Senior brings hope to Dominican families

Student spearheads microloan program for needy farmers


PV senior Jessica Powell poses with local children during a visit to the Domincan Republic. Powell has aided Domincan farmers by helping provide them microloans to purchase cows.

By Lauren Cohen

“Vaca Flaca! Vaca Flaca!” Jessica Powell walked down the dirt roads of Las Canas in the Dominican Republic amid the chants.

At the beginning of the summer, the chants following her had been suspicious and insulting, rather than the endearing nickname of “skinny cow.”

Derogatory whispers of “gringa” had been directed towards Powell just weeks before. However, Powell had earned the respect of the people of Las Canas, Dominican Republic after she introduced her project.

For 25 days over the summer, Pascack Valley senior Powell changed the lives of five Dominican families. Bringing a brand new idea for a micro loan project, Powell purchased four cows and a pregnant pig with over $4,000 she was able to raise during the previous school year. The families would sell the milk from these cows, making a profit to be able to pay back their loans and keep some of the money for themselves.

The work was designed [for] American teenagers on vacation…and that bothered me.”

— senior Jessica Powell

In summer 2013, Powell had visited the Dominican Republic with a volunteer group but she had some issues with the projects they were doing.

“The work was designed so that American teenagers who were on vacation could do it,” Powell said, who will be attending Yale next year. “And when we’d be doing the work, there would be men who had families to support watching us do the work that they could do better and that bothered me.”

This year, she had the opportunity to go back with her own project. She was inspired by her favorite charity, Heifer International, which provides livestock  to families in developing countries. However, there was no program like this for the Dominican Republic, where Powell knew she wanted to go, and it would have taken up to three years for the project to be approved. Taking ideas from previous projects done with Heifer International, Powell decided to do it herself.

The whole idea for the project was to lend each participant a micro loan, which is a loan but on a much smaller scale so that more people are able to participate and pay it back.

The most expensive cow her foundation bought cost $1,240, which is…manageable for people to pay it back.”

“Because people are in extreme poverty, if you tell them, ‘Here, I’m going to loan you $8,000 or $80,000,’ they’re either going to agree because they know they can never pay it back, or they’re going to be so daunted by that amount of money that they want nothing to do with it,” Powell explained.

The most expensive cow her foundation bought cost $1,240, which is a relatively small price, and it is broken up over two years, making it manageable for people to pay it back.

“The best part was probably the day the cows came home. One guy who bought a cow — Tino — I met on the beach. He couldn’t pay for the transportation of the cow; he couldn’t take out another small loan, so he walked the cow six miles home. The highway was next to the coastline, so instead of walking it six miles on the highway, he walked along the beach. I met him on the beach. We walked the cow home and it was the coolest experience,” Powell said.

She said her favorite part of the experience was getting so close with the families that participated.

“Once the project was pretty much settled, I didn’t have anything else to do and would spend hours with them,” Powell said. Her face lit up talking about one particular family that she grew close with, especially the daughters: Jennifer and Hermione.

Unfortunately, on Jan. 26, Powell heard some devastating news about this family. Their cow, Julianna, had eaten something that was detrimental for her in the pasture and died. The family has always been extremely poor, and they are now struggling more than ever and will not be able to pay back the loan. Powell feels strongly about helping them and is asking for donations in order for her to purchase a new cow for them, at no cost to this family.

For more details about her project and how to help, here is a link to her website.