The story behind “Towards the Light”

The history of our charity work in Punta Cana, DR

In November of 2012, as new retirees, my husband and I flew to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic for a ten-day vacation. During that time, one of our outings was to visit many public schools and see if and how we could be of any assistance to teachers or students. Very quickly, we found ourselves in the orbit of UNICEF, the agency that was delighted to have us on board.

At first glance, a visit to several schools indicated that the students were eager to welcome newcomers.

The books opened in front of them were well worn; many shelves were devoid of textbooks, notebooks, library books, and resources, but they were neatly dressed wearing uniforms. The students and their eager faces very quickly took us. So, UNICEF assigned us our first school, Las dos Jardas de Veron Escuela Primera. It was an inter-city school in an impoverished neighbourhood of Bavaro.

We got to work!

The school housed two hundred students from Kindergarten to Grade eleven. It was a four-room low structure where the teacher-student ratio was forty-four to one. Students attended in shifts six days a week with the younger ones in the morning until 11;30; Grades 5-8 from 12 noon to 3:00 pm; and high school-aged students from 4:00-8:00 pm. Six teachers at the school worked shifts, and one teacher from this group was the principal and the teacher at the same time. The salary of one of these teachers was $200.00 US per month.  

In 2013, we donated funds to build a high concrete wall around the school for the safety of students and staff during the day and deter vandalism by night. This wall was the most urgent need of the school at the time.

Later we donated funds again to re-surface the basketball court, to buy ten new basketballs and to buy and assemble playground equipment for the younger students.

We needed to improve the washrooms and the outdoor sinks for better access to clean water. So, the following year UNICEF allocated our donation to build an outdoor lunchroom and lounge area for both students and staff, and it was also used for small, guided reading groups. This was a coveted area that all students and staff truly enjoyed. During the physical improvements in the school, we worked with a team from UNICEF, who planned and organized the advances while we oversaw the allocation of the funds.

To raise the money we used so far for Las dos Jardas, I organized two events in my community, mainly for friends and acquaintances who were primarily teachers. At the end of the fundraiser, we matched the dollar value to what we raised.

Once our team improved the environment for the students and staff, we turned our attention to school supplies, and our donations were in the form of consumables. Again, the response from many different companies was encouraging and overwhelming. Staples, Walmart, Canadian Shoe Company, Sport Chek, The Dollar Tree and Canadian Tire were a few who donated at a deep discount.

Our supply-run soon became Humanitarian Aid. West Jet offered free shipping to Punta Cana of all our packaged boxes.  We labelled them as such, so customs never bothered us, except when we had 200 pairs of children’s shoes, and the boxes were labelled “Zapatos.”  Shoes must be new, never worn before and cannot be for retail on the island. So, this time customs checked our boxes.

We took the shoes because while the government supplies free uniforms for each student, they do not provide shoes. The parents are responsible for buying the children’s shoes, and as many cannot afford them, some of the children came barefoot. As we were distributing the shoes, one incident stands out in my mind. A grade 4 student went to the back of the room to speak to me quietly. She asked me if she could return her shoes in exchange for two much smaller sizes for her two younger brothers. It took my breath away, and it also illustrated to us how needy the community was and how grateful the students were. And that has not changed through the years.

UNICEF decided that Las dos Jardas was standing on its own just before the pandemic and the need was less, so we were assigned to another school, Juanillo Escuela Primera. This school has 1200 students. Unfortunately, it is located in the outskirts of Bavaro and is extremely poor.

We look forward to supporting this school, perhaps as early as November 2021.

All the donations from my book, Towards the Light, will be used to meet the needs of Juanillo. We don’t intend to stop in our mission until we make a difference in as many schools as possible.

Thank you for your support, and I promise we will put your donation to excellent use.

Éva H.

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