Couple finds passion in helping less fortunate children in Puerto Plata

When Debi Capes first heard about the mission her church was planning in the Dominican Republic, she was moved.  The church’s teachings promote giving through missions, and she had heard about other mission trips, but had never been interested in going. This time, she said, was different.

Debi and Steve Capes with some of the crafts that Debi has made to be sold to raise funds for their mission in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Photo by Karen Flaten

“A group of people stood up in church and shared about the trip,” said Debi, and she “got hooked.”  It was 2000, and Debi felt the calling to be part of this ministry.

At that time, small groups of 8-12 people from the Kimball Church of Christ (now called Kimball Christian Church), traveled to a city in the Dominican Republic called Puerto Plata, with the goal of building a church.  Some in the group had construction skills; some went to support the builders and help in any way they could.  But they were all there to help build a church.

The group was inspired by a man named William Gomez, an “Evangelist Par Excellence,” as Debi’s husband, Steve, called him.  William wanted help to build churches. In fact, he wanted to build 20 churches.  So this was just a start.  He sought and found support through the Kimball Church of Christ as well as in other churches across North America.

That first trip Debi took to the Dominican Republic was all it took.  Debi knew she wanted to go back.  There was something about the people she met there and their wonderful generosity of spirit.  She decided to do what she could to make the trip again.

Debi returned to the Dominican Republic yearly in the early 2000s, helping with the mission, and putting her resources towards its goals.  She began raising money through collecting cans and making crafts, always putting the extra cash towards the mission.

In the meantime, the mission evolved.  After a few years, many churches in the small island country had been built, and the original mission had been transformed into a different mission – focused on preaching and teaching.  The need for carpenters and helpers in the Dominican Republic tapered off.  But where one mission ended, another sprang up.  In the area where a new church had been built in Puerto Plata, Debi and others realized that if a kitchen were to be built, they could help provide nourishing meals to the children in the impoverished area. Debi began fundraising with this idea in mind, and soon they had raised enough to begin building the kitchen and Puerto Plata Kitchen Ministries had begun.

Providing at least one good meal a day to the children in the area was how it started, with Bible stories and Christian instruction along with the meal.  Because, as Steve, said, “You can’t learn about Jesus on an empty stomach.”

Meals are handed out to children in Puerto Plata from the Puerto Plata Kitchen Ministries that was funded through donations raised by the Capes. Contributed photo

The mission in the Dominican Republic soon became a passion for both Debi and Steve.  They began fundraising together and planned their yearly vacation so they could travel to the Caribbean country to be a part of the ministry.

“We’re not rich,” said Steve, who drives an oil delivery truck locally.  Debi works as a waitress a few days a week at a local restaurant.  Much of their spare time is spent raising money for, or in other ways working for, the Puerto Plata mission.

Over the last few years, Debi and Steve have held an annual fundraiser in their garage in early October, where they cook a homemade meal of soup and bread, and offer crafts for sale to fund the mission.  Debi makes sweater mittens, crocheted dish towels, baby blankets and small decorations such as gnomes and snowmen, as well as many other items.  She spends hours sewing zippered travel bags and coin purses, and even taught herself to make memory bears in order to raise money for the kitchen ministry.  She finds deals on fabric and yarn at thrift shops; sometimes she is lucky enough to have yarn or fabric donated in order to keep costs down on the craft items, which she sells on Facebook and at fundraising events.  When she is in Puerto Plata, Debi spends time teaching the children to make some of the same crafts.  They have made paper flowers and sock puppets, among other things.

During the year, Debi and Steve promote the mission and host fundraisers, but it is the time in the Dominican Republic that makes it all worth it.  Debi and Steve have created relationships over the years with the families involved with the church and kitchen in Puerto Plata, and feel they have another family there.  The Pichardo family, in particular, has become a second family to the couple.

Kids received lunch at a church in Puerto Plata, part of the mission and ministry provided as a result of the Capes’ work. Contributed photo

“Miguel, (Pichardo) used to give up his room for us to sleep in,” said Debi, although she also remembered years when she and others “camped” in the church itself, sleeping on benches with (or sometimes without) thin foam mattresses for cushioning.

Debi’s mind goes back to the way the Pichardos took care of her when she came down, even to the point of helping her when the cash she had brought for her return trip was stolen. The Pichardos had “no money,” said Debi, “and a huge family!”  They did not seem like they had extra money to help Debi when her money was stolen, but they did anyway.

“Papa Luis (Pastor Luis Pichardo, the patriarch of the Pichardo family, who passed away just two years ago) used to say to me, ‘You’re my white daughter!’” said Debi.  To Debi, it felt like she had found that second family that she had always wanted.

It was the relationship with the Pichardo family that really cemented things for Debi.  It was the Pichardos that showed her love and acceptance.  It was the Pichardos that worked with all the mission volunteers to create first the church, then the kitchen ministry.  Through Debi’s relationship with the Pichardos, the inspiration to found “Puerto Plata Kitchen Ministries,” had been born.

By December 2011, enough work had been done on the kitchen in Puerto Plata that a Christmas meal could be cooked in the kitchen.  It was an exciting time.  The ministry began providing meals for 35 children. Good, nutritious meals four days per week, along with a Bible lesson.  It went well and was a strong mission for years.

But, as it turned out, there were many more children in need, and the number of families the mission was helping began to increase.  From the original 35 children, the ministry increased to 135 children per week.  Debi and Steve realized that the budget that they had set no longer covered a large, nutritious meal.  Instead, they decided to provide a lighter meal twice a week, along with a Bible lesson and other Christian teachings.  They teach such universal concepts as respect for one’s parents and each other; kindness, especially to those less fortunate than oneself; and other ethical teachings from the Bible.  The lesson lasts about an hour and a half, said Debi, “similar to our Awana program here.”

Stuffed bears ready to be sold out of the Capes garage to fund projects in Puerto Plata.

The Bible stories must have sunk in to at least some of the children. Recently, some of the girls from the church in Puerto Plata won a “Bible Bowl” competition.  The pastor from another church in town called to find out what they were doing with their parishioners to get such strong knowledge of the Bible!

The mission has been an inspirational journey for Debi and Steve. With this mission, they have found something they are passionate about, something they can truly believe in. The mission’s name has changed again. The new name is Puerto Plata Youth Ministries. Debi and Steve recently received 501(c)3 non-profit designation for this ministry, which would make it an independent non-profit, rather than a mission designated through the Kimball Christian Church. The purpose of the mission remains the same — providing food and Christian teachings to impoverished children in Puerto Plata. Teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, helping people, and taking care of children – this is what the Capes’ hope to accomplish in Puerto Plata.

Debi and Steve have a dedicated area on the Kimball Christian Church’s website to share updates about the Puerto Plata Youth Ministry.  “The children there are happy and learning about Jesus and the love He has for them and everyone!” she wrote on the site.

But Debi and Steve feel they have gained more than they have given.  Yes, they have raised thousands of dollars towards this mission that provides a meal for the children of Puerto Plata at least a couple of times per week.  And yes, sometimes they question how they can continue to raise enough money, how they can keep the mission going.  But then the feeling of having helped people, of having shared God’s love, and of having created relationships with people from another culture kicks in.