Fundacion Mahatma Gandhi

May 21, 2009

I just returned from an amazing week in the Dominican Republic supporting a Montana State Honors course on global poverty developed by my dear friend Lori Lawson. Along with sixteen students, we learned about micro lending, visited a batey (sugar plantation community) where poverty can be most harsh and also landed for a few fascinating days in Las Terrenas.

Children painting homes with MSU Students

Returning to people who play well, I want to introduce you to José Bourget and Annette Snyder. José and Annette live in a growing northern DR beach town. Once a small fishing village, Las Terrenas suffers from rising prices with grand homes of wealthy French, Germans and Dominicans along with striking poverty. Creeks run beside palm- and rusted metal-constructed shacks with no plumbing or visible latrines. Children run shoeless and often in only worn underwear or simply a torn t-shirt through mud and the creek water used for bathing, washing of pots and probably too much more to be safe. Meanwhile, the local, ex-patriot and surrounding church communities are not nearly as volunteer minded as we might assume.

When José decided to return to the Dominican Republic after living in the US for twenty plus years where he worked as a professor at the University of Maryland, he and Annette wanted to help alleviate suffering. So they founded a library with their own two young children in tow.

Why a library? What of the open-air dump with garbage piled twenty feet high picked over by birds and enterprising people upstream? What of the rising numbers in prostitution, including parents renting their children to foreign sex tourists? Or perhaps the endemic issue that although public school is free, to attend a child must have shoes, a uniform and supplies, something often beyond a poor parent’s grasp?

Anacaona Library

“The number one fact that keeps a person in dire poverty is illiteracy,” José explained, “We see that children with no support at home or unable to start school until 7 or 8 are often unable to keep up and drop out of school by age 10. Illiterate, they then are unable to get but the simplest of jobs and many times this is in prostitution. Teenagers become pregnant and the cycle continues.” Annette added,  “There is so much that can be tackled, but if we can provide a place for children to come in the afternoons where there is help with homework and books to read, that is a place to start.”

Visiting them this week I was struck by a number of ways that Annette and José are playing well. Although community needs are overwhelming, they seem to know how to balance vision with sustainability. To help, they must be able to provide support over the long haul. I was impressed by how they focused on first assuring that the library and an after school program are nurtured even though they have hopes to provide support to women wanting move out of prostitution and to address some of the great sanitation issues. They model “Dream, yet make sure you will be able to deliver.” 

Lunch with Jose and Annette

Also, watching from a leadership standpoint, I believe their ability to encourage volunteers has greatly contributed to their success.  Since the local community does not embrace an attitude of volunteerism, Annette and Jose rely on foreign volunteers who come to work for one month to one year. If you have time, expertise and interest, Annette and José will engage your ideas on how to bring these to the community. For example, two young women visited for three months, bringing with them a self esteem/empowerment program for 15 teenaged girls they had developed. Others teach painting or beading after the children have completed their homework. The couple’s openness to new approaches to support their mission allows their team to tackle more. 

From Annette and José I will take away the practice of balance — Keep looking where I can help while determining what I can sustain. Hold a clear vision while being open to receiving novel support from a greater community.  Nurture well not only your own children (something they are doing in spades), but also those of your community. Serve, but don’t forget to spend time enjoying your surroundings as we did at lunch in El Lemon (Annette is wearing the lime green shirt, Lori is next to her and José sits across!).  

Meanwhile, the Anacaona library’s Spanish children’s book section is extremely well worn and very small. They have set a goal of 10,000 books by 2010 (they now have about 5000 in a variety of languages.). To help the library meet its goal, donate or volunteer please visit

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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