Plastic Totes – The Story Continues

Plastic Totes – The Story Continues
by Audrey McCollum
While the recent Hanover Street Fest was being set up, my husband Bob and I found the booth of the Dominican Republic Projects (DRP) that I described in my July 17th column. Zooey Zullo, a DRP leader, was hard at work arranging the display of crocheted plastic totes for sale. But even as her hands were busy, this vivacious woman greeted us warmly, introduced us to her helpers, and regretted that her younger daughter, Kestrel, was not there.
In the winter of 2006, when Kestrel was a 13-year-old eighth grader, she took two weeks off from school to join a DRP trip to Cotui, where the La Colonia Women’s Cooperative is based. Kestrel portrayed the people and tropical flora in a photo album that her mother showed us, and had described her experiences in an 8th grade graduation address.
“I felt like I got thrown into a spinning whirlwind of people, Spanish, beans, rice, plantains, cold showers, motorcycles, buchata, reggatone, salsa, meringue (four forms of music and dance), brilliantly colored flowers, humidity, Gatorade blue ocean, and a tiny bit of English … Throughout this exhilarating whirlwind I learned how to take chances,” she declared in that speech.
Her favorite “chance” was in accepting a ride from a male motorcyclist, one among many who transported passengers between crowded buses. “I had to trust a man who had the chance to drive me anywhere, who spoke a different language, with my life … he delivered me whole and thrilled to the next bus stop and my mother.” (Could a girl do that safely in the Upper Valley, I wonder?)
Another rewarding “chance” was that of staying with a privileged family for three days. Kestrel was “adopted” as a younger sister by 16-year-old Melina, who took Kestrel to her private school, introduced her to friends, took her shopping, and listened to music with her.
“I ended up becoming good friends with Melina, loving mami who was extremely kind, taught me Spanish pronunciation and treated me like another daughter … The thing I loved most about staying with these incredible people was that everything was new and welcoming at the same time.” But I wondered what Kestrel might hope to change in the lives of ordinary DR people.
“Clean water for everybody… Water sources included streams, rain collectors, cisterns, and reservoirs,” she explained on e-mail. “People filled huge pots of water in the stream and then carried them back on their heads. One time I saw a family collecting drinking water, washing their car, and washing their children along with themselves in a shallow stream.” And Kestrel would hope for plumbing – “getting rid of open sewage.”
Other desirable changes would include “having a more accessible education system (and) eventually having small villages become self sustainable (without) relying on foreign aid. The standard of living was much lower (than ours) in regards to material goods, although richer in culture, spirit, tradition and community,” observes this 16-year-old with uncommon insight.
Kestrel may follow in the footprints of her mother, Zooey, whose humanitarian and environmental concerns are deep (I will write about Kestrel’s older sister, also an environmental activist, another time).
Now 53, Zooey has lived in the Upper Valley for 29 years. The daughter of a military man, she lived in various parts of the U.S. as well as in Taiwan during her girlhood. Then she became certified as a high school biology teacher, a middle school science teacher, and an elementary school teacher, and is currently the director of the Elementary Teacher Education Program at Dartmouth College.
“I have always appreciated nature and how fragile it is. I have kayaked in the Arctic and tracked jaguars in the densest of jungles, climbed mountain peaks, walked salt flats and birded in bogs, sailed the open ocean, traversed glaciers, camped in boreal forests, snorkeled on coral atoll island, watched sunsets in deserts. I treasure those places and experiences … I want my children to know them as I have known them.” These breathtaking adventures have not occurred on vacation trips. Rather, Zooey has taken part in humanitarian aid missions, cultural exchanges, educational travel trips with home-schooled teens and volunteer groups.
Five or six years ago, Zooey’s neighbor, Alice Bennett, taught her how to crochet totes from strips of plastic bags (Ms. Bennett had learned the technique from an Abenaki man in the state of Washington). Deeply concerned about global warming, knowing that plastic is derived from petroleum, aware that plastic may take 1000 years to decompose in our landfills, Zooey embraced the skill. She believes that as an educator, she has a duty to teach world stewardship to both children and adults in whatever ways are possible.
Zooey began creating tote patterns and gave free workshops at public events. Women she taught have taken the technique to countries such as Mexico, Cambodia, Haiti, India, Afghanistan, El Salvador and African nations. Furthermore, Zooey worked with Mascoma High School students in their life skills class (they crocheted and sold their bags), as well as the Hartford Boy Scouts, led by Chris Kelly and her husband.
Rita Severinghaus, who led the formation of the Dominican Republic Projects, learned of Zooey’s work in 2004, and invited her to join a field trip to Cotui in the winter of 2005 (Zooey’s husband tends her daughters, pets, vegetable garden, chickens and wood stove in her absence). Rita and Zooey helped the women of Cotui understand the problems of plastic waste, and to crochet totes from local plastic bags as well as those carried down from the U.S.
“There are many other organizations with which I have relationships, but it is Rita, and her life story which captured my heart and dedication to the DRP,” wrote Zooey. “Witnessing … the growth of the coop women has been a gift of enormous beauty to me. I have received more than I have given, and I have given all I have.”
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Audrey McCollum is a writer and retired psychotherapist who lives in Etna.