Six Things I Learned on My Medical Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic.

I recently had the privilege of traveling on a medical mission trip to the Dominican Republic (D.R.) with members of my local church here in Greenville, South Carolina. Our mission team included three doctors, several medical professionals, and others like me who helped support service delivery. Our mission was simple. Coordinate with local missionaries and medical professionals in La Romana to serve the health care needs of the poor. What I learned from my trip was eye opening and affirming of how fortunate we are to live in America. Here are some of the most important takeaways from my trip that we can all learn from.

The Dominican Republic Has a Relatively Strong Economy, But Inequality Remains a Problem.

The D.R. benefits from what has been described as strong middle-income economy when compared to other Latin American nations. According to the CIA Fact Book, the Dominican economy has become more diversified in recent years with services now dominating its industrial and agricultural sectors for employment and economic growth. Recent tax law changes and the expansion of free trade zones have helped make the D.R. one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, with recent GDP ranging between 4.5 and 7.0 percent. Despite this economic success, long-term challenges still affect the lives of many Dominicans. Approximately 30 percent are still living in poverty even though about 95% of Dominicans are employed. This has contributed to the manifest problem of economic inequality that the  United Nations says has continued to grow, especially in recent years.

A Quality Education is Not Readily Available to Every Child in the Dominican Republic.

In the United States and in many countries around the world, education is the great equalizer that leads to economic opportunity and upward income mobility. This is true in the D.R. as well. However, Dominicans face many obstacles to obtaining a quality education. According to OECD research, public education in the D.R. is ineffective and of poor quality. Although Dominican law makes primary education through the age of 14 compulsory, secondary (aka, high school) education is not. For children living in rural areas or whose families are entrenched in subsistence work in the sugar cane bateyes (aka, slums), education for children beyond the sixth grade is generally not available. Children who live in the bateyes often have limited employment options, and boys by age 11 are expected to begin harvesting sugar cane for about $5 per day. Although there are some cases where individuals have found ways to work their way out of subsistence labor in the bateyes, these cases are very atypical.

Nearer to the Dominican cities, school is more readily available. However, student uniforms are required to attend both primary and secondary level schools. Families who have difficulty paying for food often cannot afford the $35 cost of a school uniform, thereby making it impossible for their children to attend classes, even when the education is free. As a result, about 12 percent of Dominican children remain unenrolled in their local school systems and are therefore economically disadvantaged.

Dominican Culture Reinforces Behaviors That Can Result in Poverty, Especially for Women.

Culture is one of several factors that play an important role in determining whether an individual is personally and professionally successful. That said, the D.R. is known for what is called its “machismo” culture that sets certain expectations about the roles men and women should play in Dominican society. Dominican men are assumed to be the primary providers and are considered dominant within the family structure. Women, by contrast, are expected to be subservient to their husband’s careers and needs, all while serving as the primary care giver for children. This culture also manifests itself in behaviors that see men being sexually promiscuous, both inside and outside of marriage. Women who participate in these relationships are often uneducated about how sexual activity can result in pregnancy. Therefore, it is not unusual for a young Dominican woman to carry the burden of multiple children before the age of 18. These situations ultimately lock many Dominican women into poverty and suggests the importance of making basic sex education available to young Dominican women (and men).

Local Partnerships Are Critical to Successfully Serving the Needs of the Poor.

Our church mission team was fortunate to have leaders who have established long-term partnerships with Dominican service organizations that have dedicated staff working on the ground in La Romana. These partnerships are essential to mission success because they provide the ongoing continuity in relationships within the local communities served. In our case, our mission leaders have partnered with Eastern Dominican Christian Mission (EDCM), a Christian relief organization based in Roanoke, Virginia. EDCM has worked tirelessly to carry out the “great commission” of Jesus Christ by spreading his good news in the D.R., while educating and equipping local staff to serve the needs of the poor. Organizations like EDCM, empowered by the generosity of contributors from America and elsewhere, are making an important difference in the lives of Dominicans by improving health, expanding educational opportunities, and providing spiritual support that families so desperately in need.

Working under the auspices of EDCM, our mission team established a medical clinic that provided residents living on the outskirts of La Romana with medical exams, screening for high blood pressure and diabetes, eye exams and glasses, and medications for both one-time and chronic conditions. Patients had been scheduled for exams by EDCM whose team will perform home visits with members of the community to identify those who are most in need of care. I was told by my church colleagues that, compared to past mission trips, the number of patients seen this year having serious medical conditions was down from previous years. This is a sign that the local community we were serving is getting healthier. If this is true, it demonstrates that incremental success is possible when both local and international mission organizations work in cooperation toward a common goal.

Microlending Can Also Make a Big Difference to a Person Seeking a Way Out of Poverty.

Our church mission has periodically offered qualifying Dominicans another important service: microlending. Dominicans that would like to start a business often do not need a lot of start-up capital to do so. However, many of these same individuals will not qualify for a bank loan. Micro loans of up to $500 per individual can fill this gap and are used by recipients to establish small businesses such as washing clothes, buying livestock to sell eggs or milk, or opening a small bodega. Individuals seeking these loans are required to develop a simple business plan, and they are also expected to eventually repay the loans they receive. Interestingly, it is women that generally have a better track record of repayment than men, and therefore are more frequently approved for these loans.

During my mission trip I had the opportunity to meet a local recipient of a micro loan. She was a 50-year-old woman whose name was Maria. Maria was approved for her micro-loan about one year ago. Today, she has a small bodega attached to her home where she sells detergent, juice, coffee, canned food and other small household items in her neighborhood. She was quite proud of her bodega and wanted us to see the fruits of the investment that she made. Maria now has a tangible stream of income for her family and she is making steady progress on repaying her loan.

The Most Important Thing That I Learned While Serving in the Dominican Republic.

Serving on an overseas mission trip would provide a unique learning experience for anyone. For that reason, I believe everyone should participate in such a trip at least once in their lifetime. As part of my experience I learned one very important lesson. That lesson is that no one in America is a victim, and that if you are an American citizen you have won the lottery of life. That is because every child in America receives a free education through high school, and advanced education and job training are more readily available to the average American than in most other nations. That is why organizations like EDCM are working to expand educational opportunities for children in several Dominican cities.

Likewise in America, no child is forced to work in the fields for $5 per day, and we spend billions annually on child welfare programs that provide a social safety net to help those most in need of help. We are a blessed nation, particularly today with an economy that is creating jobs for anyone who wants one. With all this opportunity and wealth available to us, let us all remember another important lesson. That lesson is we all have an obligation to give something back to those who are less fortunate than we are, whether they be in our own community or halfway around the world.

Eric A. Beck
Free Nation Media, LLC
Greenville, South Carolina


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