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An angel makes 'faces shine with happiness' in Dominican Republic

By Darrel Hammon

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Nov. 2 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Louise ZoBell with a group of children in Puerta Plata

Louise ZoBell, Starfish Foundation

PUERTA PLATA, Dominican Republic — Angels come in all their glory in many ways. For the Dominicans who live in Puerta Plata, a resort city located on the northern beach of the Dominican Republic, one of their angels comes in the form of Louise ZoBell, a mother and grandmother from Stirling, Canada, and married to Jack ZoBell.

Her beginnings in the Dominican Republic did not begin so angelically.

In 2006, Louise ZoBell took a trip to the Dominican Republic that she earned from the company she was working for and learned a sobering lesson. When her daughter, Charlotte Palmer, took a few school supplies and other things with her, Zobell wondered why and she helped distribute them. If it hadn’t been for her daughter and a few school supplies, she would have “honestly, never thought of it.”

And from then on, she couldn’t forget about serving. From that first experience, the ZoBells traveled to Puerto Plata each year to give back to the Dominican Republic.

It was in January 2011 when her “whole Dominican experience exploded into what it is becoming,” Louise ZoBell said.

That year, her group took more than 200 small packages to give to Dominican children in one of the schools. Her brother Barry and his wife, Laura, decided to go with them, and they took a few basketballs to give the children.

On that trip, they took six suitcases filled with things they had been collecting. “This would be the most we would ever take because the airline had reduced the amount of luggage that we could take free," Louise Zobell recalled promising her husband. "I laugh when I think of that now.”

After they took their 200 small packages to the school, their guide told them that if they would meet him the following morning, he would take them to another community they could walk to from their resort. ZoBell asked what they should bring because she had given almost everything away at the school. The only thing she had was a little suitcase of used clothing that another couple had left for them to distribute. Their guide said, “Bring anything. You’ll see.” The walk that day, Jan. 29, 2011, changed her perspective.

ZoBell initially thought poor people lived in orphanages. The first time she was introduced to real poverty was standing on a little porch not far from their villa and handing out a few items of clothes to the local people.

“At that time, I had never given used clothing away," ZoBell said. "I had brought a few new things with me to the resort and given the workers. People were swarming around us and jumping and grabbing to get anything they could. I was moved to tears.”

Her Jan. 29, 2011, Facebook message to her friends said, “Today, I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. We walked to an area minutes away from luxury into squalor. We took many things with us, but by far not enough. The poverty was unbelievable. A 20 peso bill equal to 60 cents was clamored for. … I have been to orphanages, schools, poor areas, etc., but I’ve never seen anything like I saw today.”

She knew she had to do something differently. She and her husband formed a foundation called the Dominican Starfish Foundation. The foundation takes its name from the starfish story about the lesson an old man learned while walking along the beach early one morning. He saw a young boy pick up a starfish stranded by the tide and then sling it back into the ocean. The man stopped and asked why he was throwing back the starfish one by one. “With so many,” he asked, “what difference are you going to make?” Instead of answering, the young boy leaned down, picked up a starfish and tossed it back into the ocean. Then, looking at the man, he quietly said, “It makes a difference to that one.”

ZoBell believes wholeheartedly in the starfish story and suggests that “in doing what we do, we can help change the future of generations,” one young person at a time.

From that small suitcase of a few used clothes and 200 school packets, ZoBell and the Starfish Foundation have become a fixture in the Dominican Republic. During the past couple of years, she has organized fundraisers, met with potential donors, written countless emails and talked to numerous people. Now their so-called annual vacations to the Dominican Republic have “become exhausting.”

In 2012, they raised enough money to build a school in Maggiolo, one of the poorest areas in Puerto Plata. Plus, they have created a “Pay it Forward” program at their center. Now, before people can receive goods and clothing, they have to do a service in their community.

When ZoBell suggested to Amarilis Ureña, their in-country foundation director, that the people participate in a community cleanup, Ureña said, “This would never fly. You don’t know my people.”

But instead of dwelling on whether it could or couldn’t be done, Ureña organized the new process.

Now, instead of people coming and fighting to get their hands on a piece of clothing, they come to the center and get clothing for their families because they have committed to doing service or already have completed it. People have begun cleaning their streets, working and volunteering in hospitals and senior citizen centers and helping their neighbors — even if they are not receiving anything.

ZoBell said she is always thinking about the Dominican Republic and what more she can do there. Often, though, she does get tired, but she has never wanted to quit and go home. Not long ago, she wrote about this exhaustion:

“Sometimes when I am exhausted from working 16-hour days in foundation work, I ask myself: ‘What pushes me to do this’? The only thing that I come up with is that I feel an overwhelming love for the people. I have often heard that you love who you serve and I have certainly felt that.”

Ureña recently wrote in an email, "I never imagined that Sister Louise could love us so much that she would unite so many marvelous people to help the Dominican people."

ZoBell’s life has changed. She has learned much from her experiences. Her dream to “focus on helping people help themselves” thrives in Puerta Plata and in its people. Her cry to her friends and others is simple: “Look for ways to help that will make a lasting difference.”

Perhaps the plaque that ZoBell received at the grand opening of the Maggiolo School on Jan. 23, 2012, shows what difference she has already made:

“Maggiolo Community, Puerto Plata D.R., grant this certificate of appreciation to Louise Webster ZoBell for the rebuilding of our children’s school. Thank you so much for taking care of our children. You have made our faces shine with happiness for this wonderful event. God bless you and everyone who made this dream possible. We will never forget this great favor. Thank you for your love.”

An Idahoan, Darrel Hammon likes being outdoors, growing things and seeing things the way they could be. You can read more of his musings at www.darrelhammon.blogspot.com. He and his wife recently served a mission in the Caribbean Area Welfare Office.

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