Friday, December 15, 2017

Bringing Christmas to Barrio Blanco

Christmas in Barrio BlancoNever a big holiday person, one of my first impressions of Cabarete in December was the relative absence of commercialized Christmas. In the US, Christmas starts just after Thanksgiving and consumes every TV, radio, and signpost along the way.  I remember joking to a friend while booking my trip: “Where can I go where I won’t be force-fed ‘Christmas cheer?’”


And so, Cabarete in December, with its bathtub-like ocean temps. Its palm tress, its bachata and merengue, as opposed to rock music turned Christmas carols, proved a refreshing change of holiday pace. The decorations, the tinsel, the onslaught of marketing and events that characterize our Western, commercialized machine simply wasn’t here.  An occasional Santa hat on a friendly waitress, holiday music in a few bars; overall, Christmas in Cabarete wasn’t over the top. It was subtle, subdued, something to be sought out. 

It didn’t occur to me that Christmas was a luxury, something for those with the means to make a fuss. And that perhaps, Christmas in Cabarete looked quiet because it’s something so few residents can afford. 

Christmas in Barrio Blanco  Christmas in Barrio Blanco  Christmas in Barrio Blanco

It did occur to Ron Zauner, however, a 62-year-old retired businessman from Eugene, Oregon and founder of the 501(c)3 Providing Opportunity for Self Improvement. Deeply familiar with the living conditions in Barrio Blanco, a local neighborhood well-removed from the tourist section of town, Zauner and his organization bring building supplies and ultimately, a new start, to one of Cabarete’s poorest communities. 

“I remember two little boys smiling because they’d found a whole, dry cardboard box. Their existing cardboard was wet from the flooded fill they’d been sleeping on,” Zauner recalls, sharing his first impressions of the abject poverty within Barrio Blanco.  

To date, Providing Opportunity for Self Improvement has facilitated 43 new homes, with Zauner and residents working side-by-side. With new skills and a true stake in their community, more and more residents have four walls and a roof, as opposed to sky for a ceiling and flooded fill for a bed. 

Christmas in Barrio Blanco

The vision started almost 5 years ago, during a windsurfing trip to Cabarete. Zauner was relaxing in the Jacuzzi, on the top deck of his hotel, when he turned around and saw Barrio Blanco illuminated behind him. His eyes widened at the sight of three-walled shacks and dirt floors: “I was intrigued,” says Zauner. 

The next day, he grabbed his camera and went to investigate the neighborhood. What he found was worse than he’d ever seen, or imagined possible. A picture of three little girls playing led to a visit with their caregiver, and soon, Zauner was meeting with residents to mobilize a force for change. 

“I said to them, ‘If I show the outside world how bad your living conditions are, the outside world will want to help. I promise to show the outside world, and to help you help yourselves,’” he says.

With a pledge to donors to use 100% of donations toward building materials--and to send a photo of each completed house: “plastered, painted, and happy new homeowner moving in!”--Providing Opportunity for Self Improvement has helped residents of Barrio Blanco roll up their sleeves, and change their own lives. 

“When people put their sweat equity in, they’re invested in it,” says Zauner. “Someone helps build your house, you help build their house…it motivates everyone to participate and keep going.”

Christmas in Barrio Blanco  Christmas in Barrio Blanco

Through his work, you might say Ron Zauner already embodies the Christmas spirit. And yet, he knows how Christmas can look, in places like Oregon, for example, where more people have money to celebrate the holiday season. 

“I met with Angela, one of the residents and my right-hand gal, and asked her, “Angela, how do you celebrate Christmas?” She said, ‘Oh, we don’t celebrate here. That’s for rich people. We don’t have trees, or gifts….we just see that stuff on TV.’”

He pauses and gathers his thoughts, choking back emotion. “I thought, ‘Wow.’  I grew up poor too, but my mom always made sure we had some sort of Christmas,” he recalls. “So this year, we’re bringing Christmas to Barrio Blanco.”  

Christmas in Barrio Blanco  Christmas in Barrio Blanco

Deciding he himself would fund a tree and decorations, Zauner knew he couldn’t afford food, trimmings, and presents for the Barrio’s 307 residents. So he put the word out to donors, Facebook, and Everything Cabarete, hoping to solicit good tidings and cheer from the international community of Cabarete. 

“I can’t see having things for some, but not all, but I can’t turn down anything that will help Barrio Blanco!” he says. “Some great ladies said they’d like to provide some presents, and they have 19 gifts. Now, it’s an open call for gifts--toys for kids, most of all--and donations to fund the celebration.” 

And what a celebration is being planned: 3 pigs to roast, luminaries in bags of sand decorating long tables, which will line the streets of Barrio Blanco. As for Santa Claus, Zauner got word from Bill, an engineer from oil rig in Texas and new owner of Brisas Doradas Bed and Breakfast. 

Christmas in Barrio Blanco  Christmas in Barrio Blanco

“Bill’s going to dress up as Santa Claus, decorate his truck, and roll into the Barrio Christmas morning with what I hope will be enough gifts for all,” says Zauner. 

Volunteers will be heading to Puerta Plata for more gifts, while a neighborhood census has assigned each gift recipient a number: “That way, we’ll make sure everyone has a present!” exclaims Zauner. Any leftover monies will go to buy rice, beans, and food staples, to be given to the heads of household. 

Local Hege Holt will read “The Night Before Christmas” to the kids, or whoever gathers for this quintessential Christmas tale. “Then we’ll give the kids hot chocolate, and put them to bed,” says Zauner, with a happy smile.

Christmas in Barrio Blanco

And the efforts to improve the community will continue. Providing Opportunity for Self Improvement has expanded its initiatives to improve education, including scholarships to area schools and nearby universities, and bettering medical conditions, with a free clinic staffed by hard-working doctors. Any associated costs of travel, logistics, or incidentals, Zauner pays for himself, ensuring that all monies donated go directly to providing opportunities for the people of Barrio Blanco. 

“I never knew this would benefit me so much!” Zauner says, reflecting on all that’s been accomplished. He no longer comes to Cabarete to windsurf, he reports; he’s too busy laughing and building alongside community members turned friends. 

“My heart is so full,” he says. “I’m in a position between good people who want to help, and good people who need help.”

Christmas in Barrio Blanco  Christmas in Barrio Blanco

Somehow, Zauner’s heartfelt holiday efforts shifted something in my own “holiday” outlook. I’ve realized I can afford the luxury of turning down Rudolph songs, or tiring of tinsel, because if I so choose, I can afford some sort of holiday celebration. And that at their best--what they’ll be in Barrio Blanco this Christmas--the trappings of the holidays are just a gift-wrap for love, generosity, and the holiday spirit, the real gifts of the season.  

IF you’d like to help bring Christmas to Barrio Blanco, gifts can be dropped off in town at the offices of Lifestyle Cabarete, just above the Belgium Bakery (See map). To donate funds, visit


More articles about Barrio Blanco:

A heart for Barrio Blanco

A miracle in the making

Community meeting in Barrio Blanco

Lovely spirits of Cabarete - Christopher

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