I’ve always thought of myself as a generous person, but I never felt like my generosity made a true impact on society. My issue was determining who should be the recipient of my time and donations.
Do I give back to the local homeless shelter or to the guy on the curb? Living in Seattle, I see homelessness at every turn, so this is an ever-present question in my mind. Although I’ve volunteered at various places throughout my lifetime, I still did not feel like I was reaching my full potential in regards to giving back to others.
Then, my life changed in a very unexpected, yet amazing, way. I decided to go on a trip with my uncle, Antonio Stinson, Sr., to the Dominican Republic to work with a local charity called Fundaciόn Centro Cultural Guanin, Inc.
Guanin was created to “provide a safe and supportive environment where youth can experience new opportunities, overcome barriers, build positive relationships, and develop confidence and skills for life in the Dominican-Haitian Community.”
When my uncle first started working with Guanin, I was busy graduating college, getting a job, moving to Seattle, and just generally becoming an adult in America. I figured I would have plenty of time to get involved. Unfortunately, I let four years pass by before letting my uncle know of my intentions to join him someday. I waited until I was comfortable with my life in terms of having a successful career and place to call home. I regret waiting; however, I hope to make up for this one day.
Now that I finally had the chance to visit Guanin, I thought to myself, “This is perfect. I have a direct path to get more intimately involved with something bigger.”
Let’s fast forward to November 2017... we’re flying out! Though I had seen pictures and heard my uncle’s personal testimony, nothing could have prepared me for how much this trip would change my life and overall perspective. I was truly in awe at the familial atmosphere that I felt from the time I landed until the time I returned home.
Upon arriving at Las Américas International Airport, I spotted a very tall man who immediately embraced my uncle. This man was Elias Severino Hernandez (commonly referred to as Seve), President and Founder of Guanin. To my surprise, he also greeted me with a huge hug. It was like seeing a cousin again for the first time in a long time.
Over the next few days, we met Seve’s immediate and extended family. Each person embraced my uncle and called him by name. I could feel my uncle’s excitement as he introduced me as his nephew. These introductions could not have felt any more welcoming, as I really felt like I was reconnecting with my own family.
I quickly realized that the welcoming I had received was very common and that all volunteers
would be welcomed with the same loving embrace. Shortly after our arrival, a group of girls from Germany, who had been volunteering at Guanin for two months already, returned from their weekend trip away. Before I knew it, we were all celebrating their return by dancing in the front porch to music amplified by car speakers since the power had been out. I soon realized that the only thing that mattered to these people was the love and interactions they had with others.
The next morning, we traveled to Guanin with the other volunteers and met the staff members. We were greeted in similar style as the night before- hugs, more hugs, tons of laughter, and that warm family feeling.
Soon after our introductions, the bus rolled in with all of the kids. I couldn’t help but get in line with the other volunteers and start high-fiving and hugging kids I had never even met. I introduced myself as best I could in Spanish and appreciated the patience of the young kids adapting to my lackluster attempt to communicate with them.
In just these first few days, I realized this was bigger than giving back. This was about a family that had come together as a community around Seve and Guanin. As a football player all my life, I relate this sense of community to a big football team where everyone comes together to win. The positive emotions and perseverance despite adversity is something you have to see to believe.
The term “adversity” makes light of Guanin’s situation. In actuality, it’s more dire than that. The community of La Piedra, where Guanin is located, has some very specific hurdles to overcome. La Piedra is an extremely remote location with no paved roads and no industrious buildings. Unfortunately, the community is so close to the capital city of Santo Domingo yet so far away. The roads are very rugged and peppered with sharp, rigid limestone which mimics the bottom of the ocean. This type of terrain makes building on the earth very difficult.
As you drive, or walk as many do, you will see makeshift tin homes scattered across a deep-wooded jungle. You’ll see people sitting outside their homes staring at passing vehicles, or doing laundry from a bucket with very little water, or maybe even cooking over the wood-fire stove. These people are doing very people-like things; however, are they really considered people in the eyes of the law?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. The majority of people living in La Piedra are of Haitian descent. They may have lived in the Dominican Republic their entire lives, but they are not treated as Dominican citizens. Instead, a recent law stripped them of their basic rights. They have no address, identification, or birth certificate, which means they aren’t able to vote in any elections.
With that being said, assistance from local government is sparse. Seve had been trying to get support from the community and government officials since Guanin’s inception; however, he received very little help. Sadly, many politicians will not help if they aren’t guaranteed votes. I witnessed this firsthand.
After a heart-warming segment on El Nuevo Diario, a local news station, Seve, my uncle, and I were able to speak with a politician on the exact issues we just presented live on TV. We were so thankful that this could be broadcasted to the people. We wanted to stir up sentiment and increase government involvement at Guanin.
The politician seemed genuinely concerned about the state of things at Guanin. When we started to reach the end of the conversation, the politician asked how many votes he could receive. Seve said that he could easily get the community to vote for a candidate who aided the foundation; however, with only about 25% of the population (1,000 residents) even able to vote, the politician said there wasn’t much he could do to help. He did, however, set up a meeting between us and the president of food services that same day.
Interestingly, Seve had been trying to set up a meeting with this politician and with food services for over a year with no luck. The only reason he was able to meet with them this time was because we, citizens of the United States, were with him and because he had volunteers helping from various countries.
As we headed over to food services, we all were very excited. We hoped we’d return to the foundation with great news about both getting the word out on TV and having a potential source of food. Unfortunately, this was not the case. As soon as we arrived, Seve was dismissed as not actually having a meeting, despite the politician calling ahead of our arrival. Seve, by our standards, would be considered “working class.” Without a notable last name or title, he had difficulty with being acknowledged.
He was able to explain that we had volunteers from both Germany and Sweden along with American representatives with him and that we were instructed to meet with the president of food services. After about 45 minutes, we finally got to sit down with someone who was willing to hear us out. As we talked and explained to her the situation, she remained completely stoic, unfazed, and unimpressed with the plight of the people we were representing.
She informed us that all services were to be stalled until they had the resources to assess and qualify every program/foundation that needed help. She explained that there were many groups that took services, food, and money but did not have legitimate causes or foundations. She continued, detailing how they did not presently have the resources to review each and every group that requested aid and to try back in January. The disappointment on everyone’s faces was tough to stomach.
In addition to very little government assistance, most of the residents are illiterate, which makes it tough to earn a living and to participate in society. Thankfully, Guanin’s slogan states that “education is the key to progress and success.” The foundation realizes that giving these people the tools to make their own way is the key to change.
In spite of the shortcomings, I was still able to see the hope that Fundaciόn Centro Cultural Guanin, Inc. provided for the people of La Piedra. Before going home, I asked Seve how I could best motivate others to give back to this community. He responded by saying, “Simply ask them to come visit and to see what we are doing.” This is absolutely true, and I hope that I can facilitate as many visits, donations, and volunteer opportunities as possible.
I believe that the family and community aspect is so strong within this community. Anyone will feel like “part of the family.” Additionally, the fact that selfless volunteers are coming from around the world is huge. These volunteers are usually young people with energy and spunk to spare- bringing in a multitude of perspectives, skills, and talents to help Guanin grow, develop, and become self-sustaining.
I am also amazed by what Seve has done for the community. In 2000, a playground, nursery, classrooms, and computers were all just a dream. Now, all of these things are a reality, and even more dreams are on the horizon. His effort, organizational skills, contributions, and positive attitude are just some of the things that have propelled Guanin forward.
I truly believe everyone involved, myself included, can follow Seve’s lead and make anything come to fruition. I hope my account of this experience inspires at least one person to visit Guanin. I will be returning in January 2018, and I’m willing to take anyone else with me! If you would like to visit another time, please reach out to Seve, as there are endless options for dates and accommodations to fit anyone’s specific needs.
You can also donate at www.guanin.org and even sponsor a specific endeavor, such as the playground, daycare, or the much-needed community road project.
Feel free to contact me directly at Ishmael.Stinson@outlook.com if you want to talk more about my unique experience or if you have any questions. God bless.