Project Esperanza is a service organization that was started by two Virginia Tech students in the fall of 2005. It sprung out of volunteer trips they had taken to the Dominican Republic with another organization. They had a deep conviction to continue to return, bring along others, and as a group to use their gifts and resources to give all they could to a community in the Dominican Republic.
Throughout the 2005-2006 school year a number of fundraisers were organized to raise money for a summer 2006 trip. These fundraisers served to get people involved in Project Esperanza and to inform the general public of the organization. During the summer of 2006, 31 people volunteered with Project Esperanza in the coastal city of Puerto Plata over a span of two months. Four volunteers stayed the entire time while others came for different amounts of time within that summer. During these two months volunteers worked on several projects.
Unknowingly, one project turned out to be the main focus of the trip and would become a large part of the organization. Volunteers performed a street census to collect information about the lives of the hundreds of young boys that work on the streets selling hard-boiled eggs, sweets, and shining shoes. They found that the majority of the boys come from Haiti and have lived in Puerto Plata for a short while. They cannot attend school in the Dominican Republic and many have attended little or no school in Haiti. Most of the boys have mothers and families in Haiti whom they wish to help support. At an average age of thirteen, the boys are amazingly independent by American standards. Volunteers also met boys as young as six and seven working on the streets. During the street census Project Esperanza volunteers developed relationships with the boys and eventually began a program in which they came over to the volunteers’ house every afternoon for lunch, lessons, and activities. Here is a video from 2006:
At the end of the summer Project Esperanza acquired the lease to the house in Puerto Plata where volunteers could return periodically. Upon returning to Virginia after the trip, enthusiastic volunteers created a board of directors and Project Esperanza became incorporated and started seeking non-profit status. Our next goal was to start writing grant proposals, and we began fundraising efforts to enable the group to find solutions to some of the problems we had seen.
Three Project Esperanza volunteers returned to Puerto Plata for a week in November to prepare the house for a group of volunteers that would come in January, plan future projects with members of the community, and visit with the boys that we had begun working with over the summer. All contents of the volunteer house that had been purchased from funds raised the previous summer had been taken by the previous renter in a dishonest manner. We had raised funds once again to purchase bunk beds, tables, chairs, a stove, a washing machine, and a refridgerator.
Commitment to Education: Grassroots Schools
We met with the leader of a church that had recently begun a small school to benefit the children in their neighborhood, Padre Granero. Haitian children, because of the obstacles of language and citizenship, usually miss the chance of education while their parents are living and working in the Dominican Republic. This church decided to combat that situation by founding their own school that would provide regular learning for their children. The only problem was that they were operating out of a tiny, leaky church building, had no materials or even desks (kids sat in plastic chairs), and the teachers were working without salaries. But they kept at it for several months, leading up to the time when we met the pastor and teachers. At this point we returned to the States and started fundraising to support their school, and since then have been able to provide teacher salaries, chairs, tables, books, school materials, as well as help individual students with enrolling and uniforms. This was the beginning of our grassroots schools program. Since many of the kids we had been working with lived in Padre Granero, we were able to encourage them to go to school.
Commitment to Social Aid: The Boys' Home Forms
In January a group of fifteen volunteers traveled to Puerto Plata in order to gain leadership experence in the area and continue what we had started during the summer of 2006. During this trip we expanded the program we had begun in the summer in which lunch and dinner were provided daily to any kids that needed it. We offered tutoring as well, teaching reading, writing and math to kids that worked on the streets all day and even with the forming of the new Padre Granero school were often hesitant or unable to attend. Tutoring at our house meant they could come when they were able and were not tied to a school schedule that ruled out the possibility of work, their means of survival. As we tutored them we tried to find longer-term solutions for how they could begin attending school. One solution was to work with the Padre Granero school to offer weekend evening classes that eased kids into education while still giving them a chance to work during the week. We also tried to make tutoring practical for the boys by offering a points and rewards system in which a half hour with a tutor would earn 5 points, while an hour would earn 10 points. Kids could then use these points to buy necessities like clothes, shoes, toothpaste, pens and pencils, etc.
During our volunteer trip in January 2007 we met several boys who had been sleeping on the streets, on the beach, or on someone's porch. This particular group of five boys had been sold across the border to work but had eventually broken away from those they were sold to and were consequently living without a home. We provided them a place to sleep for a few nights, and then before returning home for the semester we transformed the previously empty rented house into their new home. Two trusted Haitian friends, agreed to stay with the kids until we returned, and suddenly they had a roof and a chance for school when they had previously spent their days looking for the next place to sleep. Several other boys began to stay in our new home as well.
From this point on, we just continued making every possible effort to meet the needs that were so apparent and pressing in front of us, engaging Americans, Dominicans, Haitians, and other nationalities as well in doing so. We moved quickly, we learned quickly, we fell quickly and we got back up quickly. To read about all that the organization does today, visit the Programs section of the website. You will see that in addition to education and social work, we have engaged significantly in community development efforts as well, as without such development, our other efforts will never be sustainable. Each program has its own history, many of which are recorded on the site. And these histories continue to evolve. If you would like to be a part of all of this, visit the Get Involved section of this site. We are proud of our past and excited for our future. Please join us!