Saturday, June 11, 2011

Highlights from the first half of 2011

As yet another year is flying by, I find myself recounting the first half of 2011 when it seems like just yesterday that I was recapping the latter half of 2010.

Highlights from the first half of 2011 (get ready for the marathon....):

  • Photos from a boat trip in Monte Cristi, a town in the northwest of the DR, nearby the border with Haiti in January:
Top to bottom: (mangroves, famous "morro" rock in Monte Cristi, rocky coastal area, the shoe rock, salt mines on caye off the coast)

 Trainings for FRUTICOOP: Four trainings in February

This February 17 women in the cooperative participated in four trainings over the course of five days. The trainings covered various topics ranging from business plan development, business management and administration, commercialization and sales strategy, transportation, distribution and logistics.

Construye Tus Suenos (CTS) or “Build Your Dreams” 2011

This year I have become more involved in Construye tus Suenos (CTS), or the Build Your Dreams program. CTS consists of two parts, the first is a 14 session business course curriculum designed to help youth gain invaluable entrepreneurial and life skills, learning how to write a business plan and how to implement a small business. The second part is to enter to compete in the business plan competition. Twenty plus talented youth and their business plans will be selected to compete in this year’s competition, which will take place in October. Winners will walk away with seed money to fund their small businesses and other prizes.

  • Revising the CTS Manual:  In the beginning of the year I turned a lot of my energy towards revising parts of the CTS curriculum. A small group of volunteers and I sat down with the manual and revised each section, aiming to clarify confusing sections, correct spelling/grammar errors and add more detail to certain sections. It may sound like an easy task but ended up being pretty time consuming-- in the end I think we have an excellent manual that volunteers can continue to work with and improve as CTS grows.           
  • This year we received funding from the Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), and therefore incorporated a responsibility and healthy decision-making component in the curriculum. The new component doesn’t directly address HIV/AIDS relief, but rather approaches it through preventative methods through healthy decision-making and responsibility. Youth that become involved in the course are working on their personal and professional development. Through involving themselves in a course such as CTS, youth can work on developing skills that can help them to get on the right track by making good and informed decisions that will help them to achieve their goals and get where they want to be in life.
  • Train the trainers:  At the end of March, we held a train the trainers course with 20 or so participants across sectors. The training goal was to encourage volunteers from other sectors to teach the course even though they are not business volunteers. In the daylong event, business volunteers facilitated a crash course on the CTS curriculum, including walking through sessions and lesson plans to help new facilitators feel comfortable with the course material. Hopefully we see some of the new facilitators bringing their kids to the competition this year!
  • The CTS class in my town (Beginning of May):  I started my class this year with less interest from the community than last year. After promoting the course in the local high school, youth groups, and community groups, I was surprised at the weak turnout.  I have 11 participants, two of which are older women who wanted to take the course, which I had no problem with. So far attendance varies from week to week, directly correlating with incidence of local baseball games.  At least there are a couple of dedicated students—that’s all you need really! We will see how many finish…
 Congressional Visit to Batey Experimental

A Congressional Delegation arrived several week into March to commemorate 50 years of the Peace Corps. Among them were Senator Kent Conrad (N. Dakota), Senator Hagan (N. Carolina), Senator Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Representative Becerra (California, LA),  Representative Welch (Vermont), Ambassador Raul Yzaguirre and worldwide Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams. Director Williams served in the late 60's in the DR where he met his wife, a Dominican woman to whom he is still married. Four other volunteers and I, the country director and other PC employees accompanied the delegation to a site visit to PCV Kerri Magee's site, Batey Experimental in the East.

                                                  Director Williams and me (above)

Reconstruction of Community Space San Juan Bautista:                       
                                                                                                                                                               Another project that has been in the works for quite some time is the reconstruction of a dilapidated community space in the community. I was set to help out with the project a year ago, but it fell off the radar until now. Community space San Juan Bautista was built in the 1960’s  and is used by various community groups to host weekly meetings, community events, special courses and weekly services.  In addition, it is used as a refuge for up to 130 men, women and children during times of natural disaster such as hurricanes and tropical storms that frequent the  country.                                                                                                                                                        
      I wrote a Peace Corps Partnerships Program (PCPP) grant which should be posted on the website any day now. The project goal is to renovate the community space by replacing the zinc roof with better material and replacing a door. Since its' inception, the space has become worn down. The zinc roof is littered with holes, with rain leaking in during bad weather. One of the large three-part doors no longer works. It is still being used regardless of its' physical state, which has become a danger to community members and groups who use it weekly.          

          The project idea was first raised over ten years ago as the space began to wear down. After years of effort the community has come together and raised a large sum of money to contribute to the majority of the project cost, including building materials and manual labor. The PCPP grant will cover the cost of the roofing materials.  Stay tuned for info on how to contribute to the project!

Industrial Fruit Dryers:

     The industrial fruit dryers were finally installed in the plant at the end of April/beginning of May after months of waiting. They were ordered back in December and arrived on February 17th. The ten weeks they spent in customs felt like a never-ending, stressful bureaucratic battle to get them out.

     One of the reasons it took so long was the lengthy process of exonerating taxes. The taxes alone were a healthy sum of 450,000 pesos (around 13,000 USD), which made the process worth it.  For any small business this is a lot of money, for a small women’s cooperative in the rural DR this is a WHOLE lot of money. The exoneration process was an exhausting one of seemingly endless formalities, bureaucracies, and inefficiencies abound. Time is money, and the 10 weeks it took two government institutions to process a request to exonerate the taxes for a cooperative racked up a hefty sum in storage fees at the customs port. If they weren’t going to get our tax money, they certainly took their time so they could still get their money’s worth in storage fees (which ended up being one fourth the cost of the taxes in the end).

     But in the end the dryers finally arrived. We hired a tow truck driver out of Bani to come out and unload the dryers, which were enormous. They were much larger than any of us had imagined, and of course the main consultant did not measure the size of the equipment. We had to break the front door of the plant to make the entrance larger so they could even make it inside the plant. After the dryers spent several days covered by tarps outside we were finally able to find a fork lift the machines and place them in their final resting place in the back corner of the plant (see photo below).

    Now FRUTICOOP has really transformed from a small operation to a semi industrial operation with the arrival of this machinery, in terms of product quality and output. There will be no shortage of work for the women of Villa Fundacion!

Advancements with FRUTICOOP 

Of course, we weren't completely idle while waiting for the dryers to arrive.... here are several advancement with FRUTICOOP that took place while either waiting for the dryers or preparing for the inauguration!
  • Hired a part time secretary, who has been working with me and the two managers in organization, inventory, and is learning the digital accounting program. 
  • Organized the offices files with hanging file organizers (surprisingly hard to find in the DR!), plastic organizers and laminated labeling system in the finished product storage.  
  • Bought and installed an air conditioning in the finished product storage area to keep products cool.
  • Printed and laminated production process flow labels in Spanish and English and put them up around the plant based on the new production line and processes.
  • Got a flota (business unlimited phone plan) with five phones so the main project trainer, me, the two managers and the security guard all have unlimited calling time between us. We also have internet at the plant now.
  • Bought a new computer and installed the new HP Photosmart printer donated by my family (thanks Dad and Nancy!!).
  • Organizational chart and description of positions for new cooperative management structure.
  • Redesigned product labels according to FDA/EU standards; sent out for nutritional analysis of pineapple marmalade product.
  • Two new publicity signs: One at the entrance into Villa Fundacion indicating “Cooperative Fruticoop- FRUTISOL, Frutas Deshidratadas, 800 KM, and the other with FRUTISOL (the brand name) and an arrow indicating the entrance to the plant. 
  • Painted the cement block walls an outer storage area a nice green color and repainted the plant yellow. Repainted the cistern.
  • Opened a separate entrance into the business office to eliminate potential contamination in the production area. Put up soap dispensers in the bathrooms.
  • Bought a pineapple de-corer and peeler to speed up production process and improve pineapple product quality.
  • Created a new passageway from the raw material reception area to the production area, complete with a alucin roof and anti-virus screen walls, and a new roll down door at the entrance.

  • First test run using the new dryers:

     Inauguration (End of May):

    After we finally installed the dryers, the mad dash ensued to get the plant up to speed for the inauguration in just ten days. The inauguration was a successful event, with some 125 guests, including eight guests of honor that included his Taiwanese Ambassador Isaac Tsai, FRUTICOOP president (my project partner) Maria Castillo, the town mayor, representatives from IDECOOP and the Secretary of Agriculture, amongst others. The event lasted two hours, with coverage from The Listin Diario newspaper out of Santo Domingo and a local news source. There were four speakers (including an impromptu speech from yours truly),  a prayer, national anthem, ribbon cutting, a tour of the plant and demonstration, a slideshow that no one could see because of the sun, and dried fruit, sandwiches and punch to enjoy at the end. All in all it went well!

    Below: (1) Taiwanese Ambassador Isaac Tsai speaking at the Inauguration, (2) cutting the ribbon

    All Volunteer Conference:  

    Every May Peace Corps DR has an All-Volunteer Conference, where all volunteers are required to attend a day long networking event. This year there were around 235 volunteers who are currently serving in country present, many familiar faces and even more new faces! It was surreal to have so many volunteers in one place. It was also the last event for the PCDR country director for the last five years, Romeo Massey, who did an excellent job and will be missed.

    Family Visit to the East: 

    Family came to visit twice this year. First, my sister Stefany and her husband Sean came in March. they came to my site for a night and then we went up to Cabarete on the north coast for the weekend. I took them to Playa Grande and then by Monday was back at my site while they spent the rest of the week at a resort. It was really fun, and I am still waiting to get the pictures! Here are photos from a long weekend in La Romana when my Dad, Nancy and my niece Lily's visit to the DR in May:

    1 comment:

    1. congratulations on all your success and hard work!