Peter & Vanessa’s Dominican Republic Trip

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First, a little background about why we are making this trip.

Several years ago, a mutual friend introduced Francisco to José Santana. As Ambassador to the President of the Dominican Republic and Executive Director of the International Advisory Commission of Science and Technology (CIACT), José oversees a wide variety of projects, including Uno a Uno, which works to fight poverty by providing young people with educational opportunities. In the course of many conversations, Francisco and Jose came up with the idea of inspiring the Dominican Republic to create a diverse chorus that would bring children of varied backgrounds together, as YPC does in New York City.

The upcoming YPC concert in Santo Domingo, in addition to being an unforgettable experience for YPC choristers, will provide inspiration for theUno a Uno program by demonstrating the artistic excellence that a young people’s chorus can achieve. It is drawing a great deal of attention in the Dominican Republic and will be a powerful publicity and recruiting tool for the local program.

To ensure that Uno a Uno is able to sustain and expand its work, Vanessa and I were invited to teach a two-day class on fundraising in Santo Domingo, specifically focusing on how to raise money from foundations. Having seen for ourselves the amazing results YPC has produced in its work with New York City children, we were thrilled to be offered this opportunity to support Uno a Uno’s efforts.

Wednesday, October 19:

After a turbulent takeoff from stormy NYC, our flight is uneventful. First impressions of DR: from the window, it looks like Southern California, where I used to live; once outside the plane, I find that it’s a lot more humid. Also, everyone is speaking Spanish, a language of which I have minimal command. This is why Vanessa and I were sent as a team: I have many years of fundraising experience; Vanessa is fluent in Spanish.

José Santana meets us at the airport. We have met before, briefly, at the YPC office in New York. He now begins to reveal himself as host extraordinaire and more—an instant friend. He takes us to our hotel on the Malécon, a broad esplanade along the Caribbean.

First night out: dinner at the Plaza España, in the Colonial Zone. A vegetarian, I eat yucca-stuffed gnocchi in Roquefort sauce (delicious!) while admiring the fortress where Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego, lived while he was in charge of the new colony in the early 1500s. We also see the nearby Basilica Catedral Santa Maria de la Encarnación, the first cathedral built in the Americas.

Thursday, October 20:

We drive about 30 minutes to the campus of the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo (INTEC), where we will teach our class. Sitting in the front passenger seat, I have ample opportunity to observe Dominican driving protocol. In Santo Domingo, the word “pave” (literally “stop”) seems to mean something along the lines of, “You might want to consider slowing down a little … or not.” Mysterious signals involving horn blasts and flashing headlights inform drivers of each other’s intentions. Still, it all works somehow, and we arrive in one piece.

In addition to José, there are nine students in the class. Several speak some English, others none. Vanessa and I have been worried about how effective our bilingual team-teaching approach will be. We have prepared a PowerPoint presentation and brought some handouts. Vanessa helps me make myself understood, and I surprise myself by being able to follow a fair amount of what is said in Spanish. On this first morning, we cover topics including what a grant-making foundation is, what types of foundations exist, what types of grants they make, and what steps to take before writing a grant proposal. After lunch on the campus, we start to analyze the components of a typical proposal.

One of the students, Luis, is a biology professor and recent immigrant from Cuba. The class is being held in his lab. He speaks no English but somehow manages to explain the DNA testing equipment to me during a break. Another student, Miedzarhi, is shy about speaking English but I can see from her reactions that she follows everything I say before Vanessa translates it. Cándido, also from Cuba (and a Ph.D. expert in renewable energy) speaks fairly well, while Clarissa speaks with a hint of Cockney, having lived some years in London. Rafael speaks good English but responds so intensely to one of our topics (how to create a logic model of your project) that he draws the entire class into an animated discussion in Spanish that I can hardly follow at all.

By the end of the first day’s class, Vanessa and I are relieved at how well things have gone so far, but we are also exhausted. Vanessa says she has developed a new-found respect for her own professors. We make it an early night.

Friday, October 21

The second day of class goes well. In the morning, we finish our examination of the components of a grant proposal and give the class a short writing exercise. We also talk about how to contact a foundation, how to follow up on a proposal, what to do after getting a grant, and what to do after a rejection. The afternoon focuses on research—topics like how to find foundations that might be interested in your project and how to learn about their grant-making history. We are pleased to find that our planning and pacing have worked out well and we have covered all the topics we had in mind just as our time—and everyone’s energy—starts to run out late on a Friday afternoon.

We catch our breath back at the hotel and join José and several of our students, some with spouses, at another outdoor restaurant in the Colonial Zone, this one just around the corner from the house where Hernán Cortés lived while planning the invasion of Mexico in the early 1500s. I participate in the conversation as best I can, but sometimes I just sit back and enjoy the sound of meringue pouring onto the street from inside the restaurant.

Saturday, October 22

A day at the beach. We drive east, back past the airport, to the hotel where the choristers will be staying next week. With day passes, we are entitled to use the hotel’s private beach. The water is calm and warm, but just cool enough to be slightly refreshing. We are lucky with the weather. The humidity has dropped considerably since our arrival. Vanessa notices that some people have pulled their lounge chairs into the shallow water, so she decides to give it a try. I alternate between napping and reading a fictionalized account of Dominican history by Mario Vargas Llosa.

In the evening, José takes us to a nightclub where we hear a Cuban singer perform songs that everyone else in the room knows by heart. The audience sings along with every song. One audience member comes on stage and sings a couple of numbers—and makes a very good job of it! There is a lot of banter between the singer and the audience that I can’t follow at all, but when José mentions YPC, the singer has clearly heard of us. The upcoming concert has been heavily promoted in Santo Domingo, with flyers, posters, and TV ads.

Sunday, October 23

We were up way too late to have to get up this early! Still, we get to the airport in plenty of time. We read and sleep during the flight. The flight home, at about three hours, is almost an hour shorter than the flight down. Tail winds, I suppose. Getting though Immigration and Customs seems to take longer than it should, as does the cab ride home. I get home exhausted but feeling great about the work I’ve done and the friends I’ve made. I hope the material we taught will help CIACT replicate YPC’s work in the DR. I am only sorry that I can’t be in Santo Domingo for next week’s big concert—I know it’s going to be great!