I’ve been in the Dominican Republic interning for Esperanza International for a little over two weeks now, and can say without hesitation that my experience so far has been incredible. To clarify, I don’t mean “incredible” in the way that is often used to describe an experience that is all good, all positive, all comfortable, all the time. In my two weeks here, I have made mistakes, miscommunicated, probably paid too much for a taxi, gotten super sunburnt, and taken fairly giant leaps out of my comfort zone. I have also learned things here that I never could have learned in Seattle. I have been welcomed with hospitality, generosity, and kindness into a country and way of life that is very different from my own.
Esperanza International is a Christian microfinance organization that aims to alleviate poverty in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba through small business loans and complementary services such as health screenings and vocational training. Esperanza was founded in 1995 by former Seattle Mariner Dave Valle and his wife Vicky, who, upon seeing immense poverty in the DR, wanted to help and give hope to those suffering the difficulties of living below the poverty line. A more detailed story of how Esperanza was created can be found here.
As an intern, I am working for the communications department. My branch office assignment is in Los Alcarrizos, which is around 30 minutes from Santo Domingo by car (much longer with traffic). As Esperanza is a Christian/evangelical organization, religion is the main focus in every aspect of work. Each Monday morning begins with a two hour devotional, where the staff sings, shares passages from the bible, and discusses Christian teachings before a closing prayer. The rest of the day is spent working in the office or in a staff meeting.
Every Tuesday-Friday morning, I accompany a loan officer to two bank meetings in different communities outside of the city. Each bank meeting is around one hour long, and consists of a prayer, songs of praise, a short teaching from the bible or some sort of lesson about how to conduct business, maintain a healthy lifestyle, etc. The loan officer then collects the payments from the associates, or people who have borrowed money from Esperanza.
At this time I am able to interview usually 2-3 people. I ask them questions (in Spanish, which, understanding Dominican Spanish is still an adjustment for me) about what type of business they have, how they have invested their loans, challenges they have faced, changes they have seen within themselves or their communities, and other questions. Then I get to practice my photography skills and take a few pictures, usually of associates in their businesses or with their families. The rest of the day is spent creating stories from the interviews and working with social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.
I was not really sure what to expect when we visited the first community. Many associates do not have electricity or only have it for a couple of hours a day. Many live in wood houses with tin roofs, dirt floors, and no running water. To be completely honest, I think what surprised me the most was that people in the communities we visit lead normal lives. I don’t know if I had been expecting to encounter people who were unhappy or discouraged or what, but all of the associates I have met are regular, happy people. They laugh at the same jokes, are scared of giant spiders like I am, take pride in their homes, and work hard to provide for themselves and their families.
And just like regular people, sometimes they have difficulties paying back their loans. A Bank of Esperanza is made up of three to eight solidarity groups of five people, so if one member of a solidarity group is unable to pay back her loan at a bimonthly meeting, the other four members of the group must come up with the payment. Waiting for a payment can take several hours, and loan officers cannot leave the community without the full amount. While waiting for payments, we are often in the communities past lunchtime, and associates are always quick to offer us delicious food. It is amazing to me that people with few material resources are so generous with what they have; I feel like I never have the words to fully express my gratitude.
Overall, I am happy with my placement at Esperanza in the Dominican Republic. I’ve learned so much already, and I know I will continue to do so in the next several weeks.