When a big league catcher turns 36, as Dave Valle did last fall, his prospects are usually bleak—another year or two in the Show at best, with a fingernail grip on his job and bench burns on his butt. But on this January day in the Dominican Republic, Valle is wandering through a genuine pit of despair: Santo Domingo's La Ciénaga shantytown. To reach these depths he has descended a narrow stone stairway that ends abruptly, forcing visitors to scramble the rest of the way over boulders and broken concrete. On the valley floor, a stream black with sewage meanders under a canopy of coconut palms and almond trees. Naked children splash in puddles, and wan mothers stare listlessly from shacks of rotted wood and corrugated metal.
If this place had existed when Columbus landed here in 1492, he probably would have fled in horror. But Valle, who has been here before, has brought his wife, Vicky, and two of their three children, 11-year-old Philip and seven-year-old Natalia. Their purpose? To witness a small miracle.
The miracle's beneficiary is Balvina Concepción, a thin, brown-skinned woman with bright eyes and a quick smile. As the Valles watch, Concepción emerges from her hovel with the bottom third of a steel barrel. She balances it on two rocks and a tin can, leaving room for a fire underneath. When her husband gets back from the market with a package of pork fat, she will fry chicharrones, which she sells in the barrio. "They fry it and fry it and fry it," explains Fred Gregory, an aid worker based in Bellevue, Wash., who has 30 years of experience in Third World development programs. "It's just deep-fried fat."
Actually, it's something more. It's an enterprise. With the profits from her little business, Concepción supports her husband, three children and a grandchild. She is, by La Ciénaga standards, a person of substance.
With the Florida Marlins' newly acquired outfielder Moises Alou looking on, Valle and his Cuban-born wife ask questions in Spanish. Concepción rattles off answers, frequently using the word esperanza (hope). "She's been in the program for 2½ years," says Niobe Segura, head field coordinator for the Valles' Esperanza International Foundation. "She's had five loans. The first one was $110."
The amount—less than two days' meal money for major league ballplayers—seems too small to have transformed six lives. But that's how it is in the world of microloans and microenterprises. Opportunity is born on a tabletop. The price of dignity is surprisingly low.
Or not. In La Ciénaga the wailing of hungry babies is masked by the din of Caribbean music playing from cheap speakers. Hope and hopelessness seem to be evenly matched teams. "Sometimes it's overwhelming," says Dave Valle, ducking under strands of electrical wire stretched like clotheslines between trees and huts. "Where do you start? How do you make a difference?" But Valle doesn't look overwhelmed. He appears energized and absorbed. Here, in this Dominican shantytown where pigs compete with children for scraps of garbage, the journeyman catcher is calling the game of his life.
The path from ballplayer to international development banker is not a straight 90 feet down the chalk line. But it was outside a Dominican ballpark, in 1985, that life changed for Valle, a native of Queens, N.Y. Playing his fourth season of winter ball as a Seattle Mariners prospect, Valle encountered a knot of shoeless children after a game one evening. "They weren't looking for autographs," he recalls. "They were looking for food to survive the night."
At the time the Valles had little more than pocket change to throw at this problem. But they vowed that someday they would return with something more substantial. In 1991 Vicky reminded Dave of his commitment, and they decided to make a seven-week off-season tour of orphanages and day-care centers in the Dominican Republic. ("I was a baseball player," Valle says, "and I really didn't know how to start an international ministry to the poor.") Back home in Seattle the Valles sought guidance from Bud and Judy Greer, a couple that founded several Latin American orphanages, and met Fred Gregory, who was president of World Concern, a development agency.
Gregory introduced the Valles to the work of Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economics professor who pioneered the concept of trust banks in the early 1970s. In his book Give Them Credit, Yunus argued that traditional macroeconomic aid, such as the multimillion-dollar road and harbor projects favored by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the cold war, did little to empower those who were malnourished and illiterate. To rescue the poor, he wrote, would-be Samaritans needed to focus on the so-called informal economy of developing countries: the unregulated, untaxed, unloved people who sold goods and services from pushcarts or from blankets on sidewalks. Yunus proved through his groundbreaking Grameen Bank in Bangladesh that loans as small as $50 could enable destitute women to provide for themselves—at virtually no risk to the lender.