The story they like to tell goes like this. A vice-rector of a Catholic university once visited a rural school in one of the most impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic. She was in disbelief: how could a school in Caribe produce so many excellent students.
Six months later she returned. Not for a formal visit, but rather simply to breathe the air. She had visited two other schools that day—one of which she got attacked at by a bat-yielding student—and she simply needed to breathe the air. Breathe the air of dreams coming true.
While no one has attacked me with a bat recently, 12 months after my last visit I needed to breathe the air again.
By all accounts, Caribe—a small neighborhood north of Bonao—is not very wealthy. It’s also unlikely that there is anything scientifically special about the air. Yet, in various plots of land throughout Caribe, there is something different about the air: hope, dreams, love, faith, happiness; and a special feeling—one without a name—that is certainly special to the place.
It’s the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation school, a project between the Fuente and Newman families that was established 13 years ago. The idea came about when parents would ask the Fuentes, who grow tobacco in Caribe, for jobs—for their kids. At the time, there was no school to send most kids to and so parents wanted the kids to work.
The original plan was just to improve an already existing school, but David Luther instructed the two families that they were better off building their own school. In 2001, a charity was established to begin to raise the money necessary for the project and a few years later, a primary school was opened.
It didn’t start like a dream. Students were bringing knives to school and attacking one another. Parents were burning kids books and homework, for fire. Classes were done in two shifts, meaning half days. The school wasn’t prepared for the shock of just how little many parents knew about life, let alone education. Students were struggling to get regular meals and clean water.
And perhaps most importantly—there was nowhere to go for students in the higher grades.
Cigar Family addressed each one of the aforementioned issues, as well as others. Community meetings and leaders were appointed to phase out gangs. Parents were taught the importance of schooling and incoming students are now given an evaluation to understand how each student’s home life is—done in a mock house on the property. A greenhouse was built, students are now given multiple meals at school and tens of thousands of water filters have been installed in homes now far exceeding Caribe.
The school was expanded with a high school. This year’s graduating class of seniors will be the first students who have gone through the school from start to finish: 12 years.
It’s a long list of accolades for students: a world champion in karate, tournament-winning baseball teams, national and international awards in subjects ranging from storytelling to math to French.
But there’s little question about what matters most to the Fuentes, Newmans and Luther, who helps the families run the charity: so many of the students who have graduated are back.
There is Emilio, a graduate who has needed lifesaving surgeries at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, leading current students performing song. There’s Jilmy, the karate champion, back leading the karate class. And there’s countless other graduates at the school finding a way to give back.
Giving back is what the school was founded for. In Caribe, the Chateau de la Fuente estate grows the company’s most prized tobaccos: those used for Fuente Fuente OpusX. It’s a farm, but also a living monument to all things Fuente. The grounds of the chateau are decorated with art and lush plants, so it seems only fitting that as the Fuentes and Newmans take tobacco grown in the soil, they plant something back in return.
Much of what we did was a repeat of last year. Most of the students we saw were in fact there last year. But, the experience was just as rich, just as prospectus-changing as it was the year before.
In terms of updates, the new trade school is now under construction. The foundation was being created while we were there, something that is not an easy task given the soil in Caribe, which used to be a swamp, and the heavy rains the Dominican has suffered this year. It is being designed not for graduates of the Cigar Family school, but rather other young adults. The trade school will first open up a nursing school and then a hospitality school.
We then headed to Chateau de la Fuente for lunch. The food, as always, was very good, but the main attraction was the new building. There’s actually two new buildings, but the main one—the Birthplace of a Dream house—is the star. It’s based on a house once lived in by Ernest Hemingway and it’s stunning. We saw the structure being completed last year, but now, even in its partially furnished state, it’s simply jaw-dropping.
The house is not so much a house as it is a hospitality center. There is a bedroom, but it includes a bar, meeting and educational spaces that will be used for visitors to the farm. There are plans for more buildings, including a handful of small houses that will make up a hotel on the complex.
There were multiple attempts to persuade, bribe and/or protest with our tour leader so that we could stay. Yes, a group of a dozen adults found themselves like children. But, eventually it was time to go. It’s always disappointing to end a visit to the foundation and the farm. The Fuentes and Newmans are incredible hosts, the views are stunning, but most importantly, there is something special in the air.
One day, probably dozens of visits later, I might be able to describe it. That emotional high that you get at every turn during the six hours in Caribe is incredible, but it’s exhausting. You feel it on the hour ride back to Santiago and yet, despite physically dozing off in the bus, you feel so much more alive than when you got on the bus in the morning.
There are many great Procigar tours, but there is only one that is visceral.
Dinner was Procigar’s annual white party at the Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración. The white party is everything it’s cracked up to be. I still prefer Friday night, but the views from the monument are stunning. Procigar expanded tickets to just over 800 people, but it sounds like that will be all. To be quite honest, I actually felt like it was easier to move around this year than in year’s past.
I will close with this: we try to describe Procigar as best we can, but it’s not really possible to understand until you are there. The colors, the sounds, the taste and the people far transcend any medium we produce content in. Some might find the description of the event, but particularly the visit to Cigar Family Charitable Foundation, to be a bit flowery or dramatic. I can assure you, my words are an underwhelming description of what takes place there everyday.
To read Patrick’s account of last year visit, which I highly recommend, click here.