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Valle makes good on promise to fight poverty in DR

Former catcher and his wife started Esperanza International in 1995

SEATTLE -- The year was 1985. Dave Valle, his wife, Vicky, and their 4-month-old were in the Dominican Republic, waiting for a bus to take them back to the capital city of Santo Domingo after one of Valle's games.

The 24-year-old catcher had suffered a knee injury during the summer, so like many other young prospects, he headed south for a season of winter ball in search of at-bats and adventure. As one of just a few Americans who populated the Dominican rosters, Valle was unprepared for a postgame crowd of a very different sort than the media hordes and throngs of autograph seekers back home in Seattle.

"So I'm with my 4-month-old boy and the lights started popping off, [and] all of a sudden, a ton of kids came around us," Valle said. "All of them were shirtless. They weren't looking for autographs, but they were basically looking for food.

"I watched them dig through the garbage, trying to find something to eat. ... My wife, who speaks fluent Spanish, was like, 'What do we do here?' There was a woman cooking some chicken and sweet potatoes right outside the ballpark, so she went and told her to cook up whatever she had left and hand it out to the kids."

Able to feed the pack for the princely sum of $5, the good samaritans rejoiced in the afterglow accompanying such deeds of kindness on the bus ride home. But that satisfaction was slowly replaced by dismay, as the Valles realized that their solution was but a temporary one -- and that the larger underlying problem remained unfixed.

"It was a great moment, but we didn't really solve any of the issues that these kids were having," said Valle. "We kind of made a commitment that night that if we were ever in a position to come back and really try to figure out how we can help those kids, we would do that."

Fast forward to 1995. It was the twilight of Valle's career. After a decade with the Mariners, the backstop had bounced around with brief stints in Boston, Milwaukee and Texas. Long removed from his winter-ball days, Valle was back in the Dominican Republic, ready to make good on a promise he made long ago.

"In 1995, we started Esperanza International as a response to the commitment we had made 10 years earlier," Valle said. "We were doing that through microfinance, health care, education and water. That is the four-pronged approach we are taking to having an impact in the communities that we're serving down there."

Esperanza (the Spanish word for "hope") works by providing small loans of just a couple of hundred dollars so that people can start a business -- such as selling food, tailoring clothes or some other trade. The money is not a gift -- it must be repaid, with interest, which is then reloaned to someone else.

"Microfinance, when I came across that concept that had been going on in Bangladesh, it just made a lot of sense to me," Valle said. "Having grown up in New York City, I've seen hot dog guys, vendors on the street, and that's a microbusiness. But somewhere, somebody gave them the money to go buy that first stock of hot dogs, so that they could cook and sell them.

"It's a sustainable enterprise, as opposed to those children that we fed that night. Four hours later, they were hungry again, so there wasn't really a solution there. We met an immediate need -- and that was great -- but there was no real long-term solution. And microfinance really has become part of our long-term solution [for] helping people break out of the cycle of poverty."

Recognizing that there were barriers other than startup costs to success in the Dominican Republic, Esperanza has created upwards of 75 schools serving approximately 18,000 kids. The group also works to provide clinics and potable water to people who often live on less than $2 a day and have to walk over 20 miles for access to health care.

"We've built a water-purification system," said Valle, who is now a broadcaster covering the Mariners. "The church then sells the water for 50 percent of what it would cost to buy a bottle of water. So they're providing a community service by providing clean potable water. Also, once the loan is repaid, then the church has this income generator that allows them to do other ministries of compassion, like starting a nursery, taking care of the elderly, helping single moms."

Because of his work with Esperanza, Valle -- who is not Hispanic -- threw out the first pitch on Salute to Latin America Day, as part of Major League Baseball's Hispanic Heritage Month.

For the past eight years, Esperanza has worked in Haiti as well as the Dominican Republic. It is Valle's hope that someday the organization will be able to expand into Cuba, too.

Jacob Thorpe is an associate reporter for
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