I walk on a solid floor in my house each day without a single thought. My kitchen is tiled and my bedroom is a sturdy, oak hardwood. I admit I take my floor for granted. Until I took a Fathom cruise to volunteer in the Dominican Republic, I didn’t realize how important something as simple as a solid structure under your feet can be.
Eriberta and Chavez
We made the drive to the town of El Javillar, about 20 minutes from Puerto Plata. Our car couldn’t fit between the angular homes and narrow, rugged roads so we parked and walked the rest by foot. It’s a low-income neighbourhood with 4,000 people. The homes in this village are brushed every colour of the rainbow but inside many are crumbling, most of them made of wood and make-shift metal rooftops to protect from the rain. About 80% of Dominicans in this town live on contaminated dirt floors.
A clean, concrete floor is a dream for many people here.
We reached a cozy-looking blue house with a bright orange porch, a woman and her husband, whose smiles I was sure would light up the entire street! Keep reading to watch my video of the couple below.
Eriberta and her husband Chavez were anxiously waiting for us. We were the “extranjeros” who have come to help transform their home and give them a new concrete floor. It was a raw and simple space, slightly slanted windows, and the inside painted in hues of blue, red and orange – their family home was filled like any other. Stuffed animals tucked in the corner, kids toys, hanging laundry, and I could see a few handyman fixes – their fridge door was kept together by a tight string.
The floor extending into the bedroom, family room and entrance was the only thing left they had not been able to fix.
We got our hands dirty with Santos and three other Dominicans which local-NGO IDDI hired from the El Javillar neighbourhood. One of IDDI’s projects is transforming dirt floors in low-income communities every week. Even if they don’t have volunteers this project goes on. The organization gives materials and a wage to a few local workers in order to make sure a family can get a concrete floor to walk on.
I was nervous that I would only get in the way but our facilitator Felix assured me that Fathom volunteers actually help rather than hinder the effort. Volunteers work alongside locals (not for them) and if you think about it, this is a great way to offer interaction and cultural exchange which they wouldn’t normally get in a small village.
More hands also means the job can get done sooner especially in hot tropical heat.
We helped Santos mix and slather sand, water and cement. My clothes were absolutely filthy by the end of the morning, but I didn’t care because I knew how important the end result would be.
The Impact a Simple Floor Can Have
I asked Felix, “How much would this normally cost without IDDI support?”
“10K Dominican pesos to cover a small house. About $250USD. That’s not including the labour”.
It’s a hefty price to pay considering a monthly income for an average Dominican is $170. Chavez works construction while Eriberta works 3-11pm peeling breadfruit in a local factory to make tostones (fried plantains locals eat like chips). When she’s not working, she says it’s hard to keep the bed sheets and clothes from getting dusty from the ground. How do you clean a dirt floor when it’s just dirt?
The couple also worry about their growing family. The live alone but they have three grandsons that visit often. The youngest is just a few months old who will learn to walk soon. Before he learns to walk he needs to learn to crawl on his hands and knees and they don’t want it to be on a dirty floor.
The weather is probably the most difficult to deal with. I remembered just two days earlier we had a torrential downpour in the Puerto Plata. Like most homes, Eriberta and Chavez had a seemingly strong metal-sheet roof over their heads but I could see a few gaps in the corners. It’s not rainy season yet but I’m sure this dirt floor turned muddy that day it rained, maybe contaminated, and risk of parasites. Disease spreads more easily in homes with dirt floors and getting sick is costly. Adults can’t work, kids can’t go to school, and paying for medical care is virtually impossible.
This was Eriberta and Chavez’s daily reality. Before we arrived I knew we were helping to improve a family’s quality of life but I didn’t realize, until I got there, how truly life-changing something as simple as a floor was going to be for them. These are the volunteer projects that are the most rewarding for me. When I can see the direct social and economic impact I could have on someone else’s life – even after I’m gone.
Eriberta could not stop smiling from ear to ear. The Sunday following our impact activity would be Mother’s Day in the Dominican Republic. She told us she could not wait to celebrate with her grandkids and let them play on the floor a little while longer now. I can’t explain how it feels to be able to give this gift to her for Mother’s Day.
Before saying our goodbyes I remember thinking, will she remember me?
Probably not. But I’ll definitely never forget her. Or that a family now has a proper floor to live (and play) on.
My volunteer experience was part of Fathom’s impact travel cruise in the Dominican Republic, which offers volunteer cruise vacations for people who want to make a difference in the Caribbean. As always all opinions are my own.