When you’re searching for recommended places in the Dominican Republic, Los Marranitos will not appear on that list. It’s a place high up in the mountains (1,039 meters) that enchants its visitors with an incredible tropical and mountain ecology.
From Jarabacoa, the second-largest municipality in the La Vega Province, you drive up a winding road for almost half an hour and then turn left into a narrow dirt road for another 3 kilometres.
Fortunately, we could enjoy lots of sunshine when we drove up because getting up there when it’s wet can easily become a real challenge.
How it all began…
In 1994, Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez followed an invite from Patricia Suriel- Thorndike, the founder of Iguana Mama Mountain Biking Adventure Tours, and joined a group of more than 50 journalists, photographers, and filmmakers for a 3-day hike in the mountains.
Obviously, Julia fell in love with the area. Together with her partner Bill Eichner they made a dream come true and bought 230 acres of land in Las Marranitos in 1996. They both created Finca Alta Gracia, a farm-literacy centre that employed many of the local community members. Additionally, they heavily engaged in education because the next public school is more than a one-hour walk through mountainous terrain away. ‘We wanted to find a way to serve, to share with an impoverished community and a society filled with inequities some of the opportunities and privileges both of us had been lucky to enjoy in our own lives.’ says Julia Alvarez.
She stayed in touch with Patricia who also founded the first non-profit organisation in Cabarete, Friends of the DR, which later transformed into the Mariposa DR Foundation. All donations got exchanged for books and school supplies for both public and private schools as well as sponsorship for Dominican girls to go to private schools.
The next steps…
In 2019 it was time to expand upon Julia’s and Bill’s work transforming Finca Alta Gracia into a community-engaged learning and ecotourism hub. The plans also included building a local school to eliminate the long and often dangerous commute to the distant public school as well as establishing a women’s agricultural co-op. Finca Alta Gracia became a member of the Mariposa Family with the goal to restore the farm in tune with nature while also engaging in education, academic enrichment, and empowering girls as well as young women in a male-dominated machismo culture.
What happens if two tech companies join forces?
To make Alta Gracia’s transformation come true within a reasonable amount of time, Patricia had to find sponsors for this ambitious project.
She lined up with Groundbreaker.org, an organisation that provides Foundation-as-a-Service and works as a link between donors and local initiatives that are making a meaningful difference for people and our planet earth. Groundbreaker (formerly knowns as Entrepreneurs For Knowledge) is well connected in the tech industry and introduced the plans for the Finca’s transformation to us at RNT and Acronis. It didn’t take long to get us excited about building a school in the mountains that complements the public schools.
The Mariposa Mountain School
Building a school on the grounds of Finca Alta Gracia was not as easy as you might think at the first glance. Alta Gracia has no access to natural water resources besides rain, so water is scarce and electricity inconsistent. Los Marranitos is a small village in a very rural area where people live in extreme poverty and struggle to meet basic needs such as food or access to healthcare. Would a standard curriculum be a good fit and equip the young generation with everything they need to know to live a better life in their village? The straight and obvious answer is no. How to find teachers who will enjoy living in the village and who are interested in going beyond traditional school subjects like reading, writing, or math? No doubt, we all made it happen!
Let’s have a closer look at why the sustainable Mountain School is making such a difference:
- The school building relies on natural air-condition and has no walls
- Solar panels on the roof to provide electricity
- Composting toilets that do not need water
- 2 classrooms, offices, outside area, kitchen, lavatory
- A safe harbour for young girls and boys to grow and meet their potential
- Teaching through interaction with nature: While you learn everything about planting, roasting, and selling coffee, for example, you tackle multiple subjects at the same time and in context but without strict timetables
- Special programmes for girls to build self-esteem and improve their economic situation with the goal to avoid teenage pregnancy or early marriage
- Co-educational courses for all community members
- Working with local and visiting artists
- Offering a comprehensive school programme for approx. 150 children aged between 4 and 17 years
The grand opening
Construction started in January 2020 and lasted until April 2021. The global pandemic did not only influence the completion date of the Mountain School but also pushed the grand opening ceremony out. However, on June 11th, 2022, we had the honour to meet students, teachers, and the wonderful people of the Los Marranitos community in person. The mistress of ceremony, Patricia Suriel-Thorndike, gave a warm welcome to everyone and read out a letter from Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner who were not able to attend in person, unfortunately. They explained again why the place was named Alta Gracia: ‘The name seemed appropriate. The farm was high in the mountains (alta) and we wanted it to be a place that spread grace (gracia) to the community, both the environment and the surrounding village and small farms.’
All students entertained us with a great live performance and then it was time to hand over the presents. Everyone received new T-shirts and the students also got backpacks filled with an umbrella and basic school supplies like pens, pencils, rulers, notepads, construction paper, and more. Thanks to the Hey Alter! communities in Dusseldorf and Cologne we could also give a total of ten refurbished and ready-to-use laptops to the teachers. After some very emotional moments it was time to enjoy ice cream and cakes!
In tune with nature
Fully energised and happy followed Tito, the Finca’s agricultural expert, who kindly took us on an educational tour of the Alta Gracia’s terrain. Tito is a fit local guy in his early seventies who communicates strength and tranquillity. His knowledge about the agroforestry ecosystem is absolutely mind blowing. We learned why coffee grows best near banana trees and that over 10,000 plants, including coffee, macadamia nuts, lemon trees, celery roots, bananas, platanos, tomatillos, and more have been planted on the ground to grow in tune with nature and feed the local community.
We could eat fresh guavas and mangos straight from the tree because everything here is 100% organic and grows without chemical fertilisers. We also tried red coffee berries which were surprisingly sweet and visited Julia’s and Bill’s abandoned house next to a 22-year-old bamboo. Unfortunately, time ran away from us, and we were not as fast as Tito who is obviously used to walking the steep way back.
Yo soy la fuerza más potente para cambiar el mundo
‘I am the world’s most powerful force for change.’ That’s what’s printed on the student’s pink T-shirts. We at RNT strongly believe that education is the key driver to disrupting poverty and educating young girls is even more important. Unfortunately, gender and sexual violence against females are still a big problem in the Dominican Republic. Many girls must fulfil domestic responsibilities instead of going to school and over 50% become teenage mothers. Poverty is one of the key drivers of early marriage because young women have no other choice but to improve their economic situation and live a self-determined life.
The Mirabal sisters, local heroines who gave their lives for social justice and freedom, called themselves Las Mariposas, which means butterflies. We will continue to support the Mariposa Mountain School and give the children of Los Marranitos a better chance to spread their wings and change the world thanks to better education. We’re looking forward to being back soon and watching the next generation of Mariposas fly!