As 2019 comes to a close, I reflect back on the past decade of work here in the Dominican Republic. As I begin this blog to share insight into my daily life, I wanted to end the decade by telling my story.
Born in Derbyshire England, my family decided to move to the United States when I was 13 years old. Although leaving the comforts of home and family behind to start a new life in a new country terrified me, I was excited for the opportunities ahead. I had always loved art and in my first art class I met a teacher who guided me to pursue my future career possibilities. Growing up in England I watched my family repurpose old buildings and I fell in the love with the idea of preserving history and exemplifying the beauty that existed in the old. I decided to apply to one college and one only; Savannah College of Art and Design. I was accepted and enrolled as a student of Historic Preservation.
In 2005 I began my first year at SCAD and fell in love with the city, the people and my courses. I was surrounded by passionate professors of art and design that had a love for teaching and inspiring. It was those very same teachers that pushed me to further my career and change my degree to Architecture. Over the next four years I embedded myself within my studies. I lived, loved and dreamed architecture, but I had yet to find my niche. I remember watching on TV the devastation of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast. I don't think I ever thought about actually going to help until the day that I signed up to travel with a team of students. This trip laid the foundation for my passion to help others.
In 2009 I graduated with my Bachelors degree in Architecture. I had made it to the first milestone, now it was time to work on achieving my Masters degree over the next year. It was in June of 2009, browsing photos of friends on FB that I came across a high school teacher of mine who was spending her summers in the Dominican Republic. She posted photos of the Bateyes and it was the architecture that sparked my interest. I messaged her and asked where she was working and that I was in search of my thesis subject matter. She responded and invited me to join her that summer. A few weeks later I was boarding a Jetblue flight to Santo Domingo. When people ask me why I choose the Dominican Republic, I always say that the Dominican Republic chose me.
Poverty. A word defined as the state of being extremely poor. I don't think I had seen poverty like what I was exposed to upon that first mission trip. It was a week filled with research and I remember being just totally overwhelmed with love, gratitude and a sense of home. Home. How crazy does that sound?! I didn't speak Spanish, I had no idea what I was doing, but in some strange way I felt I had found home for the first time.
At this point we are in 2009, the beginning of my journey in the Dominican Republic. I see life as a journey across stepping stones, never did I think that a decade later I would be sitting here running an organization that protects the most vulnerable population of women and girls in the country. To say my journey has been long and crazy is an understatement, but wow what an incredible story to share. I am a simple girl from a small town in England who moved to the USA to only find her passion in the Dominican Republic. This country breathes life into me and I think that is why I advocate and commit daily to my life's work here.
Over the next four years I finished my Masters degree, moved to the Dominican Republic as a full-time missionary, developed the idea for my organization and then moved back to the USA for my first architecture job. In 2013 I decided it was time to begin my own work. I wanted to have an impact, but I didn't want to have to jump through loopholes, raise thousands of dollars and then hope that I impacted a family by building one home. I knew I had the resources and the knowledge to do something that had never been done before which was solely focused upon the sustainable development of the Bateyes. The Batey Rehab Project was founded and within the first three months we had raised enough money to rebuild 6 homes in Batey Bombita. I remember that first trip, it was me, my husband and a photographer. It was so exciting to see everything come together and to put ideas into action.
I realized that I wanted to offer the opportunity of helping families through design to other students at Savannah College of Art and Design. With that began our venture trips in 2013 and quickly grew to 3 annual trips with over 500 student applications. These students are one of the most important pieces of this journey and the foundation of BRP. I say this because through their eyes we were able to see the communities and identify other areas of need, not just architecture. From architecture to furniture design to jewelry design to painting majors, we were able to apply the talents of these students to impact our communities.
You may be thinking this is completely different to who BRP is today and yes you are right! I have always believed that an organization should mould itself around the people and serve the actual needs of the families it serves. We allowed creativity, change and inspiration, but don't get me wrong, along the way we definitely made mistakes, but I believe that is what made us stronger. As life is a journey of stepping stones, not every stone will support the full load and thus you then move forward differently in order to achieve progression.
In November of 2014 we moved into a new community called Milton. This community was not a "Batey", but it's families were living in pure poverty. We decided to build a home for a family, a single mother and her 5 children. That week we were able to truly change their lives and move them into a beautiful new BRP home. Little did I know that my work would ultimately impact their lives in a negative way. Their father would return only to traffick his teenage daughters to a local businessman who was in his 60's. This stopped me dead in my tracks. I could not continue my work without doing something or finding a solution to help these girls. Upon searching for help from local authorities and government organizations I found nothing and noone willing to help. The response from the police was that it was a 'normal occurrence' and 'girls usually like older men anyways'. This was not normal, it was not legal and I could not simply let it go.
The issue of human trafficking we know is a global epidemic generating $150 billion dollars annually. But here in the Dominican Republic it is generating $9.5 billion dollars annually and the country has been listed as the third fastest growing nation in the world for human trafficking. These initial statistics shocked me and to be honest I had no idea what I was dealing with, but with every other challenge life had given me, I needed to educate myself and see how I could potential provide a solution to serve and impact these girls.
That impact would take two years to deliver, but by the Summer of 2018 we had a concept and a rented space where we could provide hope, protection and resources. We had no idea what we were doing, but we did have the foundation to teach jewelry classes thanks to a number of jewelry design students from SCAD. Batey Girls was founded not only a jewelry brand, but as an opportunity to empower mothers and their children out of the darkest situations of trafficking. These mothers knew no better because they were victims themselves, and because they had absolutely noone to help them fight back. We focused on breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, which fuels human trafficking. Children are not for sale. Women do not need to suffer at the hands of their abuser. Families have the opportunity to live a safe, healthy and happy life. Empowerment is only possible through education. The only way to truly fight human trafficking is to break it at its core.
The past decade has been an incredible journey. I am not a fan of rollercoasters, but these ten years have been a pretty good ride, even through the ups and downs. 2020 for me not only signifies the beginning of a new decade, but the beginning of a bigger and better BRP. Just as my family would repurpose old historic homes, we have taken the very best of what made BRP who it was and transformed it into an organization that has the opportunity to change the statistics of human trafficking and most importantly the statistics of Dominican women and children. I have not one regret from the past decade, only lessons learned.
Many of you reading this blog post may been part of my story and our journey at BRP. It is important for you to know that you have been a piece of building the foundation,which supports the load of who we are today. I am blessed to lead this organization, but behind every leader is an army of incredible people. So thank you!
Until the next decade,