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To learn more
•Among area residents who have joined recent trips to Cien Fuegos in the Dominican Republic is James Gabbard, a continuing lecturer in photography in IPFW’s School of Visual Arts. A free exhibit of his photos from his 2012 trip, “The People of Cien Fuegos,” is on display 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Sunday in the gallery at the Visual Arts and Communication Building.
•For more on Barnabas Task, go to Tom Hinton is available for talks to business, civic and church groups by calling 579-8265.
Cien Fuegos has a population about the size of Fort Wayne’s.

Helping poorest of poor

IPFW volunteers, area professionals aid Cien Fuegos

Two children in Cien Fuegos share a private moment.
Courtesy photos
The people of Cien Fuegos in the Dominican Republic live in dwellings on and around a trash dump near Santiago.
IPFW dental instructors taught Dominican university students to perform fluoride treatment.

In Spanish, its name means “100 Fires.”

Cien Fuegos in the Dominican Republic sprang up more than a decade ago on the outskirts of Santiago, a city on the impoverished nation’s southern coast. When a fire destroyed 100 Santiago homes, displaced people migrated to unclaimed land on and around a huge trash dump, where they crowded makeshift houses onto narrow streets and live side by side with trash fires that burn every day.

Today, more than 250,000 people – a population roughly the size of Fort Wayne’s – live in Cien Fuegos. Many scavenge the dump for discarded metal, rags and food for daily survival.

The people are among the poorest of the world’s poor, says Tom Hinton of Fort Wayne. But they have drawn him back to Cien Fuegos time after time.

Hinton, 62, and his wife, Nancy, a nurse practitioner, are the founders of Barnabas Task, a Fort Wayne-based Christian humanitarian group focused on offering aid to Cien Fuegos.

In the last five years, dozens of area residents – medical professionals, IPFW students, faculty members and administrators – have traveled there to work in medical and dental clinics, and health education and disease prevention programs.

Hinton, however, says he wants to do more than just provide help a few weeks a year – he wants programs to sustain themselves and change Dominicans’ attitudes about Cien Fuegos residents.

Those goals got a big boost last month when IPFW signed a five-year agreement with Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra in Santiago to continue work in Cien Fuegos through student and faculty cooperation.

IPFW’s new chancellor, Vicky Carwein, signed the pact while accompanying about 20 IPFW students, graduates and faculty members on a trip from Feb. 1 to 9.

“It was an amazing experience for students and faculty alike,” Carwein says. “The time spent in Cien Fuegos provided an opportunity to participate very directly in giving care in settings unlike what we experience in this country.”

People in Cien Fuegos live in one- or two-room shanties with dirt floors, no electricity and no clean or running water. Smoke from fires in the trash dump hangs in the air, visitors say, and rocky and non-existent soil makes agriculture nearly impossible.

IPFW faculty member Deb Baresic, a community health nurse practitioner and director of the Lafayette Street family health center, has been to Cien Fuegos three times.

Her students staffed a women’s health clinic on the open-air second floor of a stucco building whose only electricity was supplied by a generator.

“Our exam rooms are basically a school desk and two chairs that are curtained off with bed sheets,” she says, adding that women line up for hours for pelvic exams and Pap smears for cervical cancer.

Nancy Mann, who teaches in IPFW’s dental hygienist program, helped set up a dental clinic on the building’s first floor. The clinic provided decay-preventing fluoride treatments to about 525 children and teens in five days.

“Child tooth decay is a big problem in the Dominican because they don’t have health education, and they don’t have prevention,” Mann explains, adding that people suck on raw sugar cane like candy.

“The alarming thing is the decay among children – 10-year-olds with 6-year molars that are totally decayed,” she says. “We’d see that every day.”

Mann spent some of her time teaching the fluoride technique to university dental students so they could continue it.

Carol Sternberger, chairwoman of IPFW’s nursing department and chancellor of faculty development, says the medical needs persist because the people of Cien Fuegos “are basically invisible to their own government.”

“Nearly all the people in Cien Fuegos have no registered residence or birth certificate, so they can’t vote, they can’t enroll in school and they can’t get health care,” she says.

“That’s very political,” she says. “But I do know is that there is a movement to get Cien Fuegos recognized as its own distinct area in the Dominican Republic, so they would have their own representation. And with that representation, they would have access to funding, tax money.”

But that kind of change will likely take years, although interest in the area from people abroad “might start to transform attitudes,” says Hinton, a former director of international ministries for the Assemblies of God denomination.

Hinton has helped start a church in the Dominican Republic and works with church groups. But he says he has concluded that ministry also means addressing people’s tangible human needs, and that is something IPFW cooperation can do.

For example, he is now working with IPFW engineering faculty on a low-tech, water purification and distribution system for Cien Fuegos. He also is trying to find a way to provide micro-loans to help people expand small businesses.

IPFW students and employees and local medical and dental students plan to cooperate on house-to-house surveys of Cien Fuegos residents’ medical needs to better target future projects.

Asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates are high, Sternberger says.

“I would say no one leaves there without their view of the world changed,” she says. “For one thing, our students, they recognize the huge global disparities in health care.

“But they also see the kind of love and caring that goes on among the people,” Sternberger says. “And, with our students, you can just see such love roll out of their eyes.”