Imagine not being able to go to work without worrying whether the nails that hold your house together and the walls themselves would be stolen.
Imagine, worrying every time it rained, whether crabs would float into your house and bite you and your family as your floor turned to mud.
Imagine further, that to get drinkable water and edible food or to go to church, you must climb over 100 ramshackle stairs with no guard rails, marginally better than scrambling over a rocky trail.
Now imagine despite all this, putting on a smile and feeling gratitude for what you have.
This is but a small picture of life “downstairs” along the polluted Rio Ozama in the barrio of Gualey (pronounced wah-lay) in Santo Domingo.
Downstairs: shanties with the river in the background.
It is nearly impossible to witness this without feeling your heart open. It truly made me and the rest of the DR Crew, grateful for what we have.
On our visit, we made it downstairs twice, led by Ryan, our Compassion guide, and Pablo the second in charge of the Gualey church and the Compassion liaison who is revered throughout Gualey by drug gangs and recipients of Compassion’s aid alike. We also had an escort from three civil defense men wearing orange hats, and Melissa, our Compassion rep from the USA.
Normally, we would be very unsafe there, but the church does so much for the community, we were never at risk. We felt quite safe.
Despite our safety, we were cautioned not to bring out cameras or cell phones while downstairs. So we only snapped a few “contraband” pics to share.
We walked by streams whose surface was covered with litter: old rags, bottles, plastic sheets, shoes… you name it. We walked by boys happily playing baseball where the paths widened, with only a stick for a bat and a wad of dirty rags for a ball. We walked by a “cleaner” spring-fed pool about 40 feet in diameter with kids splashing about and playing beside men soaping up for a bath.
One of the polluted streams flowing through the downstairs dwellings
The shanties are backed by a cliff over 50 feet high. This channels the water through their homes in rain and hurricanes. 20 feet up the cliff-side, was a line where debris got caught on the cliff’s jagged edges and vines showcasing the water level of the last hurricane. The civil defense managed to move them up to high ground before it hit, but there homes were wiped out. They just rebuilt and went on.
The cliff that backs the homes
Many of the Compassion sponsored children live downstairs. The Compassion “implementers”, those who work with the sponsored kids and their families, make frequent visits downstairs! I think you get the idea.
For us, it was both heart-wrenching and inspiring. Heart-wrenching to see people having to live in such conditions and trying to imagine what it would be like if we were suddenly transported to this environment. Yet, inspiring to see so many of them smiling, hoping for a better life while feeling grateful for what they have.
Jenny. Is a single mom that we were able to support in a time of crisis. Jenny needed a house.
Her previous house didn’t have running water, a bathroom, a kitchen, or a floor. But that would have been acceptable for her if it wasn’t so close to the water.
You see, being too close to the water meant that when the water rose, crabs would come out of her dirt/mud floor into the bed she shares with her kids, and pinch them. Being close to the water meant she lived in the preferred location for drunken knife fights by rival gangs, leading to sleepless nights of praying that the violence wouldn’t spill into her house.
This family had experience enough of that already, having recently weathered the stormy relationship of an abusive father and husband who left behind a broken family and an HIV infected mother.
We asked her how they protected their possessions in the house. She said that if she didn’t leave someone to watch, even the nails and roofing materials would be taken. Can you imagine coming home and your entire house is stolen….?
The church in Gualay had come alongside Jenny, moved her from her old house into a transition house where she was safe. They made plans to build her a house on solid ground, surrounded by her church family. They did this without knowing where the money would come from.
That’s where we came into the story. Compassion told us about Jenny and we jumped at the opportunity to get involved. We became the answer to Jenny’s prayer.
Here is a picture of Jenny’s new house that will be completed next month.
We got a chance to personally meet Jenny and her family after touring her old neighborhood. This is Jenny’s daughter showing us her prized painting…of a house. It was the only decoration in the house where they were staying. (Look closely in the picture of Jenny and you will see it.)
I say “was” because her daughter insisted that we accept it as a gift. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house during this exchange.
It now hangs at BTI360 HQ, a constant reminder of what an honor it is to serve and the priceless gifts we receive in return.