Sunday, December 17, 2017

A heart for Barrio Blanco

Cooperation is key in Providing OpportunityMore than twenty years ago Ron Zauner came to Cabarete for the first time with a few friends to windsurf. They had rented out the top two floors of a condominium complex close to where Janet’s is now, which had a Jacuzzi on the top floor. That first evening while living it up in the Jacuzzi, Ron noticed a number of shacks not too far away in the darkness. The next morning he went out to investigate with his camera.



The beginning of a saga
Good job, RonAs he walked into the dirt alley, strewn with plastic and other waste, Ron came across three cute little girls. “They got all excited about me asking them for permission to take a photo and invited me over to meet their grandma Regina, who at the time was living in a shack with two walls and a roof”, Ron explains. Despite all their apparent differences the two hit it off. By the end of that two-week holiday he still had 700 USD left over, which he gave to Regina. After that, Ron would return to Cabarete every two, three years to hit the water and wind, but would never forget to look in on his friend Regina.

Twenty-odd years later, just before Ron went on to retire, he found himself back in Barrio Blanco showing around fifty people a collection of photos on his laptop, which he had taken over the years of people of the neighborhood. It was about to get dark and people kept cooing and exclaiming at every photo he showed: “Oh, that was you when you were like seven and look at you now with a kid that age yourself!” and many other comments. That’s when Ron realized that he should really do something for these people now that he would be having lots of spare time in the near future.

Barrio Blanco before any constructionThe barrio before Ron came inA neighborhood of misery
The main issue of the neighborhood was that it was an illegal one with little to no infrastructure. The houses were all shacks made out of scrap material and stretched all the way to the lagoon. The ministry of environment had already dredged a canal, which created a natural barrier so the sprawl could not go any further into the nature reserve of the lagoon. Few shacks were connected to the street water and a couple had illegal connections to the electricity network. Toilets and showers were improvised affairs with sewage going straight into the surrounding area. In the best case, the sewage would reach the lagoon; in the worst case it would build up and when it would rain the open sewage would go everywhere including into everyone’s shacks. Despite the unbearable stench, residents thought they were getting sick because of the rain, rather than the excrements everywhere.

A typical Barrio Blanco shackApart from the sanitary and health issues, there was also the constant threat of raids. As the whole neighborhood was illegal, every so often raid parties with three or four strong men and sledgehammers would send the residents scattering, after which they would destroy big chunks of the neighborhood to nothing but rubble. People with very few possessions and no rights would re-build their shacks with the scraps the next day.  

Ron realized that the only way how he could help these people was either to find them a different piece of land where they would be allowed to live or to get the local government to agree that they would be able to stay where they were, providing that the environmental and health threats would be solved.

Before - wooden house prone to floodingCreative solution to manage human waste and flooding
After numerous discussions with local authorities it became clear that the best option would be to stay with a formal promise that new houses would not be torn down. In the meantime Ron managed to set up a charity organization, called Providing Opportunity, back in the United States and tirelessly worked on getting donations for low cost brick housing.

Despite not having a formal background in building he quickly figured out that the houses would need to have a number of set criteria. “The most important thing to do was to raise the houses so that when it rains the houses don’t get flooded anymore”, Ron elaborates. “At the same time these houses also needed to have a septic system solution to solve the environmental and health problems arising from open sewage”. The solution to both problems came in a flash: build the houses on top of the septic systems.

After - a beautiful new houseThe septic system solution used in Barrio Blanco had to be one whereby the waste would biodegrade as no trucks to empty the tanks would be able to come into the neighborhood with its one street and many narrow paths between houses broad enough for one man to pass. The ingenious system they ended up using is composed of two watertight closed-bottom tanks and a spillover basin filled with river stones. This forms the basis of the house, which typically has a surface area of around 30 to 40 square meters. Essentially, this type of septic system acts as a filter, breaking down the human waste into water, which is no longer a threat for the surrounding environment nor for human health.

“The soil, being so close to the lagoon, doesn’t allow for digging as you tend to reach the groundwater wat a depth of 50cm, so we had to build the septic systems above ground level, raising the entrances of houses by about a meter”, Ron highlights. “That solved the issue of flooding at the same time.”

Working with hopeStarting with those most in need
The first building project in 2012 saw the erection of eighteen houses for the poorest families with small children. They also built a school as well as a new street water system as the existing one had zero pressure, which meant that no water would reach the raised houses.

It took nearly nine months to finish everything. In terms of building material it cost around five to seven and a half thousand US dollars per house. Labor was free. Those who would live in the houses would build the dwellings, and they were helped by other residents who were “trabajando con esperanza” (working with hope). The hope behind their work was getting Ron’s attention and ultimately a promise that he would find donors for their houses as well. The strategy paid off.

A year later, a further twenty houses were built as well as a medical clinic in a little under six months. Right now in June 2015, phase three is finishing with four extra houses being built in one month.

The barrio now
Walking through the barrio now is a completely different experience from what it was a few years ago. Over sixty block houses have been built, mostly through Ron’s initiative but a number of entrepreneurial residents took up the idea and also built some houses in the same fashion. Some slum areas still exist with shacks made out of scraps. These are rental units, and are mostly rented out to Haitians who have made enough money to afford a ramshackle roof over their heads, and no longer need to sleep out in the open.

These shacks have no running water and there is usually one makeshift toilet to be shared between the residents of four shacks. The slumlord who rents out these units has started making some improvements by installing an open septic tank, which theoretically keeps the sewage in one place. Ron is still trying to negotiate with the man to build something better but talks aren’t easy. “Making these rental units too nice would mean a higher rent, which in turn would price the poor Haitians that currently live there out of the market”, Ron explains.

Ron ZaunerLooking for sustainability
By the end of 2013, after the successful completion of 38 houses, Ron started the think about how to raise the economic situation of the residents. Very little legal economic activity takes place in the neighborhood, which only features two colmados (small corner stores) as well as one carpentry workshop, despite an estimated 360 residents.

To raise hope for children, Ron started to raise money for yearly scholarships of 1000USD, which allows one child to go to private school for one year. Now his charity is helping 25 kids go to Cadin Colegio, a good private school in nearby Islabon. Scholarships have also been given to four young adults who are attending university. “I’m really proud of these children. Despite their poor start in life and limited education they are now doing as well and sometimes even better than their peers at the private school”, Ron says with obvious pride.

Ron having fun with the kids of Barrio BlancoThe small school that was built in the Barrio Blanco is run by the Dream Project and Ron often passes by to motivate the kids to study hard. “Education is really important and I really want these kids to use the education opportunity to heave themselves out of poverty”, Ron adds. “I’m now trying to motivate them to study hard for tests by giving money prizes to those that get a full 100%; that has definitely raised the bar.”

Finding honest employment for the adults is more difficult. Currently there is a program underway teaching a number of residents how to sew. A couple of sewing machines and materials have been donated as well. One of the participants is a healthy-looking young man, who has two daughters and a wife. He used to be a personal trainer until an accident shattered his right leg. He is really excited about this new opportunity and looks forward to starting his own business.

Responsible fatherhood
When asked if Ron thinks his work will ever be done in the barrio he replies that he’ll only walk away once he’s confident that the neighborhood will only go up. One of things he’s focusing on now is getting boys and young men to understand that becoming a father means taking responsibility. “Unfortunately, in the Dominican Republic it is very normal to get your fourteen to sixteen year old girlfriend pregnant, and after a year or so, to leave the girl and kid behind to look for greener pastures”, Ron explains. “I want to make sure that the kids in this neighborhood at least understand the value of life and the responsibility that comes with it”.

Not really knowing how to go about it, the problem was taken out of his hands by Josef, a local guy who has two boys of his own. “When I asked one of Josef’s kids who his best friend was, he answered: my dad. That answer is extremely rare here in the poorer areas of the Dominican Republic,” Ron exclaims. Josef started rallying the boys of the neighborhood together to pick up the litter in the street, after which he would take them to the beach to play football as a reward. Ron is now supporting Josef’s efforts and has provided the boys with soccer uniforms as well as shoes. The team is now called Mezcla, Spanish for mix, which here denominates those who have both Dominican and Haitian roots, and have started playing against other teams with great success.

Another happy new home ownerInspiration
“I think we’ve come a long way since we first started thinking of doing something in Barrio Blanco back in 2009”, Ron highlights. “I would really like this success story to be of inspiration to others who might be approaching retirement and are looking at how to give value to their lives. To me, this work has been extremely intense, so much so that I haven’t even touched any windsurf gear over the last four years and that says a lot”, he smiles. “But it has also been immensely rewarding. I wouldn’t have it any other way”.

Other articles on Barrio Blanco
A miracle in the making
Community meeting in Barrio Blanco
Lovely spirits of Cabarete - Christopher

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