A Hand Up
Helping Children in the Dominican Republic
By David Napier
A young Dominican tailor named Joselin Asuncion ushers his ailing friend, Padre Juan Roberto Smith, along the walkway outside a garment factory in Santo Domingo's industrial west end. As the pair inch their way along, the loud ring of a bell is followed by an outpouring of employees seeking respite from hard work and the heat of the factory floor. The juxtaposition created when the workers shuffle past the tailor is telling of the work done by the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society in this impoverished island-state. It is a simplification, but not an exaggeration, to say that Joselin has become a tailor rather than a factory worker thanks in large part to the efforts of Padre Juan, also known as Scarboro missionary Fr. "Buddy" Smith.
Many lives took a turn for the better when Scarboro missionaries arrived in the coastal town of Bani. It was then that handsome Joselin and four of his friends stopped "borrowing" cars for late-night joyrides and started hiking through nearby mountains with their new pastor. The excursions taught the pranksters a quintet that fancied the moniker "The Santa Mafia" that "adventure" and "legal" were not mutually exclusive.
These days, Joselin is propping up Fr. Smith, but the 63-year-old padre from Nova Scotia still manages to open doors for his friends, including this needle-wielding Dominican. Today it's a trip to the factory to introduce Joselin to the owner in the hope that some freelance work might result.
After a walk through the stifling midday heat that covered only 30 yards but took 15 minutes to walk, Fr. Smith eases into the passenger seat of a waiting pickup truck. Joselin shows no signs of impatience as he closes the door for the man whose body is deteriorating but whose mind remains as bright and clear as the Caribbean sky. "He's taken care of so many people for so long, now it's our turn to take care of him".
As we motor back through the bustling streets of the capital, Fr. Smith turns the conversation to politics. Joselin (who has recently enrolled in political science courses at the local university) reflects on how the country's new government, headed by President Leonel Fernandez and his PLD (Dominican Liberation Party) has affected the lives of children, but concludes that it's too early to make any predictions. Then, mindful of the breaks in life that he has received, the tailor adds, "Young people in this country need opportunities".
An understatement indeed, given that in this country of 7.5 million people, 44 percent of the population lives in what UNICEF terms "absolute poverty".
But even amidst the rough-hewn beauty of Bani, where it has been years since Fr. Smith worked, opportunity still knocks for some of the kids. Thanks to the efforts of women like Sr. Catherine McGowan. The diminutive grey-haired Sister of Charity from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, runs a pair of well-attended daycare centres the Jardin de los Ninos, and Centre Elisabeth Seton which are welcome additions to the town's dusty, shack-lined landscape.
As Sr. McGowan conducts a tour of her "Jardin", she recounts what that young attendee said when asked what he liked most about school: "Eating and brushing my teeth". That nutrition and hygiene are the most valued aspects of this humble education system indicates how little material wealth these children have. Sr. McGowan explains that those kids who don't attend school (either public, private, or one of her pseudo-private operations which costs parents 20 pesos, approximately CDN$2.00 a day) "would just be in the street". Mean streets. "Not like anything you see in Canada," she says. A tour through the local barrio reveals that she is right. Not even Toronto would allow its welfare kids to swim in the same water where clothes are washed and garbage floats.
In a country where only 45 percent of those in rural areas have access to safe water, the only way to pluck children from a filthy roadside stream is with a lure fashioned out of education (carried out by locally born and trained teachers) and a plate of rice and beans. Sr. McGowan offers both thank God she's not the only one.
I realize the extent and breadth of the missionary work on the eastern half of Hispaniola when I'm spit from a bus onto the main street of San Jose de Ocoa. Directly in front of this rumpled traveller lies the open gates of the Padre Arturo MacKinnon Centre. Here, nestled among the lush green mountains that Fr. Smith and his young charges once hiked, some of the area's poorest children are taught the three "R"s as well as woodworking, jewelry-making, pottery and other vocational subjects. The Centre was the dream of its namesake (Scarboro missionary Fr. Art MacKinnon was murdered in 1965 when he protested the military's arrest of several of the youth of his parish in Monte Plata), and consists of a gravel compound surrounded by modest buildings of various sizes, shapes and colours. (These structures were erected by the town's patriarch, Padre Luis Quinn. This energetic Scarboro missionary has had his hand in helping to build many things in Ocoa roads, canals, buildings and has recently started to build a larger concrete facility to replace the existing wooden ones at the Centre.)
A first-time visitor to the Centre might think they arrive here unnoticed. But those who look closely will see Sr. Mary Jo Mazzerolle seated in her office keeping a hawk-like watch on her school, her children.
Shortly after the 77 year old member of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph has welcomed me, she explains that, "We've graduated children who've gone on to become doctors, lawyers and nurses". But as a stream of brown faces atop yellow shirts file across the yard, it becomes clear that while medicos, abogados and enfermas might be alumni, these are the children of whom she is most proud. "They are the poorest of the poor," she says of the pre-teens as they stride through the Centre en route to a formal education and a chance at gaining admittance into the public school system (provided they pass the fourth and final level offered at the school).
A glimpse inside the two classrooms where the "poorest of the poor" study reveals wooden desks scattered about a cement floor, and light bulbs that hang bare and unlit. This is education-on-a-shoestring: the Centre gets no government grants; its main source of funding comes from padrinos, generous souls who pledge to help the school/workshops and 31 satellite operations in nearby pueblos, or small towns. How could an operation survive 31 years like this? As quickly as the question is posed, the New Brunswick-born nun who has run the school since it opened in 1965 points to her desk where an aged black-and-white photograph is illuminated by a small candle. "When I don't have anything, he helps us," she says, referring to the handsome man with the crew-cut hair and black-rimmed glasses. The image, of course, is that of Padre Arturo MacKinnon.
The enduring legacy of this martyred priest and the work of his many successors in the Dominican Republic underscores the fact that although people die, dreams endure.