Posted on Sat, May. 02, 2009

Group thrives on delivering clean water


Both men were marked by a little village a world away from their cosmopolitanMiami roots but that touched their hearts in ways that changed them forever.  Albert Perez was a Christopher Columbus High School student and Alfred Consuegra attended Belen Jesuit Prep. They were just 16-year-old Catholic boys when they set out on their adventure.  Born of Cuban parents, Perez and Consuegra were part of a Jesuit mission to help build an aqueduct in a village in the mountainous central region of the Dominican Republic. They expected to have fun, maybe meet some girls and get away from the prying eyes of Mami y Papi.  They didn’t expect to return with a lifelong commitment to help the most humble create their own dreams and become leaders in their own right. But that’s what happened. In college, Perez and Consuegra decided to start LIFO — Living Instruments for Others.

There are manySouth Floridagroups that go to poor parts of the world to help. But LIFO stands out for its simplicity. It has no overhead and a diverse group of volunteers, delivering tangible results year after year: clean, fresh water.  ”I guess we had a calling,”Perez told me recently after scouting the Belen auditorium where LIFO plans to pack the house with 600 people for its annual fundraiser at 7 p.m. Friday (Check out or call 305-860-9611). At $30 a person, the effort will raise enough to buy miles of PVC pipe and materials to build the group’s 25th aqueduct.  Consuegra, a construction manager and the father of five, and Perez, who recently adopted a little girl from the Dominican Republic, each have their wives, work and lives in Miami, but LIFO keeps them grounded. They have seen their effort grow from a handful of folks to a couple of dozen volunteers each trip. Some come from as far away as New Jersey and California and include a diversity of religious beliefs — Christian and Jew helping the poor.

Before each summer trip, Perez, who runs a produce business, scouts towns to find committed campesinos who will continue to improve the village once volunteers leave. An engineer tests the water source to ensure it’s not contaminated.  ”A lot of people we take are professionals and young people. They have no idea we can do so much with so little,” Consuegra said. “With picks, shovels, some PVC pipes — it’s an amazing thing.”  Twenty-five trips and 150 volunteers later — not counting all those who return year after year — LIFO has brought clean water to more than 20 energized communities that later start building schools and demanding electricity.”There’s something magical that happens,”Perez said.  ”There’s an exchange of love and goodwill.”  Once the children in a town are freed from having to walk, often barefoot, two or three kilometers several times a day to a stream to bring buckets of water back for their mothers to cook and clean, the world opens up. One boy in a village near Janico became its first college graduate.

Free from drinking dirty water, everyone sees their health improve. Building leadership in those communities, both men say, is the key.  ”They may have to charge some money to fix pipes later, so they have that in mind when we leave,”Consuegra said. “It’s self-help. It’s theirs.”  Adds Perez: “You take a town that has had no running water for generations and in 12 days they helped build their own system. You know the leadership skills that develops? Usually it’s the women. The experience changes them.”  And transforms those who give of themselves to make it happen.

Posted Oct. 27th, 2008

A high school mission, 25 years later


In 1983, 16 year old Albert Perez traveled from his Florida home to the Dominican Republic as part of a high school program to help the country’s poor.  That was the beginning of a mission that Mr. Perez has never stopped.  Mr. Perez entered the produce industry about 1985, working in Miami for Chestnut Hill Farms. He worked as a Latin American produce importer for several firms before starting his own firm—Continental Fresh LLC – in Coconut Grove, FL., in May 2007.  When still in high school Mr. Perez returned to the Dominican Republic in1984; then next year he attended Florida International University, so he could not rejoin his original party. Instead, he created his own group, which has since become a formal organization called Living Instruments For Others.

LIFO, as it is known, makes annual summertime pilgrimages to theDominican Republic’s remote mountainous regions. “These are way up places, so remote that most Dominicans don’t even know these towns exist.” Mr. Perez said. The villages have no electricity; no running water and no roads to the outside world. Unlike some remote portions ofCentral America, Dominican villagers speak Spanish.  The organization is focused on one of two annual construction projects; either bringing aqueducts to bring water to homes or else building schools.  In one case, LIFO returned to the same area three years in a row to keep extending an aqueduct downhill form one village to the next. The concept of these aqueducts is simple. A water source is found high on a mountain and is then directed into a PVC pipe; gravity brings the water to a village water tank, from which it is dispensed to individual houses.

LIFO works with a charitable foundation based in theDominican Republicwhich suggests three or four villages a year that need help. There is a selection process, and Mr. Perez said that the villages chosen have a celebration – somewhat akin to a city winning a competition to host the Olympics. Villagers work alongside the volunteers to accomplish the objective.  LIFO’s work groups include a wide variety of people, ranging in age form 16 to 60. Volunteers have included members of the produce industry, doctors and attorneys. The projects are hard physical labor as concrete, steel and concrete blocks are moved about. Volunteers don’t necessarily need previous construction experience.  “We live in the community, like those people,” said Mr. Perez. “We have sleeping bags, and we live and work and eat there for a two-week period, like we are part of the community. It’s almost like the Peace Corps for a very short period of time. It’s a crash course on how people live.”  Mr. Perez said that financial contributions to his organization are welcome, as are work volunteers. The effort includes fundraising to buy materials for the construction projects. He said that about $30,000 is raised every year. “PVC is very expensive, and water could be three to five miles away” for an aqueduct. “That is what is so costly.” The LIFO website address is .

Mr. Perez’ parents are Cuban, but he was born in theUnited States. “The fact that I go to theDominican Republicis just chance,” he said. “It went form chance to falling in love with the people there and understanding the needs they have. When I went as a 16-year old, I attended a private school and lived a good life. I thought theU.S.was the whole world. I had no idea that it was not only not the world but the exception. I saw that more people live in this poor fashion than how I lived. It was an eye-opening thing to me. It kind of clicked. If I have this gift to bring people together and do these trips, then I probably should.”  Mr. Perez did not finish his studies at Florida International University. “I dropped out. I went to live in the Dominican Republicfor an entire year,” helping the people as he does now, he said. “When I got back in, I got into produce and kept working in sales and advancing.”

He added, “In 1991, I took a leave of absence from Chestnut Hill and went to live in theDominican Republic” with people in the city, not the country. “I lived in a city slum and played baseball for a whole year. The city is much harder. The people live not so much in poverty as in misery. It’s a very tough environment but a unique experience too.”  That time in the city “was the toughest stint I’ve done,” he said. “I was 22 or 23 years old at the time. I’d have a hard time doing that today. Working in the mountains is a lot of fun and not much of a sacrifice. It’s fun to take new people and see their reaction and how much they learn. They test what they can do.”

Two years ago, Mr. Perez and his wife, Maria Ines, adopted a baby on the day she was born in the Dominican highlands. Ms. Perez expected to spend one or two months in the country to suit adoption requirements, but she was obliged to spend 15 months there. Ms. Perez’ father happens to be Dominican, so she was able to stay with him for that time. As Mr. Perez started Continental Fresh, he also travelled to theDominican Republic13 times in 15 months to see his wife and baby, Isabella, “who is a great little girl,” he said. “She is the greatest thing that ever happened.”

The Perez’s are seeking a second adoption but are looking for a Latin American country that will not require Ms. Perez to spend 15 months there.  In his work, Mr. Perez travels all over Central America andSouth Americato meet with growers. “I like that. I really do. I relate very well to growers and their efforts,” he said. His LIFO work helps him to have “a clear understanding of people, their use of land and the sacrifices they make. It’s easy for me to understand the effort they put into it.”  Ken Nabal, vice president of sales at Frontera imports inBoca Raton,FL, said, “I firmly believe Albert Perez is the best produce salesman in the produce industry. And as good of a sales person as he is, he is that good of a person in general.” In theDominican Republic, “he has done a lot of good things.”

Mr. Perez said that LIFO three years ago began a full-length documentary presentation on the work in theDominican Republic. The film features the volunteers, and revisited and aqueduct one year after it was built to see the progress. “That documentary is being finished today,” Mr. Perez told the Produce news Oct. 10. “I will be travelling to theDominican Republicnext week,” to see the film presented at a mock United Nations conference. The film will then be shown at the Miami Film Festival and other such festivals.

It began, more than 20 years ago, as a trip with other teenage friends. The mission: build an aqueduct in a village in the Dominican Republic. The result: a lifetime commitment to improve the lives of the poorest campesinos in that Caribbean nation. Back in 1983, Albert Perez was a junior at Christopher Columbus High School and friend Alfred Consuegra was a 16-year-old at Belen Jesuit Prep.

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