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Featuring: Willy Denis

Where are you from?   I am from Grisonguarde, Haiti. It’s close to Cap Haitian.

When did you come to the Dominican Republic?   I came in 2003. I think I was 10 years old at the time.

Why did you come?   I came searching for life. Mark (fake name) is from the same place as my family in Haiti. Mark talked to my mom and said that he would come with me to the Dominican Republic. He didn’t say he wanted me to work for him. My dad had died and my mom had trouble taking care of us. People who used to come to the Dominican Republic used to say it was a good place. I understood that you could find things on the ground, etc. I liked bikes a lot. Mark said I would find a bike in the Dominican Republic in the trash or on the ground. He said I would find a radio too. So my mom sent me. When I was going, my mom said that I would go and to not touch other people’s stuff and don’t enter into other people’s problems or business. She also told me not to fight or argue with anyone. She also told me that when I make money, not to forget her. My dad had died and she is my mom, my family, and my priority. She told me to not waste money when I have it. I should send it to her so she could buy a goat or a pig. That way, if I had a problem in the future, I would have an investment. That way she wouldn’t have to ask people for help on my behalf and for people to embarrass her.

How did you come?   I came through the woods. We walked from Ouanaminthe (on the border on the Haiti side) until Mao. Then you take a vehicle to another part of the country, walk more, then arrive at a place where another car picks you up. When you get to Santiago, you take a public bus and make it to Puerto Plata home free. The first time I came with other people (190 people altogether)… with a passer and with Mark’s wife, and many other people. We didn’t run into any guards along the way, just tigre (Dominican thieves). At that point I was very scared and thought that I wouldn’t have come if I knew that would happen. I ran away and so did everyone else. First, they wanted the passer to give them money but he wouldn’t. Then they started searching other people but everyone said to not give them money. We were a big group and could fight them off. They didn’t have guns but they had machetes and knives. Our group fought them with rocks and sticks. No one got cut. One tigre threw a stick at me but I dodged it. I cried and said, “Let’s go back!” The tigres went and found other tigres because they saw that we were a big group. All through the night they were looking for us and we were doing our best to avoid them. Everyone that had white clothes on took them off so that they had a harder time finding us. We weren’t safe until we got to the place where a vehicle picked us up.

The second time I came through the woods by myself with a passer. There were about 10 other people that time but I didn’t know them. We didn’t have any problems that time. This was in 2007 when Caitlin sent me to see my family. I came back right away so that I could live in the house. Before that was the only time I ever went and visited Haiti again since I came here the first time. Before I went, I asked God to protect me along the way and he did. I did the same when I was coming back and he protected me again.

How was your life in the Dominican Republic before you got involved with Project Esperanza?   When I came, even when there was a bike around, Mark wouldn’t let me go on it. He never wanted me to leave the house after dark. He didn’t want Dominicans to abuse me. Mark lives in Padre Granero. They used to make me do lots of work. But when Mark’s wife used to hit me, he never wanted her to.

The first day that I got there, they didn’t make me go and sell sweets. They made me walk with another kid that was already used to selling. This way I learned the route. They didn’t explain to me that I would go and sell sweets every day. They just sent me to walk with another boy the first day. Then the other kids started explaining to me that I would have to do that and that they would never let me rest. The only sandals they used to buy for me were those “kalis” that sold for 15 pesos. When you walk around in those, anything can cut your feet.

Mark didn’t let me play. All other kids who used to go and sell for other people used to go and play but he never wanted to let me play at all. Other kids used to go to the beach sometimes, but I was never allowed. Sometimes when I would have a really good day selling, I would tell him that I wasn’t going to go sell tomorrow. He would say, no don’t say that. Not tomorrow, but another day. But he never gave me a day off.

I used to sleep on a mat on the floor with four other kids. After Mark saw that I sold really well, he bought a little bed for me, and not the others. He used to wake us up early in the morning, around 5:30 am, and tell us to go search for wood on the beach. Then we would all do different jobs…heat up peanuts, take the shells off peanuts, grind up coconut, and then someone would make the sweets over the fire with sugar, water, and other ingredients. Then there was one who would bag the cooked peanuts. When we were done, we would bathe, put on our clothes, and go out and sell. At this point it was noon. Before we would go, they would give us a little money to buy eggs and bread to eat.

We would get back from selling around 8 or 9 pm. They would give us a little money to get a little rice that we would make ourselves before going to bed. Sometimes we used to talk before we went to bed. The next morning he woke us up early and we did it all over again. We never had a day off – 7 days a week. Sundays were the biggest selling day because people didn’t work so there are many people in the streets. Throughout the four or so years I lived with Mark, I remember three days he gave me off because I had sold well. I also spent one month where I didn’t sell at one point because I had an accident where I hurt my leg and couldn’t walk. He took good care of me during that month so that I could get better and get back to work.

Mark used to try to encourage us to sell more. He would say that he would buy things for us if we sold a lot but even if we sold, he wouldn’t follow through. One time I found a wallet with lots of money in it and I gave it to him. He took me to the flea market and bought a pair of tennis shoes to reward me. Later he took the shoes and sent them to his son in Haiti.

How did you get involved in Project Esperanza?   A boy named Junior who used to go to the house took me there in November 2006 when Caitlin and her mom were visiting. Kristin was there but had already gone back and I didn’t meet her. When I got there, I saw lots of my other friends and Caitlin was giving out soccer balls. She gave me one and then the next day left with her mom. They said they were coming back Dec. 31st. I went back that day and saw Kristin and Caitlin right when they first got there. After that, I came every day and did lessons and participated in activities with all of the volunteers. Soon, the house was opened for people to stay. After a few weeks, the volunteers left, but came back in March. I did not live in the house but I wanted to. I never told Mark that I went to the house. Other kids used to mention it to him but I told them not to. I used to pray that they would take me into the house. I would ask the other kids in the house to talk to Caitlin and Bernard, who was responsible at the time, on my behalf and would give them eggs to encourage them to do that.

One night when we were about to go home and it was getting late, Kristin said she would pay a motorcycle for us. But we knew it was too late to go back. They might not open the door for us. Kristin had sent two ahead on motos and then as she was going to pay for me and a friend, a police car stopped and tried to arrest us. Kristin cried and made them not take us. We then went back to the house and she said she would ask Caitlin if we could spend the night. She let us stay that night. The next morning they gave out book bags to everyone who had been going to school. I got one even though I hadn’t started going to school yet because I was selling. When I went back to Mark’s house where I lived, he told me to never sleep outside of the house again. His wife was yelling at me and wanted him to hit me, but he didn’t.

Caitlin gave me the money to go to Haiti when I asked her and then the other kids told Mark that she had given me the money. Mark asked me to see it and for me to give it to him to hold onto. I didn’t give it to him. He let me go. The reason that I went was because I wanted to go and come back quickly to live in the house. I knew that if I moved into the house, he would come after me because it was close, but if I went to Haiti and came back, I wouldn’t be his responsibility anymore. When I came back from Haiti, they let me enter the house. I began going to school.

How did your life change once you got involved with Project Esperanza?   Once I started going to the house, I felt more comfortable with myself. Before I began going to the house, I could only imagine a future of selling sweets day after day. After I began going, I began imagining a different life. I had never gone to school before but was now required to go to school every day. I didn’t know how to read or write but learned. I didn’t know how to play soccer very well but learned. Lots of boys that I was not friends with before I became good friends with.

I used to go to church on Sundays sometimes in Haiti with my mom. Sometimes she didn’t go but she sent me with others. But we didn’t have a Bible in the house. When I came to the Dominican Republic, Mark never went with us to church. Met Wanbert (director of grassroots school in Padre Granero) used to always invite me to go to church with him Sunday nights after I sold sweets, and I used to go sometimes. When I moved into the house we did Bible every night and I learned a lot but lots of the others didn’t take it seriously and would fight, etc.

When I lived with Mark I worked all day and came home and gave him all of the money. I never had any money of my own. When I moved into the house, Caitlin made contracts with us where she bought shoe shine kits and then we were supposed to shine shoes to pay her back. Once we paid her back, we had our own business. I used to always give her money to hold for me too. Sometimes I used to send money to my mom in Haiti with someone who was going.

Now I have learned lots of science, history, math, Bible, etc. I used to enjoy seeing people fight. I used to encourage them and laugh. I came to see that fighting is not good. People get hurt. I used to think it was a game but I came to see that it’s something that can give people real problems and people can die. I used to ask God for him to help me change so that when people fight, I would not laugh. I used to annoy people and pick fights but I don’t do that anymore. I see that it’s not good. Someone can be sitting there peacefully and then I go and pick a fight with him. Why? I saw that God doesn’t like that. If I hurt someone then I’m hurting God too. I used to tell God that and God changed some issues that I had. I told God that I wanted a bike and he made me find two. And at one point I even had a share in a scooter.

I used to always pray for God for us not to think about taking advantage of people, not to steal, but to live like a family. And he answered that too.

What would you like for your future?   I would like to go further with school.

What would you like for the future of Project Esperanza?   I would like for it to advance. I would like for supporters to be more interested in the organization. I would like for the schools to go well and for the teachers to be paid on time. I would like rent to be paid easily and food to be purchased easily. I would like for kids in the same situation I was in to not be mistreated. When I see kids in the streets, I feel bad for them because I was once in the same situation. I would like for the organization to be able to serve these kids. I would like for the soccer team to have lots of players among kids in the streets like we did in the beginning.

Is there anything else you would like to say?   Thank you Caitlin who held onto me for a long time. Thank you for everything that Project Esperanza has done for me. Thank you God. Please continue to advance the organization.