Area women to build homes in Dominican RepublicSixteen women equipped with hammers will be headed to the Dominican Republic this month to build homes and experience living conditions in a Third World country.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Sixteen women equipped with hammers will be headed to the Dominican Republic this month to build homes and experience living conditions in a Third World country.
It will be group leader Deb Weitala’s third trip to a remote village known only as “Kilo 16,” so named because it lies about 16 kilometers, or about 9.6 miles, from Hato Mayor, Dominican Republic, the closest large town. Hato Mayor, in turn, is about 66 miles northeast of the capital city of Santo Domingo.
There, the volunteers will build homes to meet the most basic needs of area farm workers. They will also share their own personal and spiritual experiences.
“This isn’t a women’s thing,” Weitala said. “In the past, we’ve had both men and women on our trips to the Dominican Republic, but part of my job as director of women’s missions is to help women get equipped for life. Sometimes, that means opening our eyes to relationships in other countries and getting out of our comfort zones.”
Weitala, 56, is a ministry assistant at Northridge Baptist Church in Mitchell. She also is the director of women’s missions for the Converge Heartland District of the Baptist General Conference, which includes women from Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. Of the 16 women going to the Dominican Republic from Feb. 18 to 28, eight are from Mitchell and surrounding communities.
The local roster includes Weitala; Lori Jones, a paraprofessional at L.B. Williams Elementary School, and her daughter, Lyndy; Chris Vickers, the owner of Prestige Hair Salon, of Mitchell; Stacey Scott, who works at Klock Werks in Mitchell; Michelle Oftedahl, of Mount Vernon; Michele Smith, of Parkston; and Ali Scheuerenbrand, who works for Firesteel Healthcare Center, in Mitchell.
All had to raise their own funds for the trip, which cost $2,400 apiece. The women each raised $1,850 of that amount, and the remainder was given as a scholarship by Impact Lives.
It hasn’t been an easy year for Weitala. In January, her older brother, Davison County Commissioner David Weitala, 60, died of a heart attack after shoveling snow.
Part of coping with grief has been to stay busy with her church work and with Impact Lives, a Minneapolis-based organization that seeks to create humanitarian leadership development.
“It’s not just busy work,” Weitala said. “It’s work the Lord called me to do, and that helps me to feel closer to my brother. He was always so supportive of my ministry.”
Mitchell residents are most familiar with Impact Lives through the three one-day food packing events held at the Corn Palace.
Each spring from 2009 to 2011, volunteers from Mitchell and surrounding communities packed 1 million meals under the direction of Impact Lives and its founder Ramon Pastrano, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate trained in military logistical supply.
Pastrano, who was born in the Dominican Republic, has since put that background to use by training volunteers like Weitala to help organize food-packing drives across the United States. Pastrano’s organization then directs the food where it’s needed most, making sure it isn’t siphoned off by black-market privateers.
Food packed in Mitchell last spring ended up in Nigeria, Weitala said. The previous two packing drives sent food to disaster-torn Haiti, the Dominican Republic, a South Dakota Indian reservation and the Salvation Army.
There will be no food-packing event at the Corn Palace this year, Weitala said.
“We are taking a year off to rest and reorganize,” she said, and to raise money for the April 27, 2013, packing event at the Corn Palace. Donations to Impact Lives — c/o Northridge Baptist Church, PO Box 631, Mitchell, S.D., 57301 — are welcome.
Impact Lives is about more than just packaging and distributing food, Weitala said. The organization also organizes leadership and volunteers to help supply medical care, and to develop housing, medical care, water and infrastructure projects internationally. The work at Kilo 16 is one of those projects. Pastrano will also attend the event, Weitala said.
The homes the volunteers will build in the Dominican Republic are shelter in the most basic sense, Weitala said, but the construction process is empowering for the women of both cultures.
She appreciated the determination of Oneida, a Dominican woman who invested “sweat equity” by helping to build her own house.
“After a mission trip they will say, ‘Gee, I built a house.’ It’s not a house we could live in here in South Dakota — we’d freeze to death in such a house here,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s something that is appreciated.”
Work in a tropical climate can be hot, sweaty and uncomfortable, but Weitala said she has never had a prima donna or a shirker on a mission trip.
“If anything, I have had to slow them down a bit,” she said.
On one of her earlier trips, mission volunteers built a church from concrete block. Block, however, is too expensive to be used for average homes.
“The church serves both Dominican and Haitian residents. Normally, the two cultures don’t get along,” Weitala said.
The church has helped to improve communications between the two groups and crime in the area has also diminished. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Carlos Soegaard, a Costa Rican, said many have been baptized into Christianity.
Weitala recalled one such mass baptism.
“It was like a scene right out of the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou.’ The sun was shining and there were 50 people in white robes gathered by the river,” she said.
One by one they entered the river, immersed by Carlos. They emerged baptized into the Christian faith.
“I actually renewed my own baptismal vows,” Weitala said. “It was wonderful to be part of that experience.”
Many of the residents of Kilo 16 work as pickers in the orange groves that surround the area. Their lives are hard and many live in crude shelters built from scraps of wood and covered with sheets of reclaimed corrugated metal. There is no water system — water must be carried from the river — no sanitation system, and no electricity.
The homes the volunteer workers build are of the simplest construction, said Kim VanWalleghen, 51, a licensed contractor who owns Aerie Construction in Letcher. While she is not going to the Dominican Republic this time, she accompanied Weitala to Kilo 16 on a previous trip. It was an eye-opening introduction to Third World construction.
“Money is a big problem, so the homes are pretty small, probably 10 feet by 12 feet, or 12 feet by 12 feet,” VanWalleghen said.
The foundations are the sawed-off stumps of rot-resistant trees. All materials are purchased locally. The walls of the homes are built from two-by-fours on 2-foot centers. The walls are made from wide, ship-lap planks nailed to the framework. Corrugated tin covers the roof. There are holes cut for windows, but there’s no glass and there are no screens.
The thing that Van Walleghen remembers most is the noise.
“It was so loud you could hardly think,” she said.
That may seem odd for a remote village, she concedes, but the preferred means of transportation in the area is cheap, loud and often muffler-less motorbikes, and the din of daily life was considerable.
Tools are basic. VanWalleghen said native workers used extremely sharp machetes to score the roofing tin, and muscle to tear the tin along the scored line.
All materials are carefully measured and rationed.
“They count the nails,” VanWalleghen said, “and you had to go and look for any nails that flew off your hammer. It made me aware of how wasteful we are in the States where we use pneumatic nailers to bang in nails without thinking. It was a learning experience.”
Weitala said VanWalleghen’s professional experience was invaluable to the group.
“For her, it’s about teaching women not to be afraid to try new things. She taught me how to swing a hammer,” Weitala said. “I wish she was coming on this trip.”
After the house is built, the workers come back and pour a concrete floor, VanWalleghen said.
It’s that last amenity that women appreciate most, since it’s easier to keep a concrete floor clean than the dirt floor, which is typical in most homes. All concrete must be mixed by hand with water carried from the river. She was most impressed by the upbeat and buoyant spirit of the people.
“It’s amazing, and they’re so grateful, and they keep their new homes spotless,” she said.
The upcoming trip, Weitala said, will be about discovering strengths and building connectedness.
“It’s not just about building houses or feeding people,” she said. “It’s about feeding the soul.”