"Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me -- you did it to me.'" Matthew 25:40
Let me introduce you to Willie, a 10-year-old boy from Batey 50, the poorest village the Connecticut-based Dominican Republic Mission Team helps. Willie is a happy, smart, kind and beautiful boy, who cannot wait for his American friends to arrive each morning so he can run up and hug us. The problem is Willie is almost at the age when he will no longer be able to go to school, no longer be able play with his friends in the afternoon, no longer be there when the old school bus arrives with his friends from Connecticut. His future in the next year or two is to start heading out into the sugar cane fields with his machete at 6 am every morning to cut cane, as his father and so many others from the village need to do to barely survive.
First, it is important to understand the batey, a village of Haitian sugar cane cutters living in deep and unrelenting poverty in the Dominican Republic. It is a contrast as stark and vast as any on earth. As you leave the cities and resorts of the DR, you drive through endless fields of majestic sugar cane set in plains and valleys, surrounded by stunningly beautiful mountains. Views that can literally take your breath away with their beauty. Turn around from staring at the sun-soaked sugar cane and palm trees and you have your breath knocked out of you by abject, grinding poverty -- a Haitian sugar cane village of shacks, dirt roads, and shoeless and naked children.
Willie's family is typical of life in a Dominican batey -- his father works from dawn to dusk, six days a week, cutting sugar cane by hand with a worn machete. For all of his toil and sweat, he may make $5 per day as he is paid by the weight of the cane he has cut. Willie has four brothers and sisters, all tended to by their hardworking mom, who spends her day cooking over an open fire whatever is available for her family to eat. She works continually tidying up her shack (dirt floor and all). Their home is provided for them by the owners of the sugar cane plantation, as long as the cane cutter remains healthy and productive in the fields. "Home" is probably a term that most would not use for the family's dwelling place, and even shack is generous. It is an eight-foot-by-ten-foot structure of scrap pieces of wood -- nailed gingerly to the supporting "beams," which actually are just branches and sticks. The roof is a combination of scraps of metal, banana tree leaves, and random pieces of trash that have been tossed up there to try and keep the rain out.
It is almost surreal that our DR Mission Team based in Wallingford, Conn. has such a deep and profound connection to so many kids like Willie and the people of Batey 50. How did these middle-class, suburban Americans end up in the middle of a sugar cane village of Haitians deep in the mountains of the Dominican Republic? How did Batey 50 become one of our favorite places on earth -- a place where we feel most fulfilled, complete, happy, and alive? The bottom line is that we want to help Willie, his family, and the rest of this village -- to build them safe, secure houses for families to live in, to provide children and adults with nutrition and health care so they can be healthy and strong, and to give the young people the opportunity to go to school and have a future other than the brutal sugar cane fields.
Close to one hundred volunteers from Connecticut will arrive in the DR in late June to continue this work in Batey 50 and with many other intensely poor bateyes and barrios. It is a great privilege and gift from the Lord to be able to help those in great need like Willie, and it is with wonderful anticipation and excitement that we look forward to this new adventure.
Follow John J. Powers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drmissionteam