Thursday, October 4, 2012

Giving Back and Giving Thanks

All the year through we strive to be mindful of the blessings in our life, but it is at this time of year that we are reminded especially to give thanks. This Thanksgiving, you may have similar reflections on our collective fortunes and encourage your family to express all the things in their life that they are thankful for. It is in this tradition of giving thanks that we are reminded that so many others in the world are not as privileged as us.

At Spa Utopia, we believe in the importance of helping others and it is in that spirit that we created The Utopia Foundation in 2007. Since that time, The Utopia Foundation has raised over $250,000 for global and local charities. As part of our contributions, The Utopia Foundation teamed up with The Ben Sawatzky Foundation to help build houses in the Dominican Republic.  

In total, The Utopia Foundation was able to build 11 houses in Paradise Village and in doing so helped to change the lives of 11 deserving families. In 2012, two of the Utopia Foundation Administrators (including yours truly) traveled to the Dominican Republic, alongside four of Spa Utopia’s owners, to see the results of our employees’ generous donation of time, money and energy. And what an experience it was!

Paradise Village is a thriving community in the Dominican Republic and a welcome refuge for so many families. Families are offered a house at no cost, access to a medical center, an opportunity to send their kids to school, and a chance to learn a new trade such as hair design, sewing or wood work. On the day of our visit, the village was in full celebration welcoming us and other sponsors as their guests while a number of families received the keys to their new homes for the first time. 

We were embraced by the community and especially by the children, who wanted to show us their village, learn our names, share our candies and braid our hair. After the ceremony was complete, the children led us through the village to find the homes that we helped to build. One by one, we were introduced to the families living in these homes and learned their stories. Some families had only one parent, some families had lots of children, but all families had a common thread – genuine gratitude. Although we were there to give to them, it was truly us who received the gift, as it is undeniable how fortunate we were to experience something so significant.

The families that make up this community meet several requirements before a house is granted. First, they must show that they are in need; secondly, that they are a family (one or two parents with kids); and thirdly that they will be a productive part of the community by not engaging in criminal activity. The family is given the home rent-free, and after several years as community members, the mother receives the deed to the house. As you may not know (we didn't)  people have to actually pay rent to stay in the shacks that are scattered across the landscape. This takes a sizable amount of money from their meager earnings and makes it nearly impossible for families to move forward. 

We heard many inspiring stories during our visit, but one of the most impressive is that of a man who was given a house 20 years ago. At that time he was living in a shack with his wife and barely surviving. After being given his new home rent free he was able to use his earnings to buy a cab, and then another. As he prospered, he added a second level to his home and turned the entry level into a grocery store. With this opportunity he was able to provide for his family and send both his children to university where one of them is studying today to become a doctor. The gift of that home literally changed his life and that of his family which is truly inspiring.

On another day in the Dominican Republic, we visited the shacks (pictured above) where so many people spend their lives. On this day, we watched as a family packed up their few belongings and prepared to make the journey to their new home in Paradise Village. These shacks are little more than a few walls, made from different materials, and bundled together to make a structure, with a cold dirt floor and few comforts of home. It was heart warming to see these people receive a home, complete with four cement walls and a tin roof, and reminded us of how lucky we were to have our own homes with all the modern day luxuries of indoor plumbing and hot water heating. 

On our return to the village we received the first glimpse of the soon-to-be completed Paradise Garden. With the help of donations, families will receive a plot of land on which they can grow their own herbs and vegetables. On that same day, the sewing school had its first session (with so many applicants that their next class is already full), we took a tour of the soon-to-be opened Utopia Academy where students will learn hair design, and we learnt about all the children in the village who run home after school and pass on what they have learned to their mothers who relish the opportunity for knowledge.

All of these experiences and opportunities are possible because people cared enough to help. The employees and owners at Spa Utopia who helped to make this project possible are grateful that they had the opportunity to truly make a difference in someone else’s life. And as we gather around the dinner table this weekend, dressing the table with autumn decorations and carving the turkey, we remember the importance of giving thanks and giving back.

No comments:

Post a Comment