December 20, 2004
A care package
In a place where sugarcane workers struggle to make a living—working more than 12 hours and earning as little as $1 per day—it is difficult to get an education. Parents who are able to send their children to school find overcrowded classrooms equipped with a chalkboard, chalk and little else. In the Dominican Republic and other parts of Hispaniola, where many live in extreme poverty, life is hard and getting an education is just as tough.
Beginning in 1997, Sharla Megilligan (M.P.Aff. 2004) spent four years teaching at an American school in the Dominican Republic. While there, she visited a friend who was helping in a Haitian village on the country’s north coast. After that visit, Megilligan knew what she must do to help the people in that part of the world.
“I had been to poor Dominican Republic villages,” she said, “but I had not seen squalor like this. I began doing research and learned that there are over a million Haitians living in the Dominican Republic and their children have limited access to education.”
According to her, the law in the Dominican Republic allows Haitian children to attend school, but since the classrooms are often overcrowded, the Haitians are the first be turned away.
“While a number of organizations are working in these bateyes—the villages where sugarcane workers and their families live—very few are addressing educational needs and none are working in the 17 bateyes on the north coast,” she related. “So I decided to return to the states, go to grad school and start an organization to address these needs.”
Since that trip in March 2002, Megilligan has earned her master of public affairs degree; established a nonprofit organization called Makarios; and organized drives in the United States to collect computers and peripherals, software, and educational supplies that she transports to the impoverished villages where she works.
Makarios, which means “blessed” in ancient Greek, is a faith-based initiative dedicated to educational development in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and other impoverished areas of the world. Helping the Haitian villagers in the Dominican Republic is the primary focus of the group, though.
As the executive director of Makarios, Megilligan is involved in collecting educational supplies, fundraising, finances, donor communications, staff evaluation and program oversight. She is on the road a lot, splitting her time between the Dominican Republic, Austin and other parts of the country, where she is invited to speak at churches, colleges and high schools.
“I pursued a public affairs degree at the LBJ School because of the courses in nonprofit studies and other courses that apply to this field—leadership and finance, primarily,” she explained. “I've been able to use what I learned in many of my classes either directly or indirectly.”
One LBJ School course—a class on nonprofit board governance taught by LBJ School Lecturer Sarah Jane Rehnborg—proved to be particularly useful. “I was taking that class while I was in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status from the IRS and setting up our board of directors,” Megilligan said. “What I learned was a great help to both of those projects.”
Since her goals were well defined, Megilligan was able to use the LBJ School professional report requirement to her own advantage. The professional report doubled as a prospectus for Makarios, and since then she’s used the material to develop content for grant applications and the Makarios web site.
In addition to Megilligan, Makarios has four other staff members—two in the Dominican Republic and two in the United States. In order to expand services, though, Megilligan must continue to cultivate projects that will increase her human resource capital. One of these involves training teenagers and adults in the villages to work with the children so that eventually some of these projects can be turned over to these native workers.
“The people we work with have a positive perception of Americans, but one thing that we don’t want to do is lead them to think that they should leave the work to the Americans,” she said.
Makarios is also launching a college internship program in January 2005 that will pair American students with Dominicans or Haitians so that the two groups can learn from each other. “That way, the project that the interns begin can continue after they leave, having trained a replacement of sorts,” she said. “In return, the interns will have the chance to learn the culture, language and other skills from their counterparts.”
All the people Megilligan serves live in harsh conditions, with no running water, little electricity and limited access to health care. The children get one meal a day and are often sick. Because of this, there is no such thing as a typical workday in the villages for the Makarios staff members. The only constant is that most of the projects involve teaching children.
“Ultimately, we hope to train the kids for vocations outside of the sugarcane fields,” Megilligan said, adding that her educational mission involves heavy doses of social work. “Our kids are often hungry and sick, and we can’t expect them to learn that way, so we follow up with family visits to make sure they’re doing well.”
Because of limited resources and widespread poverty, however, it is impossible to meet all the needs encountered each day. “But we do what we can,” she said. “As resources become available, we hope to provide meals to the children in our programs.”
In the meantime, the villagers are grateful for the work that is being done by Megilligan and her staff, and they often ask for new programs, particularly projects involving adult literacy and preschool. “We hope to be able to meet these needs in the near future,” Megilligan said.
To the ancient Greeks Makarios meant “blessed,” but to the people in the bateyes of the Dominican Republic, Makarios is a promise of happiness.
by María de la Luz Martínez
© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
20 December 2004
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