The Dominican Republic: A Love Story
Personal affections, a passion for purpose & mutual adorations are at the heart of the DR experience.
By Katherine Dayton, Director
26 years ago, during the spring of my senior year of college, I landed a summer job that would change the rest of my life. I was offered a leader position with VISIONS in the Dominican Republic. (I had to walk to the campus library to read up on the country, which I knew very little about.)
It was going to be a one-summer job that would hopefully help inform my next steps into adulthood. The program was based in Santo Domingo at the time—a bustling city of the developing world and the largest in the Caribbean. Complete with traffic jams, plenty of trash, honking horns and some not-so-healthy dogs and horses roaming around, it could be an assault on the senses at times.
Local games in the DR
But aside from local kids constantly at play, roosters crowing, and merengue booming, our little neighborhood was relatively quiet. It was dirt roads with potholes that made Santiago, our driver, sweat about the tires and wellbeing of his guagua (Dominican term for bus). “Vamanos, gringos, sube a la guagua,” were his daily instructions to get us loaded up for worksites and outings.
When the Likes Become Love
Lidia and Santos Ramos, Katherine Dayton
During that time of my life, entering the Peace Corps had been a serious consideration, but my work in the DR took the place. I liked being with a group of people working toward common goals and folding into a community that had welcomed us for many years. I also liked working with teenagers, including the Dominican teens who joined us every day at worksites and activities.
The many “likes” grew into a love of the people and experiences. After the first summer, I set up my life where I could return the next… to what became five summers and a bit of a love affair with a place that in many ways was my opposite. I learned to dance merengue and bachata, improved my Spanish (still spoken with a Montanan’s cadence), and created a home away from home and a beloved second family.
The Shake-Up You Needed
I haven’t been the only VISIONS person to do this. Of all our program sites, the DR is where most participants return to visit, keeping in touch with community members who become fast friends. One alum visited with his parents, who ended up donating funds to build a baseball field with dugouts and bleachers in an under-resourced community where we’d previously constructed a school. Another act of affection came from a few alumni who created a nonprofit that put more than 20 kids from some of the poorest neighborhoods through school.
The connections that VISIONS participants and leaders have made in the DR have been some of the most profound I’ve seen. I believe that part of this is because those who attend get a “shake up” they maybe didn’t even realize they needed. What follows is an openness to the vibrant culture, humble surroundings, and sincerity of our local friends.
Day camp “campamento” in the 1990s. And still going strong today!
A couple of these friends are Santos and Lidia Ramos, who have been part of VISIONS DR since our first season, in 1991. Lidia is one of 18 siblings who are all extremely close, and who grew up in the rural countryside of Cotui, our new homebase town since 2021. Santos, who coordinates all of our service projects, is one of 12 children, also all very close. The couple met when she was 19 and he was 22. They have one son, Alberto, who served as our DR program director for more than a decade. Santos and Lidia raise their three grandchildren who live with them in Santo Domingo, while Alberto now works in the U.S.
The True Love Story
The Ramos family is quite remarkable, not only for their accomplishments and service to the many needs of their country, but in the unabashed love and kindness that abounds in their home. To this day, after 50 years of marriage, Santos’ and Lidia’s phone calls with each other are always include terms like, “mi vida” and “mi preciosa.” Their love story has been the foundation for the endless outpouring of amor they have extended to our kids, leaders, and me over the years.
During covid, Lidia, Santos and the kids spent three months homebound in lockdown, with only Santos permitted out for very quick walks to the nearby store. They subscribed to netflix, bought an old stationary bike, kept their good spirits intact, and were grateful for the modest front porch where they could get some fresh air. Although it wasn’t the easiest of times, their appreciation for each other only grew.
I always stay with familia Ramos on my trips to the DR, which means that someone in the family of gets displaced from their room in order to make space for their old friend. It’s a joy to plug into the rhythms of happiness in their home. While visiting this past week, we picked up where we’d left off, forever in a flow of friendship and shared passion for planning impactful projects.
Lidia & Santos, more than 50 years ago.
Lidia & Santos today.
Cotui is Our Next Chapter
This trip was particularly special. Santos and I spent several days in Cotui, and with covid restrictions lifted, we freely spent time with neighbors and visited project sites identified by the community as having high need. Since many of the neighbors are Lidia’s family members, it was a homecoming of sorts. (They are excited for the VISIONS kids to arrive this summer!)
Neighbor girl in our Cotui neighborhood.
School in need of rebuild: an upcoming project.
Leyri Garcia also joined us for the trip. Leyri has now worked as a VISIONS leader for more than five years and is point person on the leader team for cultural activities, the dominoes league, getting our campamento (day camp) established with local kids, and more. (Day camp planning included hiring a young former New York Yankee baseball player and a local teacher to help oversee the camp that VISIONS kids run as part of the service projects.)
Construction projects will take us to work at two primary schools, both of which are filled to capacity and include some classrooms that are cobbled together with scrap metal and wobbly posts. One classroom is above the septic tank, with an odor that often overwhelms the ability to properly teach or learn. Another is regularly overtaken by rainstorms since there aren’t any walls. The chalkboard sits on a couple little chairs a couple feet above the ground.
This summer, VISIONS kids will build new, sturdy classrooms out of cinderblock and mortar. They will be joined at the worksites each day by members of the community, who will be there to help mix cement, lay blocks, teach, laugh and form new friendships. No doubt there will be another season of sincere and lasting connections!
3500 Kids & Counting
Cotui is different than the DR I spent so much time in during my 20s. More laid back and far less populated than Santo Domingo, it is quieter and has more natural areas, farms, plantations and rice fields. At the same time, the town center bustles with the common sights and sounds of the DR, including a large outdoor market. Our new homebase is a wonderful representation of the breadth of Dominican life that I have come to adore.
It will also be a place where we will continue—and expand upon—our project focus in the DR. With our local partner, the Lions Club, VISIONS has focused on the construction of schools over the years. We’ve also built many homes, a medical center, several community centers, playgrounds and more, but perhaps the biggest impact has been with schools.
The Lions Club does the legwork to ensure that the schools will be accredited and fully staffed, and tuition from our programs goes toward the building materials and professional laborers, In total, more than 3500 Dominican kids attend class every year because of the schools that VISIONS students have built with our local hosts. The vast majority of these kids otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend school because they live in poor areas where there either aren’t any schools or schools are filled to capacity.
You Can Experience This, Too
If you would like to know more about this exceptional program and how you might be able to help with impactful projects in Cotui, I’d love to talk with you! Our summer program is what I recommend for high school teenagers.
The DR is also a terrific location for custom programs for groups of friends, families, and school clubs. Those trips are year-round—just choose your dates and we will let you know what projects can be completed during your timeframe.
And if you can’t participate but would like to support our partners on important projects that make a true difference in people’s lives, then consider a donation through VISIONS Foundation, where 100% of your funds earmarked for the DR will go towards projects.
Teaching English classes
Check out the DR!
Check it out:
VISIONS Featured In The New York Times!