The day began with three generations of the Hodge family, 11 of us, and luggage, crowded into a mini-bus for a two and a half hour trip from La Romana to Villa Altagracia in San Cristobal, located outside of Santo Domingo. The driver had an interesting approach that included driving ten miles in the wrong direction, slowing down on open highways and speeding up in crowded city streets. Oh well.
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 The home is only 4 years old and took the place of a much more crowded and outdated facility.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.
Our generous partner in feeding hungry New Yorkers, GOYA Foods, invited us to tour its plant in the Dominican Republic. This provided an opportunity to see one of their busy factories that employs about 500 people. In addition to seeing the hard working men and women on the floor of the plant we also met the factory administrators. We also saw the finca (land) where gauyabas (guava) are grown.
I was accompanied on the tour by the director of quality control, a chemical engineer, charged with complying with regulations of both the Dominican Republic and the United States. He said most of the product from this factory is shipped to the United States. He also proudly spoke to me of the care that is taken to ensure no contamination enters into the products. And he shared with me the sad reality of the added precautions required to protect against intentional poisoning as a terrorist action.
In partnership with Goya Foods and Maestro Cares, singer Marc Anthony’s non-profit organization that works to improve the quality of life for
orphaned children throughout Latin America, Catholic Charities visits the Dominican Republic to learn more about the children and the work of Maestro Cares. Msgr. Kevin Sullivan illustrates his first day on the island.
Stay tuned throughout the week for more updates from the trip.