SANTO DOMINGO — Anyone would have told Katie Godkin Morales that she was crazy for giving up a position within an internationally-recognized architecture firm in Orlando, Florida. The graduate from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) could have had her pick of architectural jobs in the country, but Morales was firm in her decision — she knew she was happiest fighting poverty in the Dominican Republic.
Morales first experienced the country on a short-term trip with a non-profit after finishing her undergraduate studies in 2009. She began using her love for design to create a new layout for the communities she worked with for her thesis, and fell in love with the people she worked with. She returned to the Dominican Republic several times over the next few years.
In 2013, Morales received several job offers, but none of them appealed to her. She wanted to work for a company that was “focused on community rehabilitation, building relationships and actually helping families,” and nothing fit her standards. So her father suggested she create her own business based on her values and shortly thereafter, Morales founded the Batey Rehabilitation Project (BRP).
The Batey Rehabilitation Project
A “batey” is a migrant camp, usually made up of Hatian workers, that has grown overtime into a community. The conditions of these bateys are significantly impoverished. Morales works primarily with the Milton Village Batey in Barahona, one of the poorest bateys in the nation.
Since its inception over four years ago, BRP has sponsored many different events to help those suffering from poverty in the Dominican Republic. Morales has organized several trips each year where SCAD students fly to the bateys to tear down huts and build new homes for the people.
The Batey Girls Project
The most significant program BRP has, though, is its Batey Girls project. Under this program, SCAD students teach women living in the bateys to make their own beaded jewelry. Women become empowered by making their own jewelry and selling it because through this craft, they come to possess skills which “are then translating into careers.” Since the beading skills are easy to teach and remember and the women can take the materials anywhere, the trade is perfect for women living in the bateys.
This program is especially designed to help women in prostitution, as human trafficking is rampant among the bateys. Morales is especially adamant about stopping trafficking in the Dominican Republic. She says the issue has become so prevalent that the nation doesn’t “see it as trafficking because prostitution has become part of the tourism industry.”
“Gimme Sum Sugar”
Once made, Morales and her workers in the Dominican Republic bring the jewelry back to the U.S. to sell. The biggest fundraiser for BRP is their “Gimme Sum Sugar” event, an auction where the organization sells all the jewelry. The event takes its name from the sugar cane workers that live in the bateys on only three dollars a day. Proceeds from the sales go back to the women who created them, helping them save money to rise out of poverty.
The “Gimme Sum Sugar” event is also an attraction venue for more volunteers for BRP. Originally only students from SCAD and its School of the Building Arts entered the program, but now students of all majors from all over the world are helping the organization. Morales welcomes this diversity, as it created a “highly collaborative atmosphere.” Many of them make hand-crafted jewelry also to sell at the auctions as well.
The Batey Girls project has helped 11 women and girls escape trafficking and domestic abuse since it began. BRP itself has built 30 homes in bateys, sold over 2,840 pieces of handmade jewelry, thanks to its 238 volunteers. But Morales doesn’t plan on stopping until every person, male or female, can rise out of poverty in the Dominican Republic. “We’re going to get them out of it,” she says.
– Sydney Cooney