So this Tuesday I worked with a group from Texas to do hearing tests and fit about 70 people with new hearing aids. The week before I got a chance to visit it and decided to write a little history of the school for the foundation and people back home. So here it is…
CAES; School for the Deaf in San Pedro
Arriving at CAES the first thing you notice is that it seems extremely quiet for how many children you see running around. The smiles and quick hand movements show how excited the students are to have visitors that look so different. Quickly glancing around I noted that there were two main buildings with unfinished second floors, a bathroom, a small cafeteria shack, and what looked like small offices. There are also several trees, a basketball court and a large garden. Along with the children are several adults, some of them are speaking and others are signing. We are introduced to Jose Montilla, the founder of this humble school. As we sit in the shade on some benches he begins his story.
Jose used to fix shoes for a living. He and his family were able to use this skill to feed themselves and send him to university. It wasn’t much, but at least it put food on the table. One day a young deaf mute came to him and asked him to repair his shoes for free. Jose conveyed to this young boy that he had to eat and he couldn’t do it for free. The young boy had nothing to give him, so Jose decided that he would teach him how to repair his own shoes. The next day the young boy returned with three of his friends, who were also deaf. The next day 5, and the next day 10. This was the beginning of his school for the deaf. During his story I couldn’t help but feel that this very unassuming man was not only bright, but brimming with compassion.
As more and more people came to Jose and he began to realize the needs of the deaf community in San Pedro, he needed a space. He was able to use a small piece of land and meet with students in the shade of some trees. They then built a shack so that they could study out of the elements. One of the biggest problems they faced was that they needed light so that the students could see lips and signs. Because there was no electricity and no money to buy candles, Jose decided to teach the children how to make them. This not only gave them light, but taught them a valuable skill. The children would make the candles for the class room and sell them to help support the school.
One day, while in Santo Domingo he saw an advertisement for one of the main private schools for Deaf children. Contacting them and showing them the school they quickly wanted to help. They contacted some of their supporters at the U.S. Embassy and with the Japanese government. The U.S. Embassy donated the funds to buy the materials and build the main school house, while the Japanese government donated the funds to build the technical school, and another government agency donated some computers and the school and the community did further fundraising to buy more computers giving them a large enough lab to get approved by the local university as a training center.
The public schools in San Pedro and all around the Dominican Republic don’t want deaf children and turn them away. As more and more people heard about Jose’s school, they would send him more and more unwanted deaf children. Now this school serves the entire East side of the Dominican Republic. With the little resources that he had he refused to turn these children away. “If you have a loaf of bread and five people are hungry, you share it between them. If you have that same loaf of bread, but 100 are hungry, you share that loaf of bread with all of them.” There are now four centers for the deaf in different areas of the Dominican Republic, all of which have a teacher and meet wherever they can. CAES serves a total of 250 deaf students, and many more alumni.
CAES has now been running for 18 years. The school teaches lip reading as well as Sign Language. (They have just developed a Dominican Sign-language which matches the culture and country where these students will live the rest of their lives). It is one of the only schools in the Dominican Republic which teaches both. The two main private schools in Santo Domingo teach one or the other. The institute also teaches reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and trade skills.
Their technical school has four rooms. The first is where they teach the students basic maid service skills so that they might obtain a job in the local hotels and resorts. The second room is a computer class where students learn basic and advanced computer skills. The local Dominican technical university has a partnership with the school and students that complete the program leave with a certified computer technical degree. The third room is the beauty school where students learn the basics of being a beautician. The last room is the massage school. Here students learn massage therapy skills so that they might be able to get jobs at the resorts. Each of these rooms gives students skills to do more than just survive. These rooms give deaf children and adults opportunities to live. Out of the other schools in the Dominican Republic they have the highest success rate of deaf graduates finding jobs.
The school also has a program that provides cows to adult alumni of the school. The cow’s milk helps give nutrition to the adult and their family. They are required to give the first calf away to another graduate. After this they then are free to use the cow however they see fit. Whether to continue breeding and develop a side income from selling calves. They currently have 24 animals in the project!
Jose also shared with us the struggles that people with disabilities face daily from families, the local communities, and their government. When you go to a family of a disabled child and ask after them, many of the parents will not recognize their name. After persistent questions, the parent will recognize that you are talking about their “crazy one”. Having a child with disabilities in the Dominican Republic is considered by the culture to be disgraceful. Many wealthy families will send their children to special schools where their maidservants will bring them food and things they need. But they won’t see them for months on end.
We met a young girl who was deaf and mentally handicapped. She greeted all of us with a large smile, a hug, and a traditional Dominican kiss. She had no father, no mother, and her only brother put her in a “crazy house” when she was a small child. She had somehow found her way to this school and Jose. When she arrived, he saw her and when he found out she had no one or a place to stay, he couldn’t turn her away. So now she stays in one of the class rooms at the school during the night and attends school during the day. Jose informed us that her story isn’t that uncommon. There are many adults and children there who don’t have a safe place to go at night, but there is no place to put them at the school. He wishes that he could build a dormitory or a place so that students who really needed a safe place could have one.
The school does its best to work with parents of the children and the community to try and battle the stigma that surrounds physical and mental handicaps. They invite people to the school and do their best to get the parents involved. They also host special trainings once a week for teachers, parents, and community members. 40-60% of the parents attend these meetings which is truly remarkable.
The teachers of the school are paid 4,500 pesos a month (Roughly 120 U.S. dollars). Many of them are fresh from university with two or three months of training from both of the private schools in Santo Domingo. The government refuses to recognize the school and pay the teachers. Even though it is stated in their constitution that education should be free few schools in the country are able to meet that standard. All of their salaries come from outside support. When talking about this, Jose expressed that he knows if the Secretary of Education or the First Lady of the Dominican Republic were to come and visit this place they would be moved to tears and would galvanize the government into helping. But as it is right now, they are surrounded with advisors and groups of people who keep them ignorant of the discrimination that these children face.
Because of the lack of funding, the Institute cannot compete with teacher salaries of local private schools. So when a teacher has spent enough time and has the experience to effectively lead a classroom, the private schools usually come in and offer 30,000 pesos a month (Roughly 850 U.S. dollars). As of right now there is one teacher at the school who is qualified to teach special needs children, while the rest of the teachers are only qualified to assist, but are forced to teach their own classes. There are over 200 students at this school with too few teachers.
With the limited space and teaching staff, many of the classrooms have 20 students in them and have several grade levels packed into the same tight space. Besides the noticeable quietness of the classrooms the first thing you notice are the smiles. Towards the end of our conversation they served us Habichuela con Dulce, a traditional Dominican desert only brought out on special occasions. As we finished up our conversation sipping on our steaming hot treat, we noticed that the students were getting loaded into a 12 passenger van. Jose had explained to us that because they only have one van, and it costs 1,000 pesos for each trip, they have to fit all of the kids into it. 32 children later, the overcrowded van was ready to leave. “When it costs a quarter of a teacher’s monthly salary to make one trip, you cannot take more than one.” Jose and his staff would love to have a bigger, safer, vehicle, but they have to make do with the things that they have. “When you only have one loaf of bread, you must share it with everyone.”
As we were getting ready to leave, Jose thanked us for coming and as we were saying our good-byes I could only think about how CAES was giving these students an opportunity to learn how to express themselves. I was blown away at the compassion that this man and his staff had for these beautiful men, women, and children. Their chains of silence are being shattered by the wonderful teachers at CAES. They are not only giving them an education, but also a voice in a place that sees their silence as a reason to ignore their humanity.