Yesterday, I went to a graduation for the vocational training program for youth in the community of Batey Lecheria, in the outskirts of Santo Domingo. This is the community where I will soon be living and working every day. This vocational training is funded by USAID, and is part of a project called Alerta Joven, which has a huge presence in a variety of facets in this batey community. USAID requires sign in sheets and information from everyone that attends their events, workshops, talks, and even graduations, therefore, I was manning a table with sign in sheets, one for family and friends, the other for graduates. A young man, who looked to be about my age, possibly younger, came up and asked me 3-4 times if he had to sign in, pointing at each one to be sure. He reluctantly asked me if he really had to sign in, why it was important, stated how long it was (keeping in mind it was only name, age, neighborhood, phone number, and email), and seemed rather flustered that he was required to do it. From years of working at front reception desks and other customer service jobs, my first and automatic assumption was he was simply complaining and being lazy, as this was something I constantly experienced in past jobs, and I’m ashamed of my assumption. I’m also ashamed of my profiling, assuming that a young boy with gelled hair and nice clothes was simply being lazy.
What I came to realize moments later, was that he was illiterate. He wrote his name and asked if that was it, even though there were lines on the sheet telling you what to put in each box. He could not read any of this to get clues, and even took out his ID to write his name. I was in such shock that I had not truly processed it until today, which is when I decided to write this post. I have never met a completely illiterate person in my life, and it really opened my eyes to the importance of projects like this in the Dominican Republic, that focus on education and technical training for youth, building capacity of these high-risk, high-poverty communities. If this is the situation within the boundaries of Santo Domingo, I imagine the illiteracy in rural areas of the country, where poverty rates in some regions are 80%, must be much higher. The Dominican Republic ranked 137 of 139 countries of the global education competitiveness index, while 64% of the 23% of teens who become pregnant each year are illiterate (World Bank, 2014).
Also, the boy had at least one child, which was another obvious factor in his illiteracy. Teen pregnancy rates are very high in this country, which appear to be mostly due to lack of any form of sexual or reproductive education or even discussion by parents. This is why another focus of Alerta Joven is sexual and reproductive education, workshops, and talks, including HIV testing and family planning. Another possibility for young men such as this boy I met, is the factor of baseball. As the MLB has such an extensive presence in the Dominican Republic, many of young boys leave school at as early as 10 years old to train with “buscones”, who are unlicensed scouts who are make it their mission to search for young baseball talent, while earning a huge portion of the money when a player signs with a team (CSA, 2014). In the last 10 years, of 4,400 young Dominican players that were signed, only 2% made it to the MLB, leaving the remaining 98% of these youth between 15-21 years old were left on the streets with little or no education or skills necessary to seek employment or a means by which to support themselves (Time Magazine, 2010). These sad truths are why my field placement, CSA has had and continues to build projects in the rural areas especially, that allow for baseball training in collaboration with an enriching education that is a requirement for participation in the baseball portion.
All in all, this experience has sparked my motivation in the area of education just in time for me to move to live outside of Batey Lecheria and begin working in the schools alongside teachers and students to begin tracking student progress, targeting those who have dropped out to identify barriers and reasons for drop out, and providing home visits for those especially struggling in the Espacios Para Crecer to identify potential barriers within the home and family. I look forward to sharing my initial experiences once I dip my hands into the life of living and working in a high-poverty community!