New Charity Helps Kids
By Judy D’Mello | October 5, 2017 - 12:16pm
Long before Tropical Storm Irma smashed into the Dominican Republic, Meaghan Guzman, who was born and raised in Sag Harbor and now lives in East Hampton, had identified the dire need to help children and families living in remote parts of the island — the parts that most vacationers who flock to the Caribbean hotspot never see.
Hence the name of her charity, Debajo de las Palmas, or Under the Palms, which Ms. Guzman said she used metaphorically for what one really finds, if one were to stop and look, beyond the glorious palm trees that line the upscale resorts: hundreds of starving children.
“I went to the D.R. with my husband for the first time in 2006 and it broke my heart to see village kids who would pick dried up limes off a tree and try to sell them just to make a few pesos to buy food.”
She returned to the East End and immediately collected donations for clothes and food, which her husband’s family, who live in the capital city of Santo Domingo, helped distribute. Over the years, Ms. Guzman partnered with orphanages in the Dominican Republic and sent a regular supply of clothes, shoes, baby formula, diapers, and food. Children at these orphanages range from ages 2 to 18, she said, and many are H.I.V. and AIDS patients. About 60 percent of them, she explained, are refugees from neighboring Haiti, who cross over to the Dominican Republic side in hopes of a better life, but rarely find it.
In 2016, Debajo de las Palmas received its official nonprofit status. On Oct. 15, Ms. Guzman will host her charity’s first annual family picnic benefit at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton. An impressive list of local and New York City vendors and food purveyors will supply the fare, including Almond Restaurant, Simply Sublime, Joe and Liza’s Ice Cream, Chelsea Market, Naturopathica, and D.J. Biggie. Each ticket includes a picnic for the family, a blanket, as well as music, face painting, pumpkin painting, crafts, games, a raffle, and a silent auction.
The event runs from 3:30 to 7 p.m., and tickets cost $125 for a family of four or $85 for two. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com.
All proceeds will go toward shipping costs to deliver provisions directly to the families in need. Ms. Guzman, a certified lactation consultant, also helps educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding and how to succeed in breastfeeding.
Tickets will also be on sale on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Homegrown Family Health Fair at the First Presbyterian Church in Southampton Village.
About the Author
MAY 6, 2018 BY JESSICA
CLC’s trust-building charity work
The Dominican Republic suffers from the lowest breastfeeding rates in the Caribbean region. Less than 8 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed under six months old.
The country’s maternal infant mortality rate is tragically high, along with a c-section rate over 50 percent, soaring above WHO’s ideal 10 to 15 percent.
These numbers may not consider undocumented Haitian immigrants residing in small, usually extremely poor villages in Dominican Republic, Meaghan Guzman, CLC says. (Estimates of people of Haitian descent– who have been described as making up the country’s “underclass”— vary widely, from half a million to more than a million, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that the government began its first comprehensive effortto regularize the status of undocumented migrants– most of which are Haitian.)
“Everyone needs to know how big the problem is,” Guzman says of extreme poverty and maternal child health outcomes.
Trust-building charity work
Guzman’s interest in the Dominican Republic didn’t start with researching numbers though. It started in 2006 when she first visited the country.
“It started with …seeing and feeling the reality of the problem first hand,” she explains. “My work started with my heart and not wanting to allow these babies– no matter their nationality– to suffer when they don’t have to. Babies that are deprived of their mother’s milk, for one reason or another, also in many cases lack the resources to be fed sufficiently with formula, creating a circle of downward spirals.”
Touched by the poverty beneath the statuesque palm trees decorating upscale resorts, Guzman returned to her home in East Hampton and began collecting second-hand donations of daily essentials, including breastfeeding supplies. Determined not to fuel what Guzman describes as huge piles of burning garbage, all of her packing and shipping material is biodegradable.
Her organization, Debajo de Las Palmas- Under the Palms In Dominican Republic Inc., officially became a non-profit in 2016 with a mission to enrich the lives of children and families living in extreme poverty with breastfeeding education and daily necessities. Children are provided with a week’s worth of clothing and at least one pair of shoes along with educational supplies, toys and other daily essentials. Guzman has partnered with orphanages and the country’s main children’s hospital, Robert Reid Cabral Children’s Hospital over the years. Debajo de las Palmas adds at least two orphanages to their mission each year.
Since 2015, Debajo de las Palmas has helped roughly 1,500 children and their families with donations from Guzman’s community members.
“With the help of my community and family members, Debajo De Las Palmas is able to continue to help so many,” Guzman says. “Local families have sacrificed their time to help sort and package donations as well as donate their families’ goods to help so many in need.”
Guzman sees her charity work as trust-building.
“A big part of why we do this is not to just provide daily essentials, but to provide trust,” Guzman begins. “Families need to feel safe and secure knowing that we are there to help. We’re here to help take care of them for a better future, and we’re not just there trying to change things in their lives.”
The same year Debajo de las Palmas was established as a non-profit, Guzman completed the Lactation Counselor Training Program (LCTC).
“I had an overall amazing experience,” she says.
Lack of breastfeeding education
Guzman often hears stories about why women in the Dominican Republic don’t breastfeed; she’s committed to helping spread evidence-based breastfeeding education so mothers can make informed infant feeding decisions.
“Body image is a really big part of their culture,” Guzman begins. “Women don’t want their breasts to change. They don’t understand it’s pregnancy that changes your breasts, not breastfeeding.”
As in many other developing countries, formula feeding has become a status symbol.
What’s more, formula and breastmilk are often regarded as healthful equivalents.
Guzman learned from a nun, Senora Carmen, who has been helping mothers and children for over 50 years, that HIV positive mothers often reject antiviral medication, because they expect formula feeding to be an easier commitment than a medication regimen.
While there’s an overall culture of misinformation, the Dominican medical establishment discourages breastfeeding with things like unnecessarily high c-sections rates and separating mothers and babies after birth.
Vicki Tapia, BS, IBCLC, RLC writes in a Lactation Matters blog that “…the vast majority of women aren’t allowed to breastfeed for up to 24 hours after delivery, or until the anesthesia has ‘cleared their bodies.’”
“…If a woman receives magnesium sulfate for preeclampsia, she’s denied permission to ever breastfeed,” Tapia goes on.
Women in the Dominican Republic have also begun to enter the workforce, leaving their infants with family for care.
“Electricity is unreliable in much of the country, so storing milk is almost impossible,” Guzman explains.
Besides, the cost of breast pumps is usually inhibitory especially with no insurance coverage.
Making an impact
Last year, Debajo de las Palmas provided manual breast pumps and some electric breast pumps to the hospital she works closely with. Guzman also distributed breastfeeding pillows, nursing pads, Feeding Cues and Breastfeeding Latch-On 1, 2, 3 pamphlets and Skin to Skin tear off sheets in Spanish from Healthy Children Project. She supplied rural village women with the Spanish breastfeeding literature as well. [Check it out here.]
The first human milk bank in the Dominican Republic was opened in 2011.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) has also established a community health promoter model to ensure a sustainable impact.
In the future, Guzman says she hopes to incorporate doula care into her organization.
“We also hope to incorporate wider spread nutrition education and supplying nutrient-dense foods to children under school-age and lactating women,” Guzman adds. “We hope to someday be able to provide vitamins and further nutrition as well.”
Children too young to be in school are the most malnourished, likely partly because the government provides meals to children during school, Guzman explains.
Beyond Debajo de las Palmas
When Guzman has time to step away from her essentially one-woman charity, she runs a small, private lactation practice, teaches breastfeeding classes at her local library several times a month, and provides postpartum doula support. She is the mom of two young children whom she breastfed until two and three years old and three step-children all of whom she readily involves in Debajo de las Palmas.
Find Debajo de Las Palmas here and on Instagram and Facebook.