Jose Mieses admits that during his primary school years in the Dominican Republic, he was focused on the field instead of the textbook.
He had big dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, dropping out of school at the age of 13 to enter training.
And unlike 98 percent of the young boys recruited in his country, he actually made it into the Big Leagues, spending two years on the Milwaukee Brewers roster.
But his promising career in professional baseball was cut short by an injury.
Now a personal trainer and entrepreneur in Fort Atkinson, Mieses recently traveled back to the Dominican Republic with his wife, Whitney Townsend, to promote literacy and to assist with the rebuilding of his neighborhood school.
With the backing of the Fort Atkinson Rotary Club, to which Townsend has belonged for the past few years, the couple helped to rebuild and upgrade Mieses’ old neighborhood school in his hometown of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic.
The Fort Atkinson residents, with the support of fellow Rotarians, friends and business contacts, collected school supplies and personal hygiene items for the individual students at the primary school.
These little gifts, which might seem prosaic and unnecessary for an American student, were greeted with great excitement by these children, whose families struggle economically and often cannot afford the schoolbooks they’re required to purchase, as the school itself has essentially no budget.
Townsend said it was so rewarding to see her husband “light up” as he reconnected with his old neighborhood.
“His entire family lives on one street. It seemed everyone I met was a cousin of some sort,” Townsend said.
She said the students were clearly overjoyed to meet a local “success story” and hear about his experience.
A global connection
Mieses and Townsend have been together for seven years and married for three. Their family includes four children, Miguel, 20; Noah, 16; Neariah, 13; and Milarys or “Mila,” 7.
The couple met at the gym and found they shared a passion for health and wellness. Townsend initially turned down Mieses’ request to take her out, but later found herself charmed by the trainer’s good humor, work ethic and can-do attitude.
“He has one of the strongest minds I’ve ever met, both optimistic and disciplined,” Townsend said.
“One of the wonderful things about being with Jose is it forces me to reframe my perspective, the lens through which I look at life,” Townsend said.
If she starts to think about a minor annoyance from her school days, she need only think about Mieses studying at night, sweating in the heat from the taper candle he was using for light.
“In perspective, the schools I went through were amazing. They opened up so many choices,” Townsend said.
Townsend works as the local branch manager of the Fort Community Credit Union, while Mieses continues working as a personal trainer through Anytime Fitness.
They have also joined forces to create their own wellness company, “Soul Fitness.”
Through their independent business, they promote all aspects of wellness, from exercise and good nutrition to emotional and spiritual well-being.
Townsend pointed out that while people can increase their longevity by improving various aspects of their physical health, the No. 1 indicator of long life is the quality of an individual’s personal relationships.
That’s what Townsend and Mieses have dedicated themselves to in their personal and business lives and in their new international endeavor.
The Dominican Republic is located on the Island of Hispaniola, between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The country takes up half of the island, the other half being Haiti.
The literacy rate in the Dominican Republic has improved over the last fifty years to around 92 percent, which on the surface sounds good.
However, most residents reach the most basic levels of literacy, about on par with an 8-year-old in the United States, Townsend said.
Meanwhile, there are numerous barriers to students obtaining an education, Townsend said. Gender inequity persists, and meanwhile, many families cannot participate in the school system for economic reasons. And those who do attend school do so in an environment far less conducive to learning than in a typical American school.
Schools in the Dominican Republic are overcrowded, lack texts and other instructional materials, do not have trained teachers, and often have no electricity, no bathrooms, and no garbage pickup.
“Sanitation is an issue,” Townsend said.
Yet education is vital to bettering oneself economically, Townsend said.
The Dominican Republic has a population of 11 million, with three million located in the capital of Santo Domingo.
That comes out to 576 people per square mile in the capital city, compared to around 94 people per square mile across the United States.
Education in the Dominican Republic consists of the primary grades for ages 3 to 6, elementary grades for ages 6 through 14, and high school for those lucky enough to attend.
Only the elementary level of schooling is considered mandatory, and that requirement is really not enforced, Townsend noted.
The lower level schools concentrate on basics, without touching on some of the subjects considered essential in American schools, like health, she said.
Thirteen percent of 13 through 18-year-olds in the Dominican Republic never attend school.
The high school curriculum is very flexible and tends to be focused on vocational and technical training rather than academics.
On graduation, at the age of 18, a student from the Dominican Republic would typically reach what we in the United States would consider a sixth-grade reading level.
Still, those who go to school see improved life outcomes. Their likelihood to smoke and drink goes down and they are less likely to become parents as teens.
Major League Baseball provides one opportunity for students (specifically, boys) to better themselves.
Baseball is huge in the Dominican Republic, and many youths dream of entering the Big Leagues.
Recruiters seek out talented youth who might have what it takes to become professional baseball players, and in fact many Major Leaguers do come out of the small country.
Baseball recruiters, however, are not required to keep their recruits actively enrolled in school. And once a 12-year-old leaves school, he’s likely never to return.
Meanwhile, only a very small minority of those who catch the eye of the recruiters ever wind up playing professional ball.
Mieses was skilled enough and lucky enough to make it into that small percentage.
While professional baseball offers an escape for the rare talent who makes it through all the levels, education provides the best opportunity for the average person to improve their life, Townsend and Mieses said.
Within the Dominican Republic, the biggest occupations are in tourism and agriculture (sugarcane and tobacco).
A lack of transportation in the densely populated city further limits people’s options.
Many people are self-employed day by day, perhaps operating a pop-up tamale stand along the street or offering services like hairdressing or handyman help.
As such, it’s a “cash economy,” with few people even making use of banks.
Those who go on to graduate tend to leave the country for better opportunities.
The neighborhood where Townsend’s husband grew up is quite poor. Few complete a high school education, and colleges have an incredibly high drop-out rate.
While Townsend is a Fort Atkinson native, born and raised here with many relatives in the area, Mieses came to the United States in 1999.
He left school at the age of 13 or 14 and was drafted at the age of 19.
He started playing with the Helena Brewers in Santo Domingo and then came to the U.S. He played in the minor leagues in 1999 and 2000, and then in 2001 and 2002 he signed on to the Milwaukee Brewers as a pitcher.
However, an injury immediately landed him in rehabilitation, and he never did get to pitch a game. After two years of rehab failed to restore Mieses’ full ability, the Brewers let him go.
He re-signed with a minor league team associated with the Chicago White Sox and played for them for one year.
All too soon, his long-anticipated career in professional baseball was done. Left in a foreign country without a high school degree, Mieses pursued his GED and re-entered the workforce in the area of physical fitness.
In the back of his mind all of these years, Mieses had always hoped to return to his home country and start a baseball camp for youngsters.
But without pulling in Major League bucks, that dream was not so easy to accomplish.
Instead, with the support of Townsend and the Fort Atkinson Rotary Club, he went about improving the lives of children in his own neighborhood in a different way.
The couple was inspired by Rotary’s 2019-20 theme, “Rotary Connects the World,” and by Fort Atkinson resident and Rotary District Governor Edwin Bos’ call for all of the local Rotarians to find a “passion project” that resonated with them personally.
Townsend and Mieses immediately thought of connecting to his old school in the Dominican Republic, called Colegio Huellas del Saber.
Incidentally, that old school, located in a semi-enclosed alley in Mieses’ old neighborhood, was threatened with being closed down, as it wasn’t meeting even the lax safety standards of the Dominican Republic.
The couple obtained a grant from the Fort Atkinson Rotary Club in the amount of $1,000 to help rebuild the school. Adding to this was around $400 donated by the gym and other community supporters.
Mieses and Townsend made the trip back to his old hometown over the Christmas holiday.
As a native to the area, Mieses received a very warm welcome in his old hometown, and he was thrilled to reconnect with his former teacher, Elia, who was still overseeing the crowded alleyway school.
This time, instead of daydreaming about the Big Leagues, Mieses was able to bolster the teacher’s message about the value of education.
With the help of the grant from the Fort Atkinson Rotary Club, Mieses was able to employ local contractors who immediately got to work improving the school.
“The government had been looking to close this school down,” Mieses said.
The school had no windows, no real walls, and no roof. A plastic tarp on the sides kept the students out of the weather, but rainwater still ran under the desks, as the area was not fully enclosed.
The $1,000 Rotary grant went directly toward purchasing materials — mostly cement block — to rebuild the school.
Mieses, with his facility in Spanish, oversaw the process and helped to steward the funds, while the teacher’s brother, Carlos, helped with the contracts using his local connections and assisted with bookkeeping.
Meanwhile, Townsend and Mieses put together gift bags for all of the students at the school. These bags contained pencils, notebooks, coloring books, and dental floss, the last of which the students were utterly unfamiliar with and had to be taught how to use.
The visit was really educational for Townsend, but also proved to be a learning experience for the folks they visited in the Dominican Republic.
“I am the first blue-eyed, blond person many of them had met,” she said with a smile. “I had my hair done a lot.”
The visit gave Townsend a whole new perspective as she experienced a whole different way of living — for bad and for good.
Townsend was impressed by the warmth and generosity of the local people; their commitment to family and community; and their ability to live “in the present.”
“As a culture, we (in the United States) tend to focus on the future, to the point of missing out on the joy of the present,” Townsend said. “The people I met in the Dominican Republic are a great example of being present with friends and family and enjoying the moment.”
The future-oriented American in Townsend could get a little dismayed by the locals’ easygoing attitude when it came to scheduling appointments for the future, however.
“Whenever you try to plan something in the Dominican Republic it’s always, ‘Mañana’ (tomorrow).”
And in terms of her planned visit to a Rotary Club in the Dominican Republic, tomorrow never came.
At the same time, Townsend was struck by the inequity of opportunity, the poverty and the violence that local people had to live with.
“There are a lot of gated communities, a lot of guns,” she said. “Someone was murdered during a robbery when we were there.”
Meanwhile, the representatives elected to serve the public are frequently swimming in corruption, leading to a general attitude of distrust among the people.
Townsend and Mieses’ goal for the Christmas-time trip was to assist the school in rebuilding so it could stay open and continue to serve the local neighborhood, while also providing needed supplies to the students.
They also had a message to share about the importance of literacy and staying in school.
“I chose to leave school behind to focus on baseball,” Mieses said. “That was a big mistake.”
For some years, Mieses said, it felt like he was on a high trajectory and didn’t need school to succeed. That was a completely normal attitude in his country — it’s not encouraged for young boys to continue in school if they can play baseball.
With no requirement to continue attending school and no tutoring available to help them stay in school while training for baseball, boys are left to figure it out on their own.
“I think that’s a big disservice to the young people of that country,” Townsend said.
When Mieses got hurt — like so many professional athletes do — and could no longer perform at the level required to remain in professional sports, the decision to leave school came back to haunt him.
Now in the U.S., Mieses had trouble finding any level of decent employment without a high school degree, so he embarked on the difficult process of obtaining a GED, in a foreign language and without having attended any high school.
It was a high bar, but again, hard work and determination carried him through.
The recent visit to the Dominican Republic marked Mieses’ first visit home for Christmas in 20 years.
When Townsend and Mieses announced their intentions to go to the Dominican Republic to help his own school, their friend Therese Fitzpatrick swiftly got together a bunch of old suitcases to fill with donations for the students.
Then other community members swiftly jumped on board with the effort.
“It was wonderful to witness the generosity of our community,” Townsend said.
Mieses and Townsend plan to return to his old school again and to help with continued renovations in the future.
Townsend recently talked about the project with students at Barrie Elementary School in Fort Atkinson, noting that the school in the Dominican Republic lacks even a chalkboard.
“But why don’t they use their (internet-connected) SMARTboard?” Townsend remembers a Barrie student asking.
Students were shocked to learn that the school in the Dominican Republic had no electricity, no plumbing, lacked finished walls and was not located in a particularly safe neighborhood.
In the future, the Fort Atkinson couple is looking to pursue a global grant through Rotary International to continue renovations at the Colegio Huellas del Saber.
They’re looking to help the school replace its benches and tables with actual school desks, to help fund the installation of electricity and fans, and to help finance the addition of a chalkboard and the purchase of basic teaching materials.
Down the road, Mieses would still love to create a baseball camp for hopefuls in the sport. But unlike his own training experience, he would stress the need for students to continue their education, and he hopes to provide resources to make it easier for youngsters to do that.
“I am going to tell them to focus on school first, then baseball,” Mieses said.
Townsend said for her part, she is just so proud of her husband for his commitment to make a difference and give back.
“With whatever talent you are given comes great responsibility,” she said. “He wasn’t created just to play baseball — how he motivates people, that’s a gift to share for a lifetime.”