What began in 2006 as a mission trip to rebuild a poor community -- Higuey, in the Dominican Republic -- that was devastated by a hurricane has evolved into an ongoing community-building ministry.
St. Ambrose Parish in Brunswick, led by its pastor, Father Bob Stec, organized the first trip. For several years, more than 150 people traveled to Higuey every June and December, where they built a community center, a school and a chicken coop. They also established a water system, hooked up electricity and brought much-needed food and supplies to the residents. St. Ambrose parishioners and others throughout Northeast Ohio support Mission Possible -- as the all-volunteer ministry is known -- with prayers, money and donations of clothing, toys and building supplies. Its tagline is “Care, connect, engage.”
And that’s what volunteers continue to do. Two one-week, back-to-back mission trips now take place in June with multi-generational participation, including students from Padua Franciscan High School in Parma and St. Joseph Academy in Cleveland. Volunteers must complete an application and are screened for skills that could be helpful to the mission, including speaking Spanish, painting, construction experience, etc. Many more apply than can be accepted and usually there is a waiting list. Volunteers, who pay their own expenses, stay at a hotel and are transported to and from the village by truck or bus.
One longtime volunteer is Eva Dolan, a parishioner at Holy Angels in Bainbridge, who has made trips for about a decade. Eva, whose son, Paul, is chairman/CEO/owner of the Cleveland Indians, sometimes makes additional trips, including one in January when she attended the dedication of a new baseball field. Baseball is a popular sport on the island, with many MLB clubs, including the Indians, running clinics to scout and cultivate potential players.
“She’s community- and civic-minded and a team player,” Father Bob said about Eva. She rolls up her sleeves and works alongside other volunteers, often preparing peanut butter sandwiches for the volunteers’ lunches, he added.
Father Bob heard about the plight of the people in Higuey from Archbishop Timothy Broglio, a Cleveland native who heads the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. Previously, the archbishop served as papal nuncio for the Dominican Republic 2001-2007.
After talking to the local bishop and some religious sisters working on the island, Father Bob and others decided to help.
Sarah Krieger of St. Ambrose, who coordinates the June mission trips, said Mission Possible’s leadership consists of a 20-member board that includes Eva, Father Bob, her mom, Kathy Krieger, Marlene Antonius and her daughter, Maria Antonius. Maria recently graduated from Brunswick High School and plans to study nursing and Spanish at The Ohio State University this fall. The women gathered recently at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians and site of the 2019 MLB All-Star Game, to discuss their mission work.
“We have two sustainable communities that we go to each year, St. John the Evangelist (Communidad de San Juan Evangelista) that the sisters helped rebuild after Hurricane Jeanne (a Category 3 storm that damaged the island in September 2004) and the Community of Catholic Life (La Vida Catolica),” Sarah said.
St. John’s includes 56 new homes, two community centers, a medical clinic and a school where English as a Second Language is taught. The Community of Catholic Life has 47 homes with more under construction, a church, a community center and land that was donated to the government for a police station to serve the community at-large.
“We try to build 10-12 more homes each year,” Sarah said. About 500 people of all ages call the communities home. The 16-by-23-foot homes consist of two bedrooms, a bathroom and common living space. An average of six people, often including extended family, live in a home. Mercados (markets) serve the residents. Live chickens, eggs and other items are trucked to the communities.
Kathy said many of the residents – who must have some income in order to afford the rent for a house (about $10 per month plus electricity and water costs) – work in the resorts in cities like Punta Cana, which is 45 minutes to an hour away. In order to conserve gasoline, many travel to and from work in old school buses.
First-time volunteers are taken to see “Tin City,” which Eva said is near the river. “People will use anything they can find to build with. They live in extreme poverty,” she said. The experience shows how some people live now and how they can live, if accepted as residents in one of the mission communities.
Sarah called the experience emotionally and physically draining, but Maria said it’s important “because seeing that hardship gives a sense of why we do this.”
Another important thing is teaching the residents to live in community. Eva said in Tin City it’s every man for himself. “But when they move into the community, they have to understand that they have neighbors.”
“We teach them to take care of themselves and their homes,” Sarah said, adding that the Community of Catholic Life is beautiful, with residents planting flowers and maintaining the area.
“They create a sense of pride by doing landscaping,” Maria said.
Residents -- with help from mission volunteers -- maintain the homes, paint, do plumbing work, clean and fight mold -- which is a big problem in the warm, humid tropical climate – and spread gravel to improve drainage, Sarah said. During the mission visits, there also are medical clinics, Vacation Bible School and baseball camps.
“We want to launch them into the world well-prepared, both spiritually and physically educated,” Eva said.
The new baseball field, which previously was an empty field, was cleaned of broken glass, animal waste and other trash. Eva said it took nearly eight years to ensure that the title to the land was clear and to prepare the field. The hope is to add lights for nighttime play.
Since the area is so poor, MLB scouts don’t visit, Eva said. The new field will give young people a chance to improve their baseball skills and improve their chances of attending a structured, six-month baseball academy sponsored by one of the MLB teams like the Indians.
“Several people left the communities to attend the baseball academies,” Sarah said, adding if their skills are strong enough, they could advance in the system.
There is a Dominican Republic league and some MLB players return to the island during the winter months.
Baseball academies require adherence to a strict lifestyle, Eva said. Students must go to school, eat good food and practice. They encourage other young people to do the same and to finish high school. She compared the program to a military lifestyle in which the students learn to do things properly and at the assigned time.
“Baseball is their passage to the rest of the world,” Eva said, “but if they’re not housed, fed and clothed decently, they can’t learn anything.
Maria said new this year is Proposito, a program that will empower young women to find their God-given purpose in life. Participants will watch videos, do yoga, learn about their bodies and more. The program, which requires an application, also may offer scholarship opportunities.
Marlene said she is looking forward to the mission trip this year. “It’s a big sacrifice for us to go as a family. We’ve made some wonderful friends through Mission Possible and the experience has brought us closer to God,” she said, adding this is the first time her son will be making the trip. “It helps us to see that we are all connected and are all children of God.”
Watch Mission Possible’s video to learn more and see their progress
This story is featured in the July-August edition of Northeast Ohio Catholic Magazine. Click HERE to read the entire digital edition.