Margaret Culver

Apr 252013

I wouldn’t have guessed that at the tender age of 9 or 10, a young boy with so few material possessions could be self conscious about the way he looked, but he was.  It took me a little to recognize the way that Gabriel smiled without showing his teeth or if he giggled. He immediately covered his mouth.

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But sure enough I began to see that he barely showed his front teeth at all.  When I finally got a glimpse, I saw what made the poor child so embarrassed to smile with his teeth.  His front tooth stuck out farther from the rest in a grabs your attention kind of way.  The boys only go to the dentist once a year, when the clinic comes and Gabriel had just become a part of the orphanage so more than likely, a dentist had never even glanced at those teeth before.  Poor access to dental care caused this child his carefree spirit that allowed him to laugh freely.

I’ll never know if other boys made fun of him for it or what drove him into that shell of concealment but it saddens me that a childhood, which is supposed to be a happy time of abandonment and innocence is being tarnished.  Looking back on my life, childhood was the only time when I was so oblivious to others opinions and judgements that I didn’t even think about holding back and concealing some part of myself.  I hope that over the next year sometime, Gabriel will get a chance to go to the dentist and get the tooth fixed.  And if that’s not a possibility, I hope that even more than that he learns to shed his veil of self consciousness and learn not to care what people say or think.  That’s a lesson that I think everyone needs to learn at some point in time.  My mother used to say “not everyone is gonna be a fan”.  Once you accept that truth, it’s easier to accept the reality that follows.

Apr 182013

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This adorable little kid is named David and I have seen him grow and learn now for five years.  When I first met him, he was barely able to walk and had the cutest chubby little legs that waddled when he walked.  Over the years, he has lost some of his baby fat, but hasn’t lost his childish sense of fun.  He will take anything you give him and turn it into multiple different kinds of toys, that you couldn’t even imagine if you tried.  In the pictures above, he took some modeling micro-beads that were being used to create different animals and stuck it on his face as a mustache.  When I cam back later, he had rolled some up into a ball and was throwing it back and forth with another boy.

I was amazed at the creativity of a six year old when it came to toys and games.  At the orphanage, they don’t even have a fraction of all the toys that most kids play with here.  They have a few matchbox cars and a meager collection of legos, but for the most part they play outside and with each other.  They’ll be able to come up with a game simply from sticks and some dirt.  One simply bouncy provides 10+ games, as opposed to just soccer or basketball.  They view play in an entirely different manner.

It’s hard to hypothesize where this creativity comes from, but if I had to guess I would say two things: Number 1- free time and Number 2: Lack of materials.  As children, they have next to no obligations besides bathing and eating.  So that gives them all the time in the world to think about games and play.  Secondly, they don’t have a lot of toys to work with so they stretch what they have and multiply their rewards.  Most kids in America just want more more more, but if they were more thankful and appreciative for what they have in front of them, they would’t be so focused on getting another toy.


Apr 102013

Mental illnesses in third world countries are often neglected and ignored.  When everyone in a family is required to pull their own weight and contribute, a family is at a disadvantage if they have a child who struggles in certain basic functions.  Another compounding factor lies with there being little care for the mentally ill.  In barrios, which are like slums, children born with defects are even left to die.  Such was the case with this sweet little boy named Paco.


Someone had bundled the babe up and left him in a graveyard to die.  Luckily a kind soul had found him and brought him to the orphanage where he was nursed to health and raised.  Nobody is entirely sure what is wrong with Paco, but the likely choice is Down’s Syndrome.  He has some of the key signs like:

  • A flat face with an upward slant to the eye, a short neck, small ears, and a large tongue
  • Tiny white spots on the iris (colored part) of the eye
  • Small hands and feet
  • A single crease across the palm of the hand
  • Small pinky fingers that sometimes curve toward the thumb
  • Poor muscle tone or loose ligaments

From the Center for Disease and Control.

At first, Paco couldn’t understand or speak at all.  But once the orphanage hired a specialist to work with the mentally disabled children, he began to progress.  Paco learned how to count and could say simple words.  While he will never function at the same level as all the other children, he has come a long way under the supervision and training of the specialist.  It is sad to know that so many children can be neglected and pushed to this side because of  a factor that they can’t control.  However, there are some activists in the D.R. who are pushing for more treatment for mentally ill patients, so there is hope for others.


Apr 032013



You would never believe the transformation I saw in this little child’s life from one year to the next.  The first year I saw him, he was continually grumpy and wouldn’t let you tickle or play with him.  A scowl was forever pasted on his face and he barely associated with the other boys.  And with around sixty boys at the orphanage and only 6 or 7 housewives to care for them, nobody noticed for a while, that something was seriously wrong.

Finally after a year of this behavior, somebody suggested estalin go see a doctor to see if there was something internally wrong. After some tests at the local clinic, the doctors discovered that little estalin had a 6 foot long tape worm in him.  The tapeworm was stealing his nutrition, causing the child to be constantly hungry.  The tapeworm was living in his intestine and also causing weakness and digestive issues.  Because the boy was so young, he wasn’t able to verbalize all these conditions, so he suffered while the tapeworm grew inside him and sucked away his nutrients.

Tapeworms can be extracted from eating raw or undercooked meat or drinking contaminated water.  Nobody is really sure how estalin contracted the tapeworm but it is likely that it happened before he came to the orphanage.  Fortunately, this story has a happy ending!  He was able to get the tapeworm removed and the change in estalin was night and day! He immediately became cheerful and giggly.  When I came back the following year, I hardly recognized the smiley face that greeted me with a big hug! He was completely transformed.

It’s hard to imagine tape worms and intestinal parasites being a common occurrence, but in many third world countries, they are a common ailment.  Estalin was lucky that his condition was not more serious and he was able to make a full recovery.  And I’m happy that he’s transformed into the ball of sunshine that he is now.



Mar 282013

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This gem of a girl wasn’t at the orphanage the first or even second year I was there.  But by the third year, she straggled into the orphanage and stirred up a fuss in the first week she was there.  She was picking fights with all the boys and objected to being told what to do.  Reubalisa was soon nicknamed the pistol because she didn’t take anything from anyone.

I wasn’t surprised to find out that she had been a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her father.  Domestic violence is rampant in the DR and women are an easy target, regardless of their age.  They make 44% less than what men earn for the same work and their unemployment rate is more than twice that of men.  This makes women extra vulnerable because it is difficult to support themselves without a man.  The mentality that men are somehow better than women assumes a special name and form in Latin Culture, called “machismo”.  Women have come to accept this as a reality and gender based violence has risen to become the fourth leading cause of death in women.

So when Reubalisa started fights with all the boys and wouldn’t a single guy touch her in the slightest way, it was understandable given the way she had been treated.  It saddened me to learn that the first law regarding domestic abuse wasn’t even passed until 1997 in the Dominican Republic.  Some women accept it and others like Reubalisa fight back.  Since she’s been at the orphanage she has grown and is now able to talk to some of the boys who she has come to know.  But by no means is she healed, and she will never be the same again.


Facts from:

Mar 212013


This here is my friend Cici.  His mother dropped him off at the orphanage at a tender age when she began to realize something wasn’t right.

Maybe she didn’t know she was pregnant at the time, maybe she was an alcoholic or maybe she was just ignorant of the effects of consuming alcohol during a pregnancy.  But for one reason or another, Cici’s mother drank while he was still a developing fetus and it caused him a lot of his mental capacity.  According to the Mayo Clinic, when a mother drinks alcohol, it gets in her bloodstream and eventually the baby’s bloodstream via the placenta.  Because the baby is still developing, it does not have the ability to metabolize alcohol like a fully grown woman does.  The alcohol disrupts the flow of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs, cause defects.

A child with FAS will begin to show signs at a young age in the form of hearing and vision problems, learning disabilities and mental retardation.  There are also other physical features that are prominent, such as:

  • small eyes,
  • an exceptionally thin upper lip,
  • a short, upturned nose, and a
  • smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip
  • Small head circumference

So the orphanage excepted Cici and took him in.  He could only mumble a little and it sounded like Cici, so that is what he was called.  In the DR, there is little to no care for people with mental illnesses so people simply drop off their children at orphanages or even worse just leave their children to die.  Most families cannot afford another mouth to feed, that requires extra care and cannot support themselves.  There is no cure or way to reverse the damage done by Cici’s mother and he will have to live that way for the rest of his life.  The orphanage takes good care of him, but it is heartbreaking to see someone who is mentally retarded due to the stupidity of his mother.  Fetal alcohol syndrome is 100% preventable.



Feb 212013

For most of us, vacationing at the beach is a pretty normal thing.  At least in my family, we try to get together once a year and head to a beach in North Carolina or Virginia and enjoy the sun and sand.  But for others, the experience of going to the beach is something unprecedented and foreign.

One year, we decided to take all 60 of the boys in the orphanage to an island only reachable by boat, at the end of the week.  Most of them could hardly contain their excitement throughout the week.  When we pulled in with a couple of buses early Saturday morning, the boys were packed outside and ready to go.

And so the adventure began.







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If, the pictures don’t describe it all, it was wild.  None of the boys had ever been on a boat and few had ever been to the beach before so they were experience firsthand the wonders of gritty sand beneath your toes and that stinging sensation when salt water gets up your nose.  Seasickness was also a new experience for many.

It was amazing to see all the children interact with one another and discover new things about the beach and the ocean.  They did a lot of the same things we do at the beach.  They tried to make sand castles (unsuccessfully), they buried each other in the sand, they brought tubes and toys into the water and just lounged around for the afternoon.

Seeing the orphans experience something I think of as a pretty normal experience, was eye opening.  They were so full of joy and fascination and excitement.  I would give up an entire week again any day just to see the way a beach lit up those tiny little brown faces on a warm day in the Dominican Republic.


Feb 142013

One of my first friends and one that I came to know very well was named Santiago, which translates to James in English.  Santiago is much prettier than James (sorry to all the James out there) so that is what we called him.  He too could sing, like one of the other boys, Ronnie that I wrote about earlier and Santiago also played guitar.  On top of that, he is english was almost flawless and he taught a class at the high school.  By todays standards, he would be hailed a renaissance man.  In the Dominican Republic, he was rejected by his family, tossed in an orphanage at a tender age and was ridiculed growing up due to his part Haitian descent.  There were no hand outs for him, except that he was lucky enough to be dropped off at an orphanage that was growing better and better each day.
Santiago has been at that orphanage since he was maybe 6 or 7 and is currently 19.  He is a gifted, amazing kid with lots of potential, but he has some struggles before him.  He finished high school two years ago, and was even teaching some of his one classes his last two years of high school.  He passed the difficult exam to get in to college and the orphanage was even willing to support him throughout college (college in the D.R. is only a couple thousand dollars for all four years).   However, he has no birth certificate and therefore the government will not let him attend college.  His father went AWOL after he dropped Santiago and his two brothers off at the orphanage and it has been increasingly difficult to locate him.  When they finally did, he didn’t have any birth certificates or any knowledge of where they might be.  Santiago persevered and is now petitioning the government to give him a birth certificate, but he is running into many barriers due to his Haitian descent.

It’s heart breaking to hear stories like these of teens who are denied college because of things like race and irresponsible, careless parents and yet it is the reality for many.  For now Santiago continues to teach classes at the orphanage and fight for an opportunity to go to college.

Feb 072013

My first year working at the Rose of Sharon Orphanage, our team was assigned to “pick rocks”.  I didn’t really know what that meant until we got there.  Our job was to go down by a riverbed and pick up big rocks and put them in a truck.  We would eventually take them back to the orphanage and place them on the other side of the wall because the ground was deteriorating there.  What they didn’t tell us was that this dried out riverbed was the hangout spot for tarantulas.  Big, hairy, creepy, crawly, nasty tarantulas.  I nearly dropped the rock I was holding on my toe, when I picked a rock up and found one of the black eyed beasts staring at me, the entire size of the palm of my hand.  As I screamed and dropped my rock (luckily not on my foot), the tarantula stared at me, unmoving, with those beady black eyes…

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Some of the boys heard my screams and came running and were elated to find such a big nice tarantula.  They quickly produced an empty Pringles can– clearly they had come prepared.  Then with squeals of excitement and gasps of triumph, they succeeding in prodding the tarantula with sticks and fingers into the Pringles can.  I was amazed.  This type of incident was repeated throughout the afternoon as more tarantulas were found.  By the end of the day, they had 6 or 8 of these beasts and I wondered what their plan was.  I soon found out.

When we returned to the orphanage, they amalgamated all of the tarantulas and simply played with them.  They made little rings out of paper sticks and had two tarantulas fight.  They tried to feed the tarantulas leaves and they even found a toy truck and pushed the tarantula around on the truck.  I was surprised at the ingenuity of these little boys who came up with such creative games to play with spiders.  I would not have enough come close to those black beasts, but these children who owned next to nothing were nothing short of delighted to play with these menacing creatures

One last picture!


Jan 302013

This quiet, unassuming teen escaped my notice my first couple of years I visited the orphanage, but by the third year I recognized his face and called him by name, Ronnie.  I recognized his face and voice from church the previous night when he had sang in the band playing.

IMG_0873Mind you the church we held at the Rose of Sharon Orphanage in the middle of the Dominican Republic was vastly different than most church services in the US.  The church was simply a building with folding chairs inside and the music consisted of a primal looking drum, a rugged guitar and some voices, one of whose was Ronnie’s.  With the two instruments being relatively quiet, the voices could clearly be made out ringing off the sides of the building.  Ronnie had a sweet melodic voice that rose and fell in even measure with the rhythm of the song.

As I spoke to him, even his normal speaking voice ebbed and flowed with rhythm and he sounded as if he were singing.  I asked him if he liked singing and he nodded shyly, obviously not used to the attention.  I continued to chat with him in broken english and the infrequent spanish word I could throw in.  Over the next hour, his story began to unravel about how he came to the orphanage and his dreams.  Ronnie was brought to the orphanage along with an older and younger brother at about age 7.  He didn’t elaborate on life before the orphanage so I’m guessing it wasn’t positive.  But growing up in the orphanage, he had formed strong bonds with many of the boys and he was best friends with his two brothers.  I was so glad I had taken the time to engage with this shy teenage and learn a little about his life.  It took some more similar conversations over the next week and years after that to bring him out of his shell, but eventually Ronnie and I became friends.

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