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A Promise With No Catches : Activism: A major leaguer and his wife are making good on a years-old pledge. Because of Dave and Vicky Valle, fewer kids in the Dominican Republic are going to bed hungry.

October 12, 1995|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a struggling minor league baseball player, Dave Valle passed through the depressing parts of more small towns than Amtrak. Stockton, Calif.; Walla Walla, Wash.; Alexandria, Va.; Greenville, S.C.--places that made the Queens neighborhood where his widowed mother raised eight children look luxurious by comparison.

"Oh, my God," says Valle's wife, Vicky, shuddering at memories. "It was unbelievable."

But none of those places prepared the Valles for what they would experience in the Dominican Republic, where Valle went to play winter ball in 1985. While walking near the ballpark after Valle's first game in the capital, Santo Domingo, the couple was surrounded by eight or nine young boys, children who, at first, seemed no different than the young autograph-seekers who frequently surrounded them in the States.

Only these kids weren't after autographs.

"We'd see the kids after the games. I mean, it'd be midnight on a school night and there'd be tons of kids out there," Vicky recalls. "All they'd want was some food."

The Valles distributed the loose change they had, which wasn't much. Dave had made less than $9,000 the year before as a catcher in the Seattle Mariners' organization. But that night they also made a silent promise to the barefoot youngsters: If Valle ever made it in the major leagues, he'd be back.

In July, seven months after signing a million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers, Valle made good on that promise, opening the first of seven bancos de confianza, or trust banks, in the Dominican Republic. Working through Esperanza International, the nonprofit group the Valles founded, they hope to invest as much as $2.5 million in trust banks that will make loans to the desperately poor in the Caribbean country.

And, Vicky says, "This is just the beginning."

"Eventually we'd like to do more there as far as medical care and education. Long-term, we'd like to do more than just the Dominican."

"My dream," adds Vicky, who was born in Havana, "is to someday go to Cuba."

*

Although neither Valle has been to the Dominican Republic for two years, the emotions inspired by its children are never far from the surface. Eyes tearing and voice cracking, Vicky alternates between Spanish and English to find the right words to express her feelings. Dave talks softly.

"They don't have plumbing. They don't have heating. They have dirt floors. No one should have to live like that," he says. "You look into their eyes . . . and if your eyes aren't kind of open to those things, it's easy to shut it off. As you look past their eyes, your heart just goes with them."

With the wounds of the players' strike still fresh, some baseball fans might find such concern surprising. But Dave Valle is not your average egocentric major leaguer. For him, sentiment is more predictable than a 3-0 fastball.

Yet even a heart as big as Valle's doesn't go far in the Dominican, where hunger is endemic and where the infant mortality rate is more than double that of El Salvador. It's also a place where ideas for quick solutions often fizzle.

But the Valles had the help of Fred Gregory, former president of the development agency World Concern and now Esperanza's executive director, in establishing a program that fit their goals.

"A lot of times people go down there with big dreams. 'I'll build this big facility. And we'll do this or that,' " Vicky says. "Is that what they really need? Or do they need food? Or do they need to learn how to grow crops to feed their children? Or do they need to learn about medicine? What are their needs?

"Don't put your American mentality there. You have to go there and have to really find out what it is they need. We really wanted to be careful that what we did was not what we wanted, but what the people needed."

And what the people needed, the Valles became convinced, was a bank. Although the trust banking concept is a relatively new one for international aid groups, CARE's project, for example, has enjoyed some success in Central America. Starting with a cash reserve of $2,000, the banks offer low-interest loans of $50 each to 25 to 30 members of the community, most of them single mothers. Borrowers must open an account and save up to 20% of the loan. The women are left with not only a small nest egg but with a sense of pride for being self-sufficient.

Meanwhile, the interest--generally about 3%--eventually allows the banks to become self-sufficient.

"I'm perfectly convinced that this program is much more effective to combat poverty and to help the people develop," says Arturo Mateo, who oversees Esperanza's banks in the Dominican Republic. "If you give food today to a person, it won't last. But if you teach them how to work, if you teach them how to run a business . . . you're giving them the opportunity to develop their community."

The results, says Brian Holman, a former teammate of Valle's and now a partner in Esperanza, were always intended to be more than economic.

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