When Literacy Saves Lives in the Dominican Republic

Carolyn Self | May 7, 2013

Yaidilis Jimene and her three young children. Photo: Teresa Cintron/CWS

Yaidilis Jimene and her three young children. Photo: Teresa Cintron/CWS

I never thought much about being literate. I learned how to read when I was a kid and never looked back. While I have some memory of learning cursive, I don’t remember a time before I knew how to read and write. The whole gift of literacy had largely been lost to me; I just took it for granted.

That all changed after I visited Batey de Oscos in the Dominican Republic.

I met Yaidilis Jimene, mother of four, in one of the poorest areas of town. We sat across from one another in colorful plastic chairs under a metal canopy that served as the school yard. The children, mostly preschool age, sat behind us, still as statues, as we talked with their parents for more than an hour.

Admittedly, the kids did a much better job than we did of sitting still and ignoring the pigs and chickens that darted through the open area.

Yaidilis stayed quiet for most of the conversation nursing her infant child as we spoke to this group of adults. These men and women were about to complete an adult literacy program. Yaidilis shared in a soft voice that her motivation to learn was her children. Her oldest son was at the age where he was beginning to fight back about going to school – why should he have to learn when she hadn’t?

Yet, when the new program was announced two years ago, Yaidilis knew it was her opportunity to learn – as she described it to us, “When God gives you a chance to learn, you take it.” And so she started learning the alphabet and phonics, writing, and basic arithmetic. “By learning to read,” she said, “my life changed…. Reading is life. Not knowing how to read is like being blind but being able to read is like being able to see again.”

Now, if this story ended there, we would all happily walk away knowing that we were changing lives in the Dominican Republic – but it doesn’t. Instead, Yaidilis went on to share how this life-changing program unintentionally became a life-saving program.

A few months into the program one of her children got sick. Like any mother, she took her child to the doctor. The doctor gave her medicine and instructions and sent Yaidilis and the child home. Upon arriving home, Yaidilis inspected the medicine’s label and found that the words were wrong.

What she could make out was different from what the doctor had told her.

Yaidilis walked back to the medical center with her sick child. She explained the situation to the doctor and was told that had she followed the wrong directions, her child would have died.

Yaidilis’ chance to learn had truly been a divine intervention. Her willingness to learn and boldness to ask questions saved her child’s life.

Carolyn Self, Assistant Regional Director, Greater Mid-Atlantic – East, CWS