there was no institutional feel to the Niños de Cristo house. It was warm and friendly and the impression that I picked up was that this atmosphere was a major part of the “therapy” these young people needed. I know enough to realize this is not the whole story and much more needs to be done educationally, formatively and therapeutically to rebuild lives scarred by family dysfunction. There wasn’t an opportunity to explore these in detail and so I cannot say anything of the long-term impact of Niños de Cristo. With this disclaimer, I have no problem speaking positively about what I saw and experienced.
I also point out that although the government is involved in placing these boys, there is no public funding. All is privately funded with almost all from outside of the Dominican Republic. This is unheard of in the current world of children placed in foster care in the United States. One major plus is more flexibility; one major minus is fewer resources and services.
I must mention that Hogar Niños de Cristo currently thrives because of the generosity of Maestro Cares, Marc Anthony’s foundation, and GOYA Foods. Rafael Toro, VP of PR/Communications/Corporate Giving for GOYA, was our host for this visit; however, he was much more. He demonstrated how much good can be done when financial philanthropy is coupled with dedicated personal involvement. Even before we visited the orphanage, he introduced us to some of the youth he knew by name and who knew him. His involvement is not that of a distant corporate giving officer who just writes checks, but that of a caring fellow human being who wants to better the lives of some young people who need a significant helping and caring hand to live a better future. When we arrived at Niños de Cristo there was an outpouring of affection because he was again with them. Would that more philanthropic endeavors could better emulate these characteristics!
This was another good day rubbing shoulders with good, dedicated people making a positive difference in our world. Our exiting highlight was when Luz and I were asked to place our painted hand prints – hers yellow and mine blue – on the “wall of honor” at the entrance to the home. It was an added bonus that we were able to place our prints very near to those of Phil Dorian, Catholic Charities Agency Relations Director, who visited Niños de Cristo a number of months ago with his family.
Even though I am thousands of miles away, the connecting arm of the Internet makes all too available the barrage of tweets, posts and headlines that continue to demonstrate the ongoing troubles we are experiencing in our country. These can’t and should not be ignored. Yet, a day like today enables one to see our nationwide troubles in the context of a world in which there is also much good to be noted, celebrated and most importantly imitated.
Tomorrow off to Altagracia with Donnie Hodge and his family to a “fair wage and working conditions” factory. We will also visit with the families supported by these jobs.