QUISQUEYA, Dominican Republic - Pants.
That's what has given Ana Reyes' mentally retarded son Randi the
hope of a future. Not a better future, mind you. Just a future.
A small plastic bag.
Anita Martinez holds it up and shakes its contents like a
"This," she is saying of the simple medicine inside, "is
what's changed our lives."
A second-hand sewing machine.
That's all Milan Tapia needed to start her own business out of
her house, allowing her to realize her dream of teaching
illiterate children how to read and write.
All those things were out of reach for these three women -- and
thousands like them -- until Dave Valle, a former major league
catcher with a heart as big as his lifetime batting average
(.237) was small, established his groundbreaking "trust bank"
in the Dominican Republic six years ago. Starting with $50,000 in
seed money, much of it raised with the help of fellow
ballplayers, Valle's program has gone on to lend more than $4
million to more than 15,000 of the island nation's most
destitute, many of them women.
The key word here is lend, for this is no charity. Before getting
the money that allowed them to buy the medicines they could not
afford or acquire the sewing machine that would transform a
neighborhood, loan applicants had to develop a business plan,
learn basic accounting skills, agree to save 10 percent of the
loan amount, then repay their debt within four months.
And accepting the responsibility necessary to meet those
requirements, says Valle, builds self-esteem faster than it
builds a bank account, transforming the women's attitudes about
themselves as it transforms their neighborhoods.
"I felt like we were dreaming big when we started," says Valle,
who named his group Esperanza after the Spanish word for hope.
"But I never dreamed it would be what it is today."
What it is, says the Dominican government, which recently honored
Valle with a presidential citation, is the country's largest
provider of loans to the poor. And it's about to get larger. In
the past few months, the group has been asked to join a
nationwide effort to aid Dominicans infected with HIV, has paired
with Major League Baseball and Nike on a number of sports-related
projects and been selected by the internationally renowned bank
Valle modeled his group after to participate in a five-year
program that will expand Esperanza's reach fivefold.
"We're entering areas that were never really on our radar
screen," Valle says. "But the phone rang. Little things like
that really help us have a broader impact, not just as a
microfinance group or not just as a health-care group -- but as
people who are really within a community adding something to
'ASKING US FOR FOOD'
Children's begging led Valle to vow to help them one day
Although he didn't know it at the time, Esperanza's first seed
was planted in 1985 when Valle, struggling to gain a foothold on
his baseball career, made his first trip to the Dominican to play
winter ball. Standing outside a ballpark with his wife and
4-month-old son after a game, Valle and six other U.S. players
were approached by a bunch of kids they thought wanted
"But . . . they were asking us for food," Valle says, still
shuddering at the memory. "They were 5, 6, 7-year-old kids. And
almost all of them were shoeless. Most of them were shirtless.
It's 11:30 at night and the kids are going through the garbage
trying to find food.
"It was just something that I saw that I could never imagine my
own son having to survive in a circumstance like that. We just
said if we ever are in a position to come back here and make a
difference, we were going to do it."
A half-dozen years later, after Valle had become the starting
catcher for the Seattle Mariners, his Cuban-born wife Vicky
reminded him of the scene -- and his vow to do something about
it. So the family returned to the Dominican Republic on a
seven-week fact-finding tour, then shared what they'd learned
with Fred Gregory, president of the development agency World
For Gregory, the answer lay in the controversial work of Muhammad
Yunus, a Bangladeshi economics professor who argued that
traditional macroeconomic aid projects that spend millions in
developmental funds on dams and roads did little to help the most
impoverished. In response, Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, a
trust bank that made loans as small as $50 -- known as microloans
-- to groups of borrowers too poor to get money from commercial
Valle founded Esperanza on the same concept. Before applying for
a loan, which can range from $35-$135, borrowers must organize
themselves into Banks of Hope and develop a business plan
detailing what they plan to do. Loan recipients are also required
to save 10 percent of the loan amount as a cushion that is
deposited in a commercial savings account.
Staff members assist the borrowers, most of whom are women, with
developing their plan and teach them basic accounting, banking
and business skills.
The borrowers then have four months to repay their loans at 3
percent interest -- nearly 1/100th the normal loan-sharking fee
in the Dominican -- and if one bank member defaults on her loan,
every member of the bank is responsible and no one can apply for
a new loan until the old one has been repaid.
That group dynamic is key to making Esperanza work, says Valle.
"When they receive those loans, it becomes a personal
responsibility -- [but] they're not just trying to do something
for themselves," he says. "Because the money was loaned to the
bank, then the bank disperses to each individual person, each
person is corporately connected to the others that are in their
Bank of Hope. So there's an aspect of accountability and peer
pressure that helps to be a motivating factor in the success of
As a result, nearly 98 percent of the loans Esperanza has made
since 1998 have been repaid. And the reason most of its 143 Banks
of Hope have been successful, Valle says, is because the women
have used the money to provide specific needs to their
neighborhoods, selling baked goods, juices or second-hand
"Many people think poor people are ignorant," he says. "They
may not be able to read or write, but they are far from ignorant.
They know the market niche of each of their communities, and it's
the entrepreneurial spirit that's in each of these people that
they see a need in the community and then they fill it with their
IMPACT ON A COMMUNITY
Family buys and sell produce; beauty-shop owner thrives
In Batey Experimental, a tiny community carved out of the cane
fields outside San Pedro de Macor�s, Anita and Seneida Mart�nez
are part of a bank called Oasis. The steep decline in global
sugar prices has had a devastating effect on the mostly Haitian
cane cutters who live in the bateyes, where more than 8 in 10 are
unemployed and even those who have regular work don't earn the
$100 a month the government considers the poverty line for a
family of five.
But Anita and her mother are among the lucky ones. Their
Esperanza loan has allowed them to buy and sell yucca, bananas
and other fruit from a tiny market run out of Seneida's home. And
their membership in the bank has given them access to medical
care unavailable to most poor Dominicans.
Across a two-laned paved road in nearby Quisqueya, Juana Jimenez
Sabino's tiny beauty shop is doing so well, she has hired others
to help out and used a subsequent Esperanza loan to buy a tiny
generator, allowing her to keep working even during the frequent
power outages that plague the area. Now Sabino, a mother of six
whose smile lights up the one-room shop that has taken over the
living room of her small plywood shanty, wants to go to night
"The important thing is how they've changed, how they feel now
compared to how they felt before," Jenny Gerardo, an Esperanza
loan officer, says of the women she has worked with. "They
couldn't express themselves. They were timid. Now they're still
humble, but they're not afraid to express themselves. They're
taking charge of their lives."
A little further up the road, in a maze of dirt streets called
Barrio M�xico, Ana Reyes is telling how she didn't join Esperanza
for herself but for her son, who has suffered from severe mental
retardation as a result of an accident during birth. Through her
participation in the bank, not only has she received loans that
have allowed her to work selling clothes out of her house, but
she has also received access to a nearby clinic, which Esperanza
runs out of a former college dormitory in conjunction with the
Episcopal Church. As a result, she can get the one-hour therapy
sessions her son needs for $1.50 rather than the $15 she had to
"He's needed therapy since he was born," Reyes, who has been
with Esperanza three years, says of her 20-month-old son, Randi.
"I don't have the resources to get him therapy and for that I'm
thankful for the help Esperanza has given me. I've never even
heard of another group like Esperanza."
But, Valle says, the prime example of how Esperanza can change an
entire community rests in 41-year-old Mil�n Tapia, who worked
making clothes in a sweatshop before the group loaned her enough
money to buy a beat-up sewing machine four years ago. Her
business quickly grew from one that produced simple clothes for
her neighbors to one that turned out high-end custom-made wedding
gowns and quincea�era dresses, netting her more than $240 a month
-- more than enough to buy the notebooks, pencils and other
supplies she needed to open a school in her living room.
Now she sews at night and teaches 65 neighborhood children --
many of whom would never learn to read or write without her --
during two daily sessions.
"That ripple effect just runs across an entire community," says
Valle, 43, who retired as a player in 1996 and now calls Mariners
games for Fox Sports Northwest while running Esperanza out of
donated office space in a Seattle suburb.
"The thing that always brings me back is, before us, what was
there for these people?" he continues. "What did they do? To me
the greatest power, the greatest thing that Esperanza does is it
implants vision in people who before didn't have a vision in
their lives. It was more 'How am I going to get through today?'
"Today if you talk to some of the borrowers, they're dreaming,