I have always wanted to do things which make a difference; actions that are worthwhile and meaningful, and cause positive changes in the world.
So, I was extremely excited when I got the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic earlier this year to volunteer in their local communities and make a difference at the same time as exploring a new country!
I – and some other travel bloggers – had a tight schedule, filled with community activities, which we chose from a list, naming those projects we’d like to help in. These activities included making water filters, planting trees, building concrete floors in local houses and teaching kids numbers in English. We also gave an extra helping hand at various women’s cooperatives, where our extra work added up to a whole week of work for them!
After reaching the Dominican Republic, we worked with a non-profit organisation called IDDI, whose primary objective is to contribute to the socioeconomic transformation of individuals, families and communities in the Dominican Republic, as well as in Haiti.
IDDI employs school graduates as facilitators. They already speak great English because they have been exposed to so many English-speaking tourists. However, it is a fantastic opportunity for them to practise their English, earn good money and help their families, as well as fund their further education.
In the few days I spent there, I immersed myself in their culture, heard their stories, and was infected by their contagious laughs and gratitude for life and everything that they have. I left inspired and moved!
We got a little bit of down time too, when I explored the city of Puerto Plata as a tourist. I went snorkelling from a catamaran and enjoyed the beaches with some locals (see more in a video below!)
Women’s Cooperative, Chocal in Altamira.
One of the key causes of poverty in the Dominican Republic is the lack of job prospects for women who have families and who have not been educated. Chocal is an initiative, which was created to empower and support local women by giving them jobs. Chocal is run and operated by those same women who live in the remote village of Altamira, not too far from Puerto Plata.
This factory is set up by non-profit organisations, and, as a result, the local women are able to feed their families, recruit within their families, as well as support the local farmers and a community of 120 families who all grow cocoa in their gardens, to sell off to the chocolate factory.
Part of the help which visitors provide is to spend money in their shop full of produce, which they make in the factory. We also helped by speeding up the process of chocolate making by sorting out the bad cocoa beans from good ones, taking out shells from the nibs and helping to package the already-made chocolate. This was all while trying to get to know them, with the help of our facilitators and their superb translation skills!
Teaching kids English in a primary school!
I was looking forward to this activity the most, as I love kids nearly as much as I love… Click To Tweet
To make this more impactful and less invasive to the kids, we were told to re-cap on the last lesson which the last group of volunteers had taught them, and then move on to the next one: That would ensure their progress, and they would also have the next bunch of volunteers to look forward to.
Sitting on a classroom floor in a circle, I had the cutest little girls; some were shyer than others. There was one who was so bright and I felt stupid teaching her 1-100, as I knew it was too basic for her!
I could really relate to her, as when I first came to England, I was so advanced in my maths lessons, but I didn’t know the language. It was all very frustrating for me.
I could tell she felt like I was patronising her by asking her, “What is 33 in English?” I could just see her rolling her eyes in her head! However, I realised that, by speaking English as a “native”, it would help her with her pronunciation more, and this kind of exchange would benefit them all in the long-term.
I was so impressed by how eager, excited, willing to learn and well-presented they all were! They were all so polished, holding their cute little notepads. At the end of our lesson, we wrote some notes of encouragement in the notepads for them, so that, in the future, they can always look back and remember us.
It was tear jerking to get a hug from them after I had seen their shy personalities warm up to me, and even without us being able to communicate in the same language, smiles and hugs are always heartfelt and universal.
Repapel – Recycling for Profit
This is another women’s cooperative, which works to give more job opportunities within the community, where the same women run the show and they don’t even have a boss!
They get a lot of paper donated to them, recycled from local businesses and the nearby Puerto Plata city, which they then make into stationary, greeting cards, business cards and more.
They were the jolliest, happiest women I have ever met. They were full of spirit and laughter, and they taught us with great care how to do each step of the way as well as make candles, coasters and jewellery. These items are then available for purchase at their shop, and the goods are also sold at nearby fares and to other tourists for profit.
We had a great time and a great boogie with the women who worked there, and, while making coasters, I got chatting to one of our facilitators by the name of Landan. He asked me what I did back in London, and I told him that I am a travel writer, and I get paid to travel the world and write about it. He couldn’t believe that such a job existed and that I didn’t even need to study for it! While I love sharing my story, we got talking about his, and then something very interesting happened .. you will have to watch the video to see what drama we got into from that conversation!
There were so many wonderful things I loved about the Dominican Republic. They do have some of the happiest people on this planet. They are so welcoming and friendly. However, a few things, which also stood out to me were the lack of recycling systems in place, and this is seen throughout the island.
It appears that the locals are not aware of the kind of damage it causes to the environment. Maybe they don’t have any systems in place to really do anything about it, but it is such a shame to pollute such a beautiful island.
As we drove by, we saw big landfills of rubbish throughout the rural parts of the island. As we chilled out on one of the local, not so mainstream beaches outside of Puerto Plata, it was surprising to see so much plastic washed up on the beach, just casually sunbathing alongside us.
I was also surprised to see the legendary-beautiful Dominican women on the beach with abnormally overweight bellies hanging over. I couldn’t understand what could they possibly be eating, while living on a Caribbean island, as they looked more like those unhealthy Americans wobbling off the cruise ships? I was left a bit shocked to find that they eat mainly rice, beans and meat, along with a lot of processed sugar.
Maybe I’m being ignorant, thinking that if you lived on such an island, you would have such a wholesome, organic diet, you would maintain your curves? I guess this is the beauty of travel; you have to accept the world and widen your perspective.