Editor’s Note: This post is written by Lizzie Lara, an employee at World of Children. She recently visited Denisse Pichardo, a 2011 Humanitarian Award Honoree, while on a humanitarian trip to the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic is a magical place that I have been fortunate enough to travel to for over 10 years. The culture is vibrant, the music is loud, the beaches are pristine and the hospitality of the Dominican people is unmatched. The country has become my second home since I first went in high school to build homes. I later returned to live in Santo Domingo for six months to teach English. The Dominican Republic is the country I met my husband in, and two years ago in the beach town of Boca Chica I got married.
When I started working at World of Children, I was thrilled to learn that there is an Honoree working with children in Boca Chica. Every year I bring volunteers to the Dominican Republic to learn Spanish and work in a rural area. When I went on the trip this year, I was excited to take a day to spend with Denisse Pichardo, our 2011 Humanitarian Honoree. Her program, Caminante Proyecto Educativo, has been working in Boca Chica for over twenty years.
Boca Chica is a unique town, the closest beach town to the capital of Santo Domingo. Across the freeway there are homes made of wood, with tin roofs and dirt floors. The locals zip around on motorbikes, sometimes filled with entire families. Hotels and resorts that cater to European and American tourists fill the city.
Sadly, there’s a dark side to the area — sex trafficking. Often times young boys and girls wait around hotels looking for tourists who want a sexual companion during their stay. It’s a horrifying reality that faces many youth and unfortunately, this degrading and dangerous practice can make a good amount of money for young locals who can bring that money home to their family for food.
This is why Denisse’s work is so vital. She initially came to Boca Chica with a church group and saw that there was an obvious problem with the sex trade. When she started Caminante, it was with young boys who were in the sex tourism business. The goal was to get them off the streets and provide them with a meaningful education so they could break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and slavery. After the 2010 earthquake, Denisse said that she started to see young girls from Haiti in Boca Chica entering the sex tourism business as well. Denisse personally ventures into Boca Chica finding children involved in sex tourism, and also children selling stuff on the beach, and invites them into her program. Her program emphasizes the importance of education and teaches the children vital skills that they need to enter into respectful, self-sustaining jobs.
Denisse emphasized the importance of working with the government, a task that can be difficult in a country where the politicians and government are often meddled in corruption. But thanks to her efforts, wonderful strides have been made to protect children. With her help, the government created a child labor law, one which she believes will help curtail the problem with the sex trade in the area. And there is now a government office of child protection in Boca Chica.
Denisse showed me her office, filled with mementos of children who have gone through her program. She has a picture of one child who was tragically killed, another of one who now lives in the United States, and one of a young woman who graduated from her program and is now a social worker. It was wonderful to see how much each child means to Denisse, how she keeps in contact with each one, and how they have gone on to live incredible lives.
Within her office she also proudly displays her World of Children. Next to it is a plaque for an award she won in December 2011 right after she won the World of Children. An organization called saying that they read about her work and wanted to give her an award. Much to Denisse’s surprise they later sent her a check for $10,000. That’s what World of Children is all about — not just giving out Awards, but enabling and elevating our Honorees to reach new heights and receive even more recognition for their work.
Caminante has several buildings in Boca Chica dedicated to different programs. There is a building next door to the office where the Caminante psychologist works with the children who are in the sex tourism industry. Underneath the office there is a restaurant where the kids are given a healthy lunch each day.
We then drove to the main Caminante center. It is a large facility, very well kept and clean. The center holds a variety of classes for children and teens in Boca Chica. There are different classrooms for different vocational trainings. Denisse showed us the classroom for cooking, complete with a a restaurant-size kitchen. There was a classroom filled with computers for computer technology classes, a classroom filled with hair dryers to teach hair styling, and even a mock hotel room to teach housekeeping. All across the Caminante buildings there are posters with motivational messages, encouraging education and strong values.
We first visited an electrician class. The class had just mapped out the electricity of a test house, wired it and got light bulbs in each room to work. Next, we visited a class for bartending where the older teens learn how to make different drinks, a great job in a large tourist area. Lastly, we visited an accounting class. The students had just started that week and Denisse introduced herself and spoke to the class. She spoke about how much Caminante has done to fight for education. She spoke about how children who came from rough families have gone through the program and become parents themselves — parents who educate, love and respect their children — and that she hopes one day each person in the class will become respectable parents as well.
We then drove to another part of Boca Chica near the water where there was a graduation for children who had just finished the Caminante year-long program. There were 150 children participating in the graduation ceremonies. Denisse took pictures with each class and handed each child a diploma.
I was blown away by the impact Denisse has had in Boca Chica. For more than twenty years she has been transforming lives of children and teens, steering them to futures filled with opportunity. While heinous and unthinkable acts continue against children in the Dominican Republic, it’s encouraging to know that people like Denisse are fighting each and every day to give children a better chance at life. The children who have graduated from her program have gone on to live happy lives, making a positive impact of their own. I was so honored to meet Denisse and I hope to bring volunteers to work with Caminante in the future.