BOCA CHICA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC -- Boca Chica is a has-been of a resort town along the crystal blue Caribbean. It is a place of worn-out luxury, where prostitutes ply their trade openly and children of poverty, often undocumented Haitians, are easy targets for drug runners and sex traffickers.
A short drive east of the capital city of Santo Domingo, it is also a place of remarkable transformation. Not far from the beach, a compound of buildings called Caminante, which means “one who walks the path,” offers youth a different future. On one day in late October, an industrial-type kitchen in that compound was rich with the aroma of just-baked pizza and bread as more than a dozen students gathered around the finished products.
The kitchen is one of several vocation-training programs that have grown up as part of the effort begun in 1994 by Denise Pichardo Rodriguez. She’s regularly referred to as “sister,” but she’s not a vowed religious. She’s a member of the secular institute of Our Lady Full of Grace, an order founded by a Spanish Jesuit priest that emphasizes Ignatian spirituality.
She came to Boca Chica from an area to the north, where she was working with banana workers. She arrived in 1993 for Church World Service, a cooperative ministry of 36 Christian denominations and communions headquartered in the United States, who asked her to do a study of the problems of children in this area of the Dominican Republic. She completed the study and made some recommendations and was then asked if she’d like to put them into practice.
The beginning of her work coincided with a 1994 law that went into effect dealing with the rights of children. Asserting those rights, however, was often a difficult case to make. Police at first were less than sympathetic, she recalled, accusing her of defending “poorly raised children,” who were “the problem.” In reality, she said, the problem was tourists looking for sex.
The problem became acute when sugar plantations in the area began to close down and there were few opportunities for unemployed sugar workers. The sex trade became the new boon and often the victims of sexual exploitation were children.
So Pichardo began with education, explaining to vulnerable youth, especially young women, how to protect their bodies; how to know what is abusive; how to discern between good and bad tourists.
At the same time she was building a network of community leaders -- priests, teachers, business and political leaders -- to elevate awareness, while conducting workshops for hotel workers regarding gender abuse. “It was sort of our community watch,” she said during an explanation of the program.
Francisco Del Roasario Sanchez is a 16-year-old high school student who’s been involved in the programs at Caminante for eight years, from the time mentors at the program approached him while he was shining shoes, a common entry-level job for poor kids on the ladder of catering to tourists and beach patrons.
The center helped him with shoes and clothes, books and a daily lunch.
Walking along the beach, he’s flagged by a couple of tourists he’s come to know. They’ve asked him to change money for them and to make small purchases, all innocent. But he and a mentor pick out the locals who use kids to deliver drugs from point to point.
He stopped for a cold drink at Sonny’s Restaurant. Sonny -- he’s now married with three children and not at the restaurant this morning -- is a Caminante success story. He began like so many, shining shoes, but he worked his way up through the restaurant business, thanks to courses offered at Caminante, and saved enough to purchase his own small establishment by the beach.
The center also runs interference with the schools for many of the Haitian children to keep them in the classroom while they work to get an identity card and papers from Haiti.
While the classes to train young people in skills necessary for working in restaurants or nail salons or in technology, and the internship programs at local businesses are the most obvious results of Caminante, they are secondary to the first step -- what Pichardo calls “human formation.”
“Everything begins with human formation,” she said. In many ways, the fundamental work is changing the children’s image of themselves, often as poor outsiders who are discriminated against by the larger culture. So just as important to a student as learning to bake or to do tourists’ nails is learning that he or she has basic dignity and worth, said Pichardo.
(Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)