What could you do with $217? It is certainly not an insignificant amount of money, but would it change your life? That's what I intended to find out during my trip to the Dominican Republic with Women International Leaders (WIL) of Greater Philadelphia.

WIL members contribute time, knowledge, and money to raise women's economic and social status, promote self-determination, and help them become community leaders. Early in the week, we toured the lush region of Monte Plata, the future site of Schools for Sustainability, which will teach and model green technology. In Santo Domingo, we partnered with Esperanza, an organization whose approach to poverty alleviation is holistic and faith-based, using microfinance and other support services.

It was hot and sunny when we traveled to the outskirts of the capital city to participate in a community bank-loan meeting. Community banks are formed when groups of at least five women agree to cross-guarantee one another's loans, the average loan being $217. The groups meet biweekly to encourage one another and to receive training and prayer support.

The meeting was underway when we arrived, with the women singing and swaying to an upbeat melody. We were gathered in a church of sorts, an open cinderblock structure with a few benches. The women, ranging in age from their 30s to about 60, held whimpering babies and kept an eye on toddlers playing nearby. A rooster ambled silently among us.

The bank loan officer led a short training discussion on customer focus and calculating profit. After some encouragement, one woman spoke about her flower-arranging business. Buying large quantities wholesale, she sells arrangements to those on their way to a local cemetery. She pointed proudly to the lovely red and yellow bouquet in the front of the church. The loan officer then proceeded to collect the loan payments.

We were invited to one community member's home to see her food business. This mother of nine and grandmother of more than 40 told us of her business dealing in pork, some of which was boiling in a huge, smoking pot right on the front lawn.

The trip was not all business. Our day at Boca Chica beach was a purely heavenly experience, with warm turquoise water, traditional Dominican food, and quaint shops. In Santo Domingo, we toured ancient ruins and searched for the perfect blue larimar stone. We also took advantage of spectacular outdoor dining on the plaza overlooking Christopher Columbus' house and the Museum of Modern Art, which boasts three floors of exhibits of works by gifted artists whose visually stunning and politically compelling items convey the challenges and joys of life in the Dominican Republic.

More than just a vacation, we had the opportunity to speak to women in the community, to hear about their triumphs and struggles. On her porch, the pork entrepreneur pointed to her latest home renovations. She smiled proudly as the translator explained. Can't put a price on that.

Anna Maria DiDio writes from Jenkintown.

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