by Magdalena Malinowska, KF11 Dominican Republic

It started at 10 am on a Thursday in Monoguayabo, a dusty industrial neighborhood of Santo Domingo. But first I had to get there and that took a long while, but it was worth it because the Madre y Luz Group’s meeting turned out to be unforgettable.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the series of unthinkably beat up vehicles well beyond their expiration dates still serving as daily transport for hours on end. Nothing new about the purpose and the format and of the bi-weekly repayment gathering of ten of the seven thousand plus of Esperanza’s currently active borrowers in the Dominican Republic: attendance was taken, passbooks were updated, money was collected, Kiva interview was accomplished. In my 9th week in the field, I have witnessed several dozens of these all over the country. So what made this one special? Two things.

First it was the place of the meeting. A regular neighborhood community center from the outside, but once inside, huge banners plastered around the walls drew my attention immediately. Cute kids learning and playing sports, but … wait a minute! What’s this familiar face? Pedro Martinez!!?? What is HE doing here? Yes, he’s Dominican and yes, people here love their baseball players especially when they are this famous but, still, what is he doing HERE?

Banner of Pedro Martinez in HPEA Center.

While the group assembles, Guadalupe Feliz, the center’s director explains that it is financed and run by a foundation established by Pedro and his wife Carolina. It is called “Hay Poder en Aprender” (There’s power in learning) and it provides a series of complimentary educational services for school-aged kids. “It started with girls, but we have recently expanded it to everyone and now we are over capacity! Kids come here for computer, English and other classes before and after school to strengthen their knowledge.” Most Dominican schools are over-loaded, and thus forced to run two turns of classes daily. They lack resources, and so, programs like this one offer students a unique opportunity to fill in the gaps. But HPEA’s programs are not limited to boosting test scores – they create a sense of community, provide emotional and spiritual guidance and strive to help kids and teenagers gain self-confidence by discovering their inner talents.

The place of the meeting - the HPEA Center.

Wow! I was ecstatic – not only was this yellow building adorned with bees and bible quotes making a positive change in the lives of the youngest members of this poor community, it was all the brainchild of the pitcher who helped MY baseball team break the Curse of the Bambino. I am not a sports fan at all, but I am from Red Sox Nation (i.e. Boston) and so feeling a special connection to this lanzador (his abandoning of the Red Sox forgiven) surprises me only a bit. And… his center was sharing their resources with Esperanza, another organization focused on working with the adult underprivileged of this community, by providing a place for their loan meetings.

Eureka! There it dawned on me that there was another dimension to the Esperanza and HPEA connection: my MFI was started by another Major League baseball player – David Valle a catcher for the Seattle Mariners in the 80’s. Perhaps that is why Esperanza International assisted HPEA at the project’s initiation in receiving a sponsorship from USAID and the Major League of Baseball – Dominican Development Alliance.

Picture from Esperanza’s website, announcing their collaboration with HPEA.

With the center properly photographed and the borrowers assembled, the repayment meeting begins. All goes well, until the loan officer points out that that this one is the 11th payment of 12 and asks who’s taking out another loan. Most women happily raise their hand, but Maria, a young hairdresser, begins to cry. She’d like to stay in the group but her business is not going well and so she doesn’t know what to do. “It’s better not to take out a loan” she says through her tears. And more than its location, it is actually this moment what makes this meeting special.

The other members of the group immediately start to console Maria, by offering tips on improving and diversifying her business and, finally, by means of a very touching idea: they propose that all of them vow to use her beauty salon from now on and in this way become her clients. The loan officer picks up the idea and says that this is one of the benefits of working in a group: it creates community not only of fellow entrepreneurs but also of mutual clients. This is where the concept of group solidarity takes on its true meaning, surpassing its financial essence and acquiring a human dimension. Shared risk as a substitute for traditional asset-based guarantee for the purpose of capital acquisition transformed into true commiseration, camaraderie and unity in time of hardship. Perhaps this community aspect of group-based entrepreneurship is often equally important as the mere financial dimension of an opportunity at self-employment.

The group, with loan officer and Kiva Fellow.

The meeting of the Madre y Luz Group (Mother and Light) ends with another magical moment initiated by somebody from the group – Ramona, a candy maker, suggests prayer in a circle. Maria has until the next meeting to decide whether to take another loan and how to improve her business. I leave the HPEA center in the hometown of Pedro Martinez (that’s why it’s HERE), filled with a new understanding of the social dimensions of the of micro-finance and a new appreciation for the human capacity to help each other, on a macro (if you throw baseballs) and micro scale (if you sell candy).

Names of borrowers and group have been changed. To support borrowers like the Madre y Luz Group and Esperanza Internacional click here.


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