Caitlin Harman, '12
Embracing the unknown to promote microfinance in the Dominican Republic
July 28, 2011
Lucia owns and operates a small store in Santiago Province in the Dominican Republic. She sells shoes, clothing and cleaning products, and she’s able to support her family with the money she earns.
Lucia started her business through a microfinance loan from Esperanza, a nonprofit organization that works to free children and their families from poverty. At an average of $219 each, more than 111,000 loans have been distributed to create approximately 49,750 businesses, most owned by women. The repayment rate is almost 98 percent.
“People who are born into poverty stay in poverty and then pass the legacy to their children,” said Caitlin Harman, ’12, a business administration major and Latin American and Iberian studies minor. “Many women I interviewed this summer told me that their loans had given them hope and the power to affect their own futures — it changed their lives.”
As a 2011 Esperanza summer fellow, Harman is living with a host family in the Dominican Republic. She works as a communications intern, attending bank meetings and interviewing recipients about their loans. She also promotes the organization by writing feature stories, contributing to social media and managing the official Esperanza Intern Blog.
“I am speaking Spanish 100 percent of the time, and I rarely have the opportunity to connect with other Americans,” Harman said. “For two months, I have been out of my comfort zone, and I’ve had to adapt.”
Immersing herself in a different culture and perfecting her Spanish have been integral to Harman’s fellowship experience, but her favorite part has been the interaction with loan recipients.
“When interviewing Lucia, I struggled to maintain emotional distance,” Harman said. “All I wanted to do was reach out and hold her hand. The women’s stories of triumph and newfound hope remind me of why I was initially drawn to the microfinance movement.”
In helping to change the lives of families in the Dominican Republic, Harman realized that her own life had been forever touched by her summer experience.
“Working with Esperanza has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life,” Harman said. “Uncertainty is a part of life here, and it’s taught me to embrace the circumstances I encounter — nothing happens by chance.”
This perspective is what Michael Reilly, president and CEO of Reilly Brothers Property Company and an Esperanza board member, hoped for when he funded the University’s involvement with the organization.
Last fall, one Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) class visited the Dominican Republic to learn about Esperanza’s work, and two additional SSIR classes are set to travel there this year. Reilly’s gift also funds at least one summer fellowship a year, and plans are in the works for a UR faculty member and student to study the organization’s customer relationships and social media.
“Experiences like this often serve as catalysts to change students’ lives in meaningful ways,” said Reilly, whose son Austin Reilly, ’08, was the captain of Richmond’s baseball team. “My wife and I hope to leave a trail for these students and encourage them to impact the lives of others.”