bmissions
26 Feb
  • By Kristen Llorca

Blue Missions – empowering the communities in Dominican Republic

RippleZoo
Change-Maker Profile:
Danny Rodriguez,
CEO & Co-Founder,
Blue Missions

It’s summer and you’re tasked with chaperoning and leading a group of high school students into a sweltering rural community in the Dominican Republic. There’s no lavish beach resort in Punta Cana waiting for you. Oh, no. Your group gets to sleep communally, in cots, inside an old church. There will be no air-conditioning  or access to clean water. In fact, clean water is the reason your there. Your mission is to build a gravity-driven aqueduct, with the help of teenagers, for a community that hasn’t had access to clean water for generations.

Not the summer vacation you were imagining? This is Danny Rodriguez’s very reason for being. Rodriguez is the founder and CEO of Blue Missions, a service-based not-for-profit that hopes to help end the global water and sanitation crisis. According to the Center For Disease Control, 780 million people worldwide don’t have access to an “improved water source”, and about 2.5 billion lack access to adequate sanitation (35% of the world’s population). The numbers are large enough to be abstract. How does one consider the magnitude of the crisis without stripping those most vulnerable of their humanity? Blue Missions answer to this daunting paradox is what Rodriquez calls “an ecosystem of service”.

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What strikes you most when speaking to Rodriquez is his optimism. “It’s absolutely solvable,” he says. This may be easy to dismiss as Pollyanna-ish, but his outlook is rooted in real experience and real numbers. “Yes, there are currently 663 million people without water,” a figure he credits to the United Nations latest report. “But,” he continues, “those numbers are on the decline and it’s because of organizations like this and a generation that wants to create meaningful change in the world.”

Rodriguez was a junior at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida and about to turn seventeen when his father and sister invited him on a trip that would change his life’s trajectory. It was a ten day trip to La Sabina, Dominican Republic, a rural community in the country’s interior. The village had no water. “Locals were getting water from a river and brushing their teeth with water bottles,” Rodriguez remembers. On this trip, the family was to help the local community construct a gravity-driven water system under the direction of a twenty year-old mission organization. This was not the ‘summer before senior year’ Rodriguez was expecting. “As the trip got closer, I really didn’t want to go,” he recalls, adding, “it was my birthday and I had to spend it doing manual labor with my dad and sister?!”

After ten days, of trekking, digging trenches, and constructing pipes, water arrived to the village. “I’d never experienced anything like it,” says Rodriguez, “the look on people’s faces, the joy, the tears.” The feeling of that moment was “an epiphany”, he remembers.

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Rodriguez would return to the Dominican Republic with the same mission the following year, and  the year after that, and the year after that. Although he entered Florida International University as a finance major, he would spend his summers working in rural communities, ensuring their access to clean water and sanitation. Blue Missions was born three years after his initial family trip to the Dominican Republic, but it was five years before Rodriguez stepped in full-time as CEO. He was actually the second person to join the organization full-time, as he’d hired another person to run the company while he continued to work in the finance sector to keep him and the organization afloat. The turning point came when he realized that there was a waiting list for the service trips. Ten service volunteers grew to thirty-five. During that fifth year, Blue Missions led nine service trips.

Blue Missions now has several varied opportunities for every person to help in the international water crisis. Trips are organized into High School, University, All Ages, and Adventure Treks. Service trips are a way to put a face and a feeling on those huge water crisis numbers. “It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and read about the crisis, but it’s completely different to get to know those affected people.” Volunteers not only build aqueducts and latrines, but spend time living with local community members in rural areas. “You are in their kitchens and these individuals are joyfully giving you what little they have.” The experience particularly impacts young volunteers who continue service-oriented work and involvement in Blue Missions long after their original project has ended. “They feel empowered by the change they can affect,” notes Rodriguez.

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Blue Missions also empowers the communities which they visit. A community is chosen by applying to Blue Missions. “We never go to a country that we haven’t been invited to,” says Rodriguez. Communities are involved in every aspect of the process from engaging the organizations help, to building a water system. This gives individuals in these rural communities a sense of agency and ownership. In the words of Lila Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.”

Currently, Blue Missions focuses on the Dominican Republic (where, according to Rodriguez 30% of the population is rural) and Nicaragua. When asked why, he says it’s because it’s where they are most familiar with the government and communities. “Each community is unique, even if they speak the same language or belong to the same ethnic group,” he says, “every group has different customs and different needs.” The life cycle of a Blue Missions service trip is about one year, from the time help is requested by a community to the moment water arrives at the village. While the list of Blue Missions’ completed projects grows with each year, the organization is currently in seventy-three communities.

In every community Rodriguez has worked with, it is the responsibility of the women and children to collect the water for their families. With the average woman and child walking 3.5 miles for water, this disproportionately affects their ability to contribute in other ways. Often the journey toward clean water must be done several times a day, depending on the needs of each family, and how many gallons each woman and child can carry.

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When there is no access to clean water, children have no time to go to school and women are unable to contribute to the family in other ways. Once aqueducts and latrines are constructed, the Blue Missions team focuses on education and overall community wellness. “We spend time educating people on how to properly use the toilet and wash their hands,” says Rodriguez, “Imagine. Many people have been defecating out in the open; the same place where they grow their food; that’s how cholera breaks out.” For children, it also gives them a sense of dignity. “A child is often made fun of at school for having to go to the restroom outside,” comments Rodriguez, “we give them back their dignity.” Those children, says Rodriguez, will be more likely to stay in school, to attend college, and to return to their village to help the next generation. Blue Missions makes it a point to empower women by teaching them new skills like sewing or making bracelets, which can allow them to help their families reach beyond poverty. “We also let kids be kids maybe for the first time in their lives,” adds Rodriguez. Blue Missions always brings coloring books and crayons, and sometimes clowns to villages that have never seen either. “The adults often grab crayons and coloring books because they’ve never gotten the chance to just color, ever” says Rodriguez.

In addition to service trips, Blue Missions also organizes events, such as cocktail hours and golf tournaments. Events are a way for the organization to raise awareness while also staying connected with volunteers long after their service trip has ended. Rodriguez says that his organization has purposely made both trips and events as accessible as possible. He does not want a person to feel that she can’t be involved because it’s price-prohibitive. As is reiterated on the Blue Mission website, “every drop counts.” Rodriguez adds, “Every drop, every ripple, every person has the ability to affect change.”

To get involved visit: www.bluemissions.org

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headshot_small_kllorcaKristen Llorca is a ‘soulwarrior’, yoga guide, meditation evangelist, and writer, currently living in South Florida (USA). As a former dancer, Kristen was always engrossed by the beauty of movement. Though it wasn’t until her first yoga class ten years ago that she realized the importance of the mind-body connection. She has since dedicated her life to teaching individuals to explore the relationship between their minds and bodies.

Kristen’s yoga studies formerly began at at the Aum Home Shala in Coconut Grove, where she focused mainly on the Hatha and Ashtanga traditions, earning her a 200-hour Yoga Certification through Yoga Alliance. To further her meditation studies, Kristen completed a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) through Mindful Miami. She is also an ambassador for the internationally recognized Rainbow Yoga and has completed their Kids Yoga Teacher Training.

Most recently, Kristen ‘sat’ with mindfulness pioneer Sharon Salzberg for her “Real Love” Retreat, which was made possible by the University of Miami’s UMindfulness program. It was an invaluable immersion in Loving-Kindness meditation, which she now includes in her own practice & mindfulness curriculum.

In October of 2016, Kristen spent five days with celebrated teachers Seane Corn, Hala Khouri, and Suzanne Sterling in Atlanta, GA, as part of Off The Mat Into The World’s “Yoga, Purpose, And Action Leadership Intensive”. This training marked a pivotal turning point in how she relates to her own life of practice, as well as how she empowers others to become leaders of their own lives and agents of change in the world.

Kristen holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Mass Communications and Journalism and a Master’s of Music in Performing Arts Management from Florida International University. She also holds a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell, under the direction of Dr. T. Colin Campbell. Kristen is also a proud member of the charity running team “Every Mother Counts,” which seeks to raise awareness and funds for maternal health around the world.

To learn more, please visit www.kristenllorca.com, or follow her on social media under the handle @kris10yoga.