In this article, taken from the June and September 2016 COPA Newsletters, Sebert reflects on the very beginnings of COPA.
It is just 25 years this month since Doreen and I set off for the Dominican Republic though like Victor Meldrew “I can’t belieeeve it” (UK comedy reference - see One Foot in the Grave). In April 1991 our visit there was only for a few days to install a water pump for a friend who was the Minister of a Church in Barahona. It was a small job and we were there for less than a week but it was long enough for our friend, Ray, to show us round the part of Barahona Province where he was working.
Both of us were shocked by the abject poverty in which many people were living at that time and though years previously, as long ago as the 1960s, I had visited many large and small Caribbean islands in connection with my work in the Bahamas, I had never seen anything like this before. Anyone would have been as appalled as we were and we think most people would have wanted to do something about it. We didn’t visit La Hoya or Bombita on that occasion but were touched by a community of about 200 families who, with the aid of Habitat for Humanity, were going over the next few years to move out of their Barahona shacks, often inhabited by two or three generations. Their aim was to build little houses on a very steep hillside at Cassandra Damiron, overlooking the city. They had their land marked out but what concerned us was that though 200 houses were proposed no thought was being given to the infrastructure. There was no school planned for the children, there were no roads and so far they had no water! To get water to make their building blocks, one block at a time, a tanker had to grind its way up a stony track up the hillside. That would remain as their only source of water which of course they would have to pay for.
At that time Doreen and I were living in England though spent the winters in Florida where we had a lovely second waterfront home in Sarasota. As we looked around the plight of this Dominican community and considered our lifestyle we wondered how that could be right? To give up our comfortable lifestyle and move to Barahona was not a decision we had to agonize over. It was made almost in an instant on the hillside overlooking Barahona. We resolved that we would undertake two tasks. First we would drill a well for water and then we would build a school for the children who would be moving into their tiny houses. As with Habitat for Humanity the people would have to undertake most of the physical building work voluntarily but we would return and work voluntarily with them and somehow raise the funds for the building project. We felt sure our Church in Florida would support such a project and that proved to be the case. It was as we were on our way back to England to pack up our home for a few years that we discussed the possibility of fund raising there too and talked about seeking support for the project from Lonsdale Road Methodist Church to which we belonged. The long flight home, lasting ten hours, gave us ample time to develop our plans and as we packed up home we furthered our plans by writing to all our friends and relations and by making presentations to many Churches, schools and clubs in the Gloucester area. When we returned to the DR in September 1991 we had no less than 212 UK sponsors willing to pay £1 a week to support a child in the school and the support from Florida too. We would use the money towards the well and buildings and once the school opened the money would be used to sponsor children to go to school. The formation of Community Partners Association as a charity in Gloucester was left in the capable hands of a UK committee to be completed after we had left. At the same time our American friends were doing the same in Florida.
Our friends in Barahona had found an unfurnished house that we could rent so the first days were spent buying cheap furniture and finding a second hand pickup truck. Next we found a drill rig which would undertake the well. We hired this by the day. It would hammer its way through the rock making a hole eight inches in diameter until it reached water. We had a tense two or three weeks as the percussion bit hammered away with-out result. Finally, the operator announced he could only work for another day as he could go only a little deeper. I had a meeting in Santo Domingo on that day though my mind was often elsewhere. There were no telephones to find out how things were going and no mobile phones there 25 years ago!
That evening as Ray and I bumped our way up the hillside in my old pickup truck the rig was ominously silent. Eventually we saw a little group of men standing around the well who were much quieter than usual. We climbed out of the truck and joined them. It was then that the laughing broke out as a bucket of well water was thrown over us. The excitement was immeasurable! We passed round a cup of cloudy water in which the sand had not settled and even that tasted sweet!
The excitement was immeasurable! We passed round a cup of cloudy water in which the sand had not settled and even that tasted sweet!
That night disaster struck in the form of an earthquake. We felt our bed shaking and something fell off the wall. In Cassandra Damiron the result was that the eight 20 ft. long steel pipes which we had already bought would not pass through the hole to reach the water as the hole was no longer straight! In the end we forced plastic pipes down to the water and with a generator we had bought for the purpose used our new submersible pump for the first time. Fresh water at last.
Our story on the hill did not have a happy ending. Habitat for Humanity withdrew from the project following a falling out with the community of would be house builders. This was an extremely sad time and for some weeks I tried hard to reconcile the two groups. Finally, facts had to be faced and we had to come to terms that our efforts had been in vain. We felt devastated. We thought of all those people who had helped us and wondered how to break the news.
Little did we know that within a few days we would have a delegation from a village we had never heard of called La Hoya, asking us whether we could help them. They said they had over two hundred children and only one temporary classroom. They said only a few of their children went to school. They them-selves could barely read nor write. Little did we know of the wonderful experiences we would have over the next five years – or that there were in fact well over 400 children in La Hoya at that time.
One post script to this story is that some eight years ago I went up the hill to Cassandra Damiron where there was a settlement on the hill. It had little by way of infrastructure and the houses were packed in and looked disorganised. However, they all had good water and it came from the COPA well dug on the hill in 1991.
Next time read about how work started in La Hoya and the quite incredible things that happened there.