Monthly Archives: March 2012

What I Gave Up (March Newsletter)



   Aaron Roth – HOPE International – “What I Gave Up” – March 2012

I do miss home from time to time. I think about the friends I used to hang out with, the foods I used to eat, driving my car around with the windows down and the AC on, and mainly just being comfortable having a full-time paying job. I suppose I could make that list go on and on, and like any volunteer overseas, I sometimes marvel at the smallness of my room, the few possessions I have, and say to myself, “Wow I’ve given up a lot to be here.”

I met an Angel when I was working in Los Alcarrizos, Santo Domingo a week and a half ago. Yes, it’s capitalized and it’s a proper name because he’s pictured here, standing on the left. I could have easily started a paragraph with “I’ve talked with Jesus just about everywhere in this country,” and that’s also true on a few levels. Mar-12-News-02Anyway, Angel is a pastor, a father of three, and a mainstay  at the school “Colegio Lubrera de Caballona” for the past three years with his team of dedicated teachers and administrators.

Angel has over 25 years of experience running logistics and managing operations for other not-for-profit organizations in this country, but he’s here at this school working with about 50 students that didn’t fit in at other schools. For reasons like lack of discipline or learning disabilities their parents have sent their children here. Angel tells me, “When you see the necessity of the community, how can you not be involved?”

Standing next to Angel is Lucila, she’s the director of the school, and she’s got an equally impressive professional track record. In some ways, she doesn’t “need to be here” either and certainly she could Mar-12-News-03make a lot more money working at another school. Surely, there’d be better benefits, insurance, and opportunities for an annual salary raise. But “It’s worth it,” she tells me “because we have the ability to transform these children by helping them to learn, to grow, and to prepare them for the future.”

I look over and Chanel is playing basketball with the boys. He’s 19, well-spoken, full of energy, and is currently disciplining a young man who is not playing fairly. “We enforce the discipline here because we love them, and I know that to them, that’s a strange concept, but without rules they don’t grow, they’ll never make the right decisions.” I wonder why Chanel (yes, it’s the same name of the perfume) is spending his time here. He’s got just about every option available to him right now in his life. But he’s here, present with the children, teaching them about life when it seems it’s just about basketball.

Mar-12-News-04I’ve met a few of our Esperanza loan officers over the past year that have told me they’ve turned down better paying jobs because they feel called to be here, working in these communities, being a part of someone’s life, sharing from the Bible, assisting with someone’s transformation from economic poverty to self-sustainability and onto profitability. They ask me, “Where else would I have this opportunity?”

It’s like they’re standing in front of two doors with glass panes. Inside one they see there’s an air conditioner perched above just one large desk, in the corner sits a water cooler with ready plastic Mar-12-News-05cups, a comfortable chair that adjusts, a nice laptop that was manufactured within the past two years, a bowl of fruit and plenty of natural light streaming in. Looking through the other glass pane, they see the opposite on every level, and it contains three more desks in the same space. Strangely, they choose the latter. Why?

They have all given up a lot to be here. In strictly utilitarian terms, they’ve given up a tremendous amount, and certainly, five or ten times more than I have, and this is the thing that hits me: they’ve given up more than I will ever have to give up.

To pick just one tiny example, the small bathroom that I share with another roommate has hot water. The people I just mentioned, always take cold showers. Always. There is no hot water. They probably will not have hot water anytime soon, or maybe even ever. The building where I live, strangely, has internet. The only way to check email is to walk to a local internet center for most of these people.

Mar-12-News-06I’d like to think I’m getting more mature, and to that end I’d like to be very clear right now: this is not an opportunity for me nor for you to feel guilty. This is not a game of us and them tallying up our spiritual disciplines or accomplishments, nor of erasing our board completely. I simply want to say that we should all be inspired again by these verses:

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:31-34

What I have seen in each one of these people is: they have simply given up a few things to make room for others. I see joy, and patience, and willingness to open their hearts and to really be present with someone and really take the risks to love. I’m a firm believer that we can only carry so much with Mar-12-News-07the two hands we’ve been given.

We must always give up to receive. When I take a step back and look at the tremendous amount of blessings, relationships, and joys I have received since I’ve left it’s actually quite clear to me now: I’ve been thinking that this was an unbalanced equation. It is, but I was looking at it from the wrong side. I haven’t given up much at all. No, I’ve been given so much. So much more than I could have ever imagined. As I step back and look at my experience here, I’m speechless.

I pray that God would give us eyes to see what we can give up, and that we would give without expectation, and take joy in what we receive.

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What Fills You?

I do miss driving. I don’t have a car here, nor the desire to acquire one. Where I need to go I can get to via public transport and the occasional taxi. It’s quite clear though, that if you’ve got a car here, you’re someone of importance. In the States, if you’ve got a really nice car, then you’re considered important. Here, if you’ve got a relatively new car, it usually means you’re important and you’ve got money.

In my life here, I’m trying to completely sidestep this prerequisite for social acceptance by pulling the “gringo card” and using Dominican slang to show that not only am I a foreigner, but I’ve made significant efforts to be a part of the culture. So far it’s worked pretty well.

Any dates I’ve been on have been walkable, or taxiable. It does change the conversation when you can’t say, “I’ll pick you up around 7:00,” but you can say “My driver will pick you up at 7:00.” (Just don’t tell her that it’s Apolo Taxi, and make sure the driver takes away his taxi placard.)

So I’m sitting in this taxi last week talking to the driver about a wide range of topics. It’s true that Dominicans are usually very sociable and could talk about anything for an hour. I feel at home in that respect by the way, but one must note that Dominican taxi drivers take that skill to a whole new level. This guy was hitting just about every cultural topic between here and a kilometer, and deftly maneuvering his tiny Japanese made car through bad roads and aggressive drivers who cut us off.

Both of us see a luxury car fly past us, one that doesn’t belong on this kind of road, and he makes the comment that so many people waste their money into cars like that. He does a few calculations for gas, insurance, and repairs, and “Before you know it,” hey says, “You’re driving around in a mortgage.”

I tell him though, that I don’t think that stuff is really important. Sure, I love cars; in fact, I’d willingly accept a donation of the Audi A7 featured left, but deep down I miss driving my ’98 Honda Accord.

He goes on to say that he’s quite comfortable in his tiny Japanese car and he doesn’t care what people think. He goes through the repair record, or rather, lack of one, saying that this current car has given him less problems in 3 years than that of a troublesome vehicle he had for about 6 months.

He comments about how when he and his girlfriend go out, he can park the car, “On just about every street, or corner. I see a space, and then I’m like ‘whoop . . done’ and we’re parked. Then holding hands going to get some food.”

“But you know what?” he adds, “A car doesn’t fill me. No, a car doesn’t do that for me. It’s more important the people I have in my life and the kind of life I live. This car doesn’t break the bank, it allows me to save, takes me everywhere I need to go, and my beautiful girlfriend, well, she just likes to be with me. And she doesn’t like driving around looking for parking either.”

Again, I’m struck by the purity of life down here. The clarity that comes with not just having less, but having more foresight into what’s really important.

Like everything though, it’s a process, and it’s not like any of us don’t have desires for things like cool cars.

You just have to know what fills you, and keep choosing that.

He Buys His Own Breakfast

I arrived early to San Cristobal and sat down in the park. A light breeze wafted over the area bringing smells of bread and the fruit being sold on the corner. A lot of people were mingling about and some said “good morning” to me. Back home, people have told me I am fairly approachable, so quite often I found myself in conversations with complete strangers. An other occasions, people have told me that I talk a lot. Well, by one way or another, I find my fare share of public conversation.

In this country, being a tall gringo (here it’s an endearing term) it’s easy to play the game “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” and it usually means I’ve got money in my pocket just waiting to exchanged for some good or service in the local informal economy – at least that’s how I’m seen.

A mainstay of the informal economy are the shoe shiners. Kids carry large emptied tin cans, or small wooden toolboxes around with them hawking their services to anyone who’ll listen. I usually wear sandals outside of work, so I’m immune to the marketing, but in this case, my brown shoes, not all that scuffed in my opinion, have caught the attention of a young man.

“Can I shine your shoes? 10 pesos.”

He’s willing to clean and shine my shoes for 30 cents. He looks like a decent young man. School backpack on his back. Clean clothing. A smile showing all his teeth. But what I notice is that he speaks with dignity and peace. There’s no quick sell, no hurry, no emotional guilt.  After over a year here in the DR of dodging shoe shiners, I finally comply.

“What’s your name young man?”

“Ariberto. What’s yours?”

“Aaron. So tell me, why aren’t you in school?”

“I go to school after lunch. I work in the mornings to help my mother, and then I go home to have lunch, and then I go to school.”

“Oh ok. So how big is your family?”

“I’m the oldest. I have two brothers, one sister. But my dad is sick. He used to be a watchman for a bank, but he got diabetes and his foot swelled up really big, so he can’t work, he can’t even walk that well. So to help mom, I have to work.”

“Do you want some of this?” (I offer him so food.)

“No that’s ok. I ate. I buy breakfast in the morning when I’m out in the streets.”

He spoke slowly, honestly, and with intention. Quite eloquent I must say, with a gentle cadence to his delivery. I pay him 20 pesos, because I believe him, and I don’t want him to have to make change.

I doubt 30 more cents would help me more than that family he comes from, and certainly in light of the fact that he refused food because he already bought breakfast. A small part of my cracks inside when I think about him having to buy his own breakfast. For whatever reason he does it, or has to do it, it just makes me sad.

. . .

I’m still waiting there in the park. Not much to do, but just taking it all in. About 10-15 minutes later, Ariberto comes back and asks if he can sit down next to me. I say sure. I can tell he just wants to feel some peace in the morning amidst the noise on the streets of commerce. Maybe I’m one of the few gringos who actually talks to him. People have told me I’m approachable . . . haha.

We start talking about life. He asks me what I do. He says that’s a good thing to help people who need it. I ask Ariberto what he’d like to do in the future. He’s not sure. He doesn’t really think about it. He mostly thinks about each day ahead of him. But someday he’d like to own his own business. I’m convinced that for a 10 year old, he is very mature.

I ask him if he goes to a church. He says, yes of course and he likes it too. I asked him if he believes in God, “yes.” And Jesus? “yes.”

“And the Holy Spirit too. It’s a Trinity you know.” – Ariberto responds.

I like this kid. He’s smart and clever to boot.

“Well you know Ariberto, God has a lot planned for you.” I say. He smiles. I continue,

“I know that he’s got a great future planned for you. You know he’s got big plans for all of us, it’s like Jeremiah 29:11 says “He knows the plans he has for us.” In fact, that’s the verse we use for Esperanza.”

For a second, I think Ariberto enjoys sitting there, not having to be the big brother, not having so much responsibility, not having to work in the morning to help his family, to buy his own breakfast, to carry the world on his shoulders.

We sit there in silence. Make some jokes. More silence. Ariberto politely excuses himself. He’s got to get back to work.

I believe God has good things planned for him. I pray that he stays on that path.

I should get my shoes shined a lot more often, not because they need it, but because there are more Aribertos out there to meet.

Love This Big (February Newsletter)



Aaron Roth – HOPE International – “Love Big Enough” – February 2012

His eyes say it all. He’s full of joy and he’s curious about the world. I’m standing in his classroom waiting to talk to his teacher, Ruth, which turns out to be his mother. By this point all the kids want me to take a photo of them and they are surrounding me asking to see the photos I’ve taken. Justin is very polite, trying not to push people around and finds my left arm holding the camera. He reaches out for my arm and grabs it to pull himself front and center. When I show him his photo, he looks up and smiles with a look that says, “That’s me!”

At three years old, Justin, is what he should be at that age: kind, curious, and with a heart that opens both ways, to give and receive love. Ruth, his mom, swings around and picks him up, “Oh, mi corazon, tienes hambre? Vamos para la casa de una vez y cocino para nosotros, tu y yo.” (My heart, are you hungry? Let’s go home now and I’ll cook for you and IFeb-12-News-02.) So that’s where he gets it from.

I spend a lot of time around children down here in the Dominican Republic because this year I’m focused on working in our microlending program to small, Christian schools. Public education is so bad in the DR that even though parents can barely afford food and clothing, they will still pay to send their children to private schools with tuition around USD $7-$9 a month. Our microloans are to schools are to build more classrooms and computer labs. Through a partnership with the organization we are able to provide this necessary capital for schools to grow and receive the resources they need to improve the education that they give to the students. By improving the education for the children, we are able to help put them on a path of opportunity and success for their whole life.

Feb-12-News-03I love it. Working with these schools and their owners to help improve their businesses and their role in the community always brings joy to me. I guess it helps that kids here are like kids everywhere. Full of joy and endless wonder, ready to talk to anybody who walks through the door. At this age, they are full of innocence and possibility.

Justin is a bit shy, and when I try to talk to him, he hides behind his mothers face. So I ask her, “What kind of things does Justin say? What does he do.” She urges him, “Show mommy what you do when I ask you how much you love me.” Justin smiles and stretches his arms out wide.

Ruth tells me, “He loves me this big!”


What Happens to All Those Boys When They Grow Up?

It’s Carnaval time in the Dominican Republic. It started from a tradition held prior to Lent, and you can find these parades on every Sunday afternoon in the big cities  throughout the island. I had the opportunity to view a parade with some friends and it was quite intriguing.

Enormous, meticulously decorated costumes are donned by young men and teenagers who march through the streets carrying stuffed pig bladders on small ropes. WHACK! They swing these pig bladders striking unsuspecting bystanders. It’s not so much the impact that hurts, but the surprise by the sudden smack on the back of the leg. Their large masks hide any indication of their next strike, and BOOM! another victim.

Feb-12-News-04For spectators and most costumed young men, it’s all for fun, a cultural celebration that they’ve been doing for years and years. Standing there watching the powerful swings of the rope by young, skilled, baseball-obsessed young men, I hear the squeals of girls jumping out of the way, and I’m taken back by one thing: the faces of some of these young men. They aren’t smiling. They aren’t really having a good time, are they? Their eyes don’t show celebration, nor revelry in being part of a parade, but simple determination to strike someone else, someone who may or may not deserve it.

Later, a fight breaks out with some of the non-costumed bystanders brought on by limited standing space in a battle of turf and lack of respect. Eyes of hate, seething with revenge. Eyes ready to strike at someone who may or may not deserve it. What’s happened to all those boys?

A Wall Around the Heart

What I saw in the eyes of some of those costumed young men and in the youth who were ready to fight, is what I’ve seen at home in Richmond, VA, or many places in the States, and quite often here in the rough neighborhoods. It’s the response of a boy fighting back.  Taking revenge and doling out some of the hurt he’s received. Lashing back at anyone who crosses the line, and indeed so many have crossed that line over the years since he was a kid. It’s a heart that opens for no one. No Feb-12-News-07love comes in, no love goes out.

I think about all the young people that I’ve met working in the schools. Hundreds and hundreds of young boys and girls, too young to care about anything else but simply that they just want to know somebody at home loves them and that there will be food on the table when they get there, and they won’t get yelled at for something they didn’t do. But unfortunately, that’s not a reality for most of them. There’s not a safe home to come back to.

They start learning that the world is hard, and it doesn’t care if you haven’t eaten, or that someone hurt your feelings. The best solution then, is to close your heart to the world, because if you do, nothing else can come in to steal and destroy, and consequently nothing comes out to heal and repair. Poverty too, makes that poison of hate even more deadly. It can steal and destroy the innocence of possibility of these young boys and girls even before they have a chance to bloom.

Life Lessons that Stay

So when I think about Justin, Ruth’s son, at the age of three years old, I know he still believes that the world is good, that he doesn’t need to fight back; he just needs to stand up for himself because he deserves to be treated well. That’s what his mom taught him. In fact, that’s what she shows to all her students.

Feb-12-News-06I asked her why she became a teacher here and she responded that 15 years ago she was one of the first students in a class of 50 that the director, Aleyda Torres, taught. What she received as a young girl was a good education, daily encouragement, and above all else, that she was valued and loved. Now, the school cares for over 440 students in the same way in one of the roughest areas of La Romana. Ruth continues:

“I want these children to feel the love that I felt as a young girl. It’s important to me to be an instrument of God’s love and to form relationships with these children, to guide them, instruct them, and love them as my family and the way that God has loved me.”

She goes on to add that a lot of times the students that come to her class don’t have three meals a day, or have holes in their shoes, or they are angry, because their parents are fighting, or their father left, and it’s hard for their mom to raise four kids on her own. Ruth wants to show them a love that covers over these daily hurts and deep pains. She wants to provide them a home, even if it’s just a classroom, where people are respectful and people listen, and everyone is treated as though they matter.

What a child learns everyday they take with them their whole life. Poverty isn’t just about lack of resources, it’s about the loss of hope. That’s what happened to all those young men with no love in their hearts, they stopped believing that people cared. But I want to ask, what does it look like if we start to change the story for those who are still young? And show them that someone cares about them? That it matters what they do and what they believe? What will that mean for them when they grow older?

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Psalm 22:6)

I pray today that you would see the opportunity to reach out to someone that needs to know that there is still kindness and love in this world.

-Aaron Roth
(540) 421-8683
Skype: aprothwm05