STITCHING & STIRRING IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
God's plan is not my own! My husband and I have supported several micro-finance groups around the world to help people get loans and start their own small businesses to support their families. I visited one such organization, Esperanza International, several years ago and witnessed a group of women entrepreneurs in a village for their weekly meeting to make loan payments. It was clear that these women were passionate for God, and were supporting their families with their businesses. Most of these women had small stores in their homes selling clothing, food, and toiletries. One woman had chickens and sold the eggs, and another was a teacher in a small school. Last November (years after that first visit), I decided to email Esperanza to ask if they would accept a donation to help women who wanted to start a sewing business.
I have a special appreciation for women who sew, since I operated a sewing business for sixteen years, a long time ago. I received the response very quickly saying they would appreciate my donation, and would like me to come to Dominican Republic to teach a group of women how to sew. My plan was to send a donation, and never had it occurred to me that I would be asked to GO! When I told them I just teach cooking, they asked me to come teach both! After a few emails, the arrangements were made to organize the vocational program in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. I became very excited, and a bit nervous. I speak no Spanish (except important words like taco, queso and burrito), and hadn't taught sewing for years. Esperanza assured me that I would be well taken care of and would be accompanied by a facilitator and interpreter. Many friends offered to help me prepare, and the donations of fabrics, tools, and supplies was so much, I couldn't take it all. Several friends helped cut patterns, make kits, and organize the abundance of donations to pack into three 50 pound suitcases (they were donated too). Once I arrived in Puerto Plata, my assistant (and interpreter) from Esperanza, Allison, and I went to a grocery store to purchase food for the two cooking classes I would be teaching in two different villages. She and the facilitator, Anastacia, a vivacious Dominican woman, took me to Sosua to attend a bank meeting with the women there who had taken small loans to run their various businesses.
The enthusiasm and faithfulness of the these women was overwhelming as they each told me what their businesses were and how much they loved God and the support from Esperanza. I was excited when I was told I would get to cook with them in two days! The next three afternoons were spent in La Vigia, a remote village with many wonderful women who had loans from Esperanza, and qualified to take the sewing classes. There were ten machines with foot pedal function set up in the courtyard outside a woman's house. Twenty-nine women were there, and had been taking sewing lessons from a local sewing teacher for the past two weeks. I was their guest teacher for three days. These woman were passionate and determined! Each day I taught them to make something different, using hand-sewing skills and machine skills. After the course, the machines would travel to another location for other programs, so many of these women would need to learn hand-sewing methods. They each made a creative potholder, a clutch purse, and a tote bag. I had taken many samples of pillow and curtain ideas, and provided folders for each woman with photos of more inspirational ideas to make home decorations. It was sad to leave them the third day, and there were many hugs and encouraging words. Even in Spanish I knew what they were saying with their smiling faces and bright eyes.
The first cooking lesson was in La Piragua, near a river. The bridge to get to the village was impassable, so we had to hire motor bikes to carry the food, pans, tools, and ourselves across the rocky bridge and roads. It was a wonderful adventure! When we arrived at the home of Victoria, she welcomed us into her courtyard and showed me the makeshift stove she uses outside under the thatched roof. Nearly 20 people arrived to attend the cooking lesson where I taught them to make a chickpea salad with chopped vegetables, warm potato salad with vegetables and basil, and Italian lime meatballs. The original recipe calls for lemons, but the Dominicans have never seen a lemon, so I substituted lime, and they were even better! It took a while to form all the meatballs, so the women (and three men) sang songs and clapped. It was incredible! The outdoor stove was made of concrete blocks and metal rods for the grill over a wood fire.
Victoria had large iron pots for cooking, and it was a pleasure to cook the Italian meatballs in the deep round pot, even though the smoke caused me to "cry" the entire time. The women were fanning me with their recipe pages and wiping my face with their scarves. The scraps of vegetables from chopping were saved to give to Victoria's pig. The women were intrigued by the parsley and basil so asked for the stems to put in water so they would take root to grow for themselves! We had a feast, and there was enough food for everyone, including a few children who joined us. For dessert we brought shortbread cookies and spread Nutella on them, topped with a banana slice. After everyone helped clean up we packed the motor bikes and rode back to the van.
The second cooking lesson was back in Sosua in the home of Sonya, a widow and beautiful Christian woman. She told me she was so thankful for Esperanza for giving her a new smile. She had always covered her mouth because she was embarassed of her teeth. Esperanza gave her the opportunity to get a bridge made with new teeth and a beautiful smile. Her business is cooking in her home, so she was prepared for me to cook in her kitchen. Nearly 30 people arrived after we made the same dishes as in the previous day's class. I had a lot of helpers and the gas cooktop made it much easier to cook the meatballs. Knowing there would be more people attending, we had a lot more food, and everyone left with a full stomach and happy faces.
The final night of my journey with Esperanza was especially touching for me. As we were planning for our departure and farewells, I told Allison that I had brought an electric sewing machine with me, thinking I would use it in the sewing classes. Because there was no electricity, I was unable to use it. I told her she could donate it to anyone she thought could use it. She told Anastasia about the machine, and her face lit up. Just that week, a pastor friend of hers had asked her if she knew anyone who might have a sewing machine he could use. He is a tailor and his machine had just broken. He had no way to feed his family, although there was work available. She told him she knew no one, but he should pray. When she heard about my machine, she knew this was the answer. That night she took me to the pastor's house where I gave him the sewing machine. I plugged it in and showed him how to use it. He was delighted and cried with joy. He spoke no English, but in Spanish kept saying, "Now I am a professional!" "God is so good!" What a perfect ending to this experiene of a lifetime. I'm 50 years old, and I've never been on a mission trip. Although I didn't originally set out to travel back to the Dominican Republic, and I never intended to teach sewing or cook over a wood fire, God put me in a perfect position with the help of Esperanza. Dios es bueno todo el tiempo! (God is good all the time!)