The journey begins.
It was hot and dusty as the van bumped along the deeply rooted, rain rutted dirt road. "Were going to a children's center in the garbage dump," announced Tim Johnson, full time missionary to the Dominican Republic. "I have arranged for your team to serve lunch and minister to the children today."
"How many children?" someone from the back asked.
"I believe that there are about 50, this is only half of the children. The other half come in the afternoon, because the schools in the D.R. only go half days, ah, here we are" said Tim, pointing to a tiny house squished between two other tiny houses. The front of the house sat on the street curb. All of the windows and doors had bars, the side yards were barely big enough to fit one person.
"Where do they play?" I wondered out loud as we grabbed equipment and exited the bus.
The answer became evident, as my eyes followed the noise of laughing children coming from the garage. Some of the children were laying on the tiled floor, others were playing a game of tag, happily jumping over the reclining ones. Some girls were in the corner, giggling and pointing at one of the young men on the team.
"Welcome! My name is Jose!" greeted our host enthusiastically. He was a large Spanish looking man full of charisma. "The children are very excited that you have come," he said with a heavy Spanish accent. "What do you want to do?"
"We can read to the children," one team member suggested.
"I understand that you are teaching the children English, we can read in English!" she continued.
"Aha, what a wonderful idea, the children would benefit greatly from that, unfortunately we have only one book."
"In the entire center?" she blurted out.
"Books are very rare here on the island" Jose replied.
"I think that's one reason that everyone is so happy to take the tracks that we hand out- they have nothing else to read." Tim added.
At every traffic light we handed tracks through the windows to motorcycle riders and street vendors. Every time they thanked us, treating the track as a rare treasure. "Many times tracks are passed down from one person to another, read by whole families or even whole neighborhoods."
"Man, what is that smell?" a younger team member yelled as he held his nose.
"Do you know where you are?" asked Jose with a laugh. "The name of this barrio is Cien Fuegos!" he said, pausing for understanding to come. When it became obvious that none was coming, Jose continued, "Cien is Spanish for 100 and Fuegos is fires.
"100 fires?" the young man asked.
"At the end of the street is the garbage dump for the city of Santiago. Trash is burned every night-100 fires; That is what you are smelling. There are about a million people that live in Santiago, so you can imagine the trash that they produce. The ones that live here, collect anything that can be recycled and sell it to make a living," Jose shook his head sadly. "Orphaned children come here to live off of the dump. They build houses out of trash, find mattresses and blankets, clothes, even food.
"About how many children?" I asked
"The government estimates 100,000. Unfortunately many predators live here as well. The Dominican Republic' is the third highest in sex trafficked children in the world.
"100,000?" Are all of them orphaned?" I asked
"No, many live with relatives or neighbors, but all of them live in extreme poverty. Most are hungry every day, full of parasites, head lice, lung and skin infections, from the fires. They are without medical care, or schooling." Jose said sadly. The children of Cien Fugoes behave so badly, smell so badly and do not have shoes or uniforms, so the school will not allow them to come; that is why I started this center. It Provides food for 100 children twice a day and school as well-- I am a certified teacher, he said proudly, and my wife is a doctor, she sees to all of their medical needs.
"Lunch is ready." said a lady from the kitchen.
Jose stuck his head in the garage and said something in Spanish. The children lined up and went into one of the "Class rooms" which were actually rooms for a very small 3 bedroom house. Each room contained a table made from a 4x8 sheet of plywood and wooden benches. There was a chalk board on one end and a bit of space for an instructor to stand. The "Cooker" as we came to know her, handed us tin plates filled with spaghetti and a spoon, we passed these out to the children, along with a plastic glass of cool water.
"Please eat!" encouraged Jose. "Cooker made extra for you, our honored guests!" he said as he waved his beefy arm towards the food. Nothing in the entire center looked sanitary, to my American eye, and the last thing that I wanted was to eat. The eyes of the entire team were on me, waiting to see what I would do. "What ever is set before you, eat, asking no questions." I heard the Spirit whisper. My wonderful Husband, Tom stepped up before I could move and took the plate held out so graciously by cooker. "Gracias! Gracias!" He said with a smile. We all enjoyed a great lunch!
All of the children poured into the garage to watch our puppet show and listen to us teach through skits and an interpreter. We handed out candy and finished the day by laying hands on each child, asking God to protect them, and keep them safe, but most importantly, to draw them into a deep and intimate relationship with Jesus. The children were very warm an hugged us several times as we were loading our equipment.. Just as I was about to climb into the van, two of the older girls handed me hand written letters. both letters told of the need that the center had for a sponsor church from America. 'Our tiny church? Sponsor an orphanage in a foreign country? Ridiculous! Impossible!
Upon our return, I called my daughter Nechole. the Children's pastor of our ministry at that time, "I brought you back a souvenir from our trip," I said "I brought you an Orphanage from the dump in Santiago!"
Nechole burst into tears and laughed, "Oh MOM, that's wonderful!"
And the adventure began!