Christine Luft first went to the Dominican Republic on vacation 15 years ago, but she didn’t limit her visits to tourist sites.
Once she stepped out of the resort areas and witnessed the state of poverty that many families live in, she couldn’t just be a tourist anymore on subsequent visits. During her annual trips to the country, Luft began bringing supplies to distribute to families she saw in need.
"We started taking school supplies to one- and two-room schools," said Luft, a travel agent whose day job is as a property manager for Pioneer Companies. "Then we started taking over clothing each year, and it grew more and more."
According to a five-year study by UNICEF, more than 25,000 children in the Dominican Republic live in households that earn less than $1 a day. The study indicated that hundreds of children in the City of Puerto Plata region are chronically hungry, and nearly 3,000 Puerto Plata children younger than 15 cannot read or write their own names.
In order to find these impoverished areas of Puerto Plata, which is in the island’s northern region, Luft worked with taxi companies to guide her to such places. Once families in those areas noticed what she was doing, they would surround Luft and any friends that came along to help, she said.
"It got to be too much," Luft added.
Luft and her husband, Carl, who is mayor of the Village of Lima in Livingston County, did not give up. Instead, they decided to think bigger. Initially, Luft said that they considered sponsoring schoolchildren who must pay $100 for their uniforms and daily breakfasts and lunches. The mayor of Puerto Plata, Walter Musa, said that what these children really needed was a second preschool.
The first preschool, CONANI I, has a waiting list in the thousands, Luft was told. CONANI is the National Council for Children and Adolescents, an organization created in 1981 to provide early education and to protect the welfare and rights of children, according to www.stateuniversity.com.
"Until they get an education, (donations are) not going to help them any more than just for the time being," Luft said.
She said that she and her husband also could see that improving education was a priority for Musa.
"So, we took a couple of big gulps," Luft said. "Then, he (Musa) took us to the first one (school) and you see these little kids. … We said yes."
The couple subsequently created a foundation called Dominican Hope Inc., which is trying to raise the $65,000 to $100,000 needed to build the second preschool. Luft said that she and her husband have received guidance in their endeavor from a Toronto organization, Power Trips Inc., which runs community-service trips to the Dominican Republic.
Dominican Hope is currently developing blueprints for the school, which will be known as CONANI II and will be operated by that organization, Luft said. The plans include a wall with plaques for individual contributors who donate $100 or more.
"Every dollar donated goes to the school," Luft noted.
Relton Roland, chairman of the Puerto Plata-Rochester Sister Cities committee, said that the committee has been supportive of the preschool project. During the Puerto Plata delegation’s trip to Rochester this summer to reaffirm the Sister Cities agreement, the delegates also met with the Lufts at a picnic the couple sponsored in Lima. During the visit Musa expressed excitement over the project, Roland said.
"It is something positive, something they like and they welcome," Roland noted. "If you have an outside group willing to do something like that and (find) resources, more power to you."
St. Paul of the Cross Parish in Honeoye Falls and St. Rose Parish in Lima, which the Lufts attend, also have assisted in the fundraising effort. Earlier this year the parishes erected sheds to collect clothing donations, used ink cartridges and cell phones. Dominican Hope also is collecting stuffed animals because Luft said that she would like to distribute a stuffed animal to each child when the school opens.
Tom Crego, St. Rose’s business manager, said that parishioners donated regularly when the sheds were first erected. While donations have become more sporadic, parishioners still are made aware of the project through information from the Lufts and in parish bulletins.
"It’s a great idea," he said of building the preschool. "It’s a tremendous effort on their (the Lufts) part, and I commend them for kicking it off down there."
Crego also is planning on visiting the proposed site early next year during a trip being planned by Luft and her ABC Travel group.
"I’m hoping to get a lot more details about what their needs are and what we can do (to help) up here," he explained.
The reception from the Dominican people has always been overwhelming, and Luft said that she and her husband have received invitations to people’s homes and even Christmas gifts. Creating Dominican Hope and raising the money for the preschool is the least she and her family can do, she added. Her daughter, Casey, is the foundation’s communications director and translates during trips.
"People ask why are you doing all of this," she said. "It’s one of those things. When you see it, you feel you have to help. … We’ve got to get kids an education. It’s such a key."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information or to donate to Dominican Hope Inc., call 585-582-1776 or visit www.dominicanhope.org.