Visiting Santiago Vecinos

Santiago    Meetings with the staff are important god knows, and we had lots of those on tap, but when the bell rang to jump in the van to go tour the neighborhoods with the members and get a feel on the ground for the work of ACORN Dominican Republic in Santiago, we were are raring and ready to go.
    Katia Soriano, the DR Head Organizer, and her staff took us to the first area not that far from where we were staying.  The big issue originally had been the wastes and smells coming from a industrial food processing company that dominated the area.  We were meeting on the 2nd floor patio of one of the members, and even a kilometer or more away, we could still smell the plant.  They told us the cleanup had been effective, but there was still engagement with the company on pollution and smell reduction.
    The group had grown so fast in the last year since its founding that there were several “sections” that met and acted on various issues.  Each section consisted of two long blocks with about 70 dues paying, family members in each one.  In one of the other sections we visited the school where the organization had also managed to mount a campaign to force garbage collection partly spurred by finding rat bites on some of the children that were emanating from the dump area.  We all walked among the receptacles now and could see the progress for ourselves.  The third section was a work in progress.  There had been a victory when the group forced the Mayor and the head of public works to come into the neighborhood and deliver sanitation.  We looked at a small stream that had become — and still was — a dumping ground that would need a more aggressive program.  
      In another vecinos the group had won an expansion of electricity service to 18 hours a day from the 12 previously.  Power outages and shortages are epidemic in the Dominican Republic.  In my first visit to Santiago many years ago with Maria Polanco, Marisol, and Brother Hamilton, we had eaten breakfast with Maria’s family here and had left before 9 AM with the lights still not on.
     There are two Club ACORNs in Santiago.  The first meets in a large community center and because of the high unemployment of women has become as popular with the mothers of the neighborhood as the children.  They had arts and crafts that they had made on display and on sale to supplement inadequate incomes.  I bought a beautiful piece of art that that was done on plantain leaves.   Indescribable!
    Our final stop was up a dirt road (paving this road is a high priority for the group!) where a crowd of children and the director of Club ACORN waited for us with a lot of parents in the neighborhood.  They had painted a huge welcome for ACORN International on the wall above the blackboard.  We were all seated up front.  They showed us a video of the Club.  We heard some of the children speak about what Club ACORN meant to them.  We toured the property and heard about the success of their fundraising efforts to buy the property where the Club is located (only another $4000 USD and it’s theirs).  
       Some of the guys in the neighborhood then came in to play home fashioned instruments and the beat was on.  The mujeras wanted to dance, and the next thing we knew we were all dancing!  We weren’t just dancing though we were being swept along in the fast moving, hip popping meringue.  There was nothing subtle about any of this.  If you were near the dance floor, one woman after another would pull you into the dancing.  Next thing you knew a woman a foot shorter was twirling you around, and you had to either learn how it worked or find your gringo ass falling on the floor!  An hour later we were all — men and women of the ACORN International delegation — drenched with sweat, grinning like kids, and happy and exhausted as we climbed back on the van to head back down the hill.
ACORN International in Santiago more than rocks!
    

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Reunion

Santiago    I flew into Puerto Plata, an airport and tourist destination on the northern part of the island of the Dominican Republic.  This made sense because I was going to rendezvous with the ACORN Canada staff and fly out with them on Sunday to Toronto and take advantage of cheaper tickets.  It had been a weird day of starts and stops beginning with a 3 am wakeup at home, a 6 am flight to Miami, a missed meeting outside of the MIA due to a “plumbing emergency,” a six hour wait in the new international airport, and an hour late arrival in the DR.  Once there, everything seemed easier, and it was.
    Katia Soriano, the head organizer of ACORN Dominican Republic, was standing with a couple of her leaders and staff along with everyone from Canada at the end of the airport breezeway.  I felt badly that they had been waiting, but talking to Judy Duncan later, it turned out that they were so happy to be basking in the warm sun and light island breeze, that they were in heaven.
    We embarked with the slow footed van, piled down with all of us, over the mountains to Santiago.  Leaving the airport the sign said 46 kilometers, but with one thing and another on this picturesque trip, it was a 2-hour journey.  About a half-hour in, Katia pulled us over with the cry of “cervezas,” and there we were tilting a cool, Presidente as we enjoyed the conversation and countryside driving through the palms, sugarcane, and small roadside houses and stores of the DR.
    I listened to James Wardlaw tell me about the work in opening the new ACORN Canada office in Hamilton, and the recent layoff of steelworkers there in this old industrial city of the north.  The work was finally coming together, James reported.  
    It was good to see Ercilia Sahores and Rosie from Buenos Aires and hear about the unique and innovative fundraising they have been doing with their volunteers that is now raising a third of their total budget.   Real progress and much needed!
    Near me when we finally were sitting with everyone on the patio with a nice breeze and getting to eat in the dark, Jill O’Reilly, the head organizer in Ottawa, said guilelessly how much she was excited and looking forward to this meeting of everyone.
    Me, too!

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