In the 1990s, ICRI was invited by the International Center on Aging of the Dominican Republic to assist in the establishment of work related child care programs for the free trade zones of the Dominican Republic. We were also invited to work with a large religious organization, Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, on rural projects to save small Dominican villages.
ICRI was invited to work on a new approach to saving these villages by establishing early childhood centers whereby local young parents would be encouraged to stay in their villages to raise their young children instead of moving into greater poverty in the larger Dominican cities.
The SSM group provided funding and a regional development organization known as FUDECO began to organize rural village early childhood centers along the Dominican-Haitian border, one of the poorest areas in the world. The greatest challenge to the establishment of these village-based early childhood programs was that there were no trained early childhood teachers in these communities.
After much consideration, FUDECO came up with an intriguing plan: since each of the villages had at least one village school with a trained principal and teachers, they decided to offer women who had retired from teaching in these schools a new opportunity. They offered them free training and secure jobs to replace the minimal retirement income that was keeping these women in poverty in retirement. The many women in the first twelve villages to be selected for inclusion in this new program were excited at the opportunity to become useful again in their communities as well as to receive a wage that would help them to survive and thrive. The women began in earnest as directors and head-teachers of programs that were based in cement or dirt-floored, metal-roofed rooms that were found in the plazas of most of these villages. The directors received initial training from FUDECO and introductory training from local UNICEF representatives. ICRI was requested to come in to the programs to help the women to reach the next level of quality, function, and support for the children they were serving.
The women rapidly became seen as community leaders and became part of a new local infrastructure of community service to children and families in each of the villages that they served. In ICRI’s work with the teachers who became known as “Profesoras,” a name of high honor in the Dominican Republic, we were dealing with a remarkably adept, flexible, creative, and powerful group of women between 65 and 85 years old. The women became the dynamic centers of early childhood programs that were serving children, helping parents, and keeping younger local population in the villages.
At the 85th birthday party of a wiry, white-haired woman with a perennial smile and a look of intensity in her eyes, she was asked how long she would continue to work. “I think I’ll probably retire in another ten years. This has been the most amazing five years of my life.”
The program has now grown from 12 villages to 52 villages along the Dominican-Haitian border. In each village, the Profesoras are leaders, advocates, great supporters and mentors for young children and families. Most of all, the Profesoras have defied the traditional views of aging and demonstrated the true wisdom, leadership, and vitality that elders can provide in a community.