In 1999, Liz McKie was living the high life in Phoenix as a recruiter for a hard-charging sports agent. "Lots of big money, glamorous parties and private jets," she said. "I'd see young kids from extreme poverty dropped into a world of $30,000 watches."
Financial gurus, including Suze Orman in "The Courage to Be Rich," claimed to know the path to the American Dream.
But McKie's life of luxury went into free fall because of a debilitating cocaine addiction. The onetime Columbia Heights resident moved back to the land of rehab and returned to her former vocation as a hairdresser. In 2002 she and some friends took a cheap winter vacation to the Dominican Republic.
Eight trips and a recession later, McKie found the "courage to be poor."
Now the executive director and founder of Dove Missions in the resort town of Puerto Plata and more recently in Haiti, McKie is a nonprofit CEO with a humble four-figure income.
At a time when many Americans are shaken to the core because of a lost job, foreclosure or a dwindling 401(k), McKie did the scariest thing of all: She jumped off the treadmill. She shed all of her possessions, made arrangements for her son to live with friends during his last year of high school and moved to Puerto Plata to improve the lives of others and forever change her own.
For McKie, giving it all away was easy after working for so many years with people who had nothing. "It made me free," she said.
Dove Missions is a tiny fish in the nonprofit pond. Located in a slum on the other side of the tracks in Puerto Plata, McKie's youth development school isn't far from some of the world's more beautiful resorts and beaches. In a city of 146,000 people and 100,000 hotel beds, tourists who dare to wander just a few blocks outside the compound see sandy beaches littered with garbage, syringes and homes thrown together with scraps of metal and wood.
Next to resorts charging tourists $350 or more a night for a room, nearly half of the inhabitants exist beneath the poverty level. Seven percent of Dominicans don't consume enough calories in a day to sustain life, said McKie.
With no more teaching experience than she learned as a single mother and youth group director at Holy Cross Church in north Minneapolis, McKie started volunteering at a youth center for ages 6 to 14. McKie immediately connected with the homeless street kids, who craved attention. She taught young girls some basic cosmetology with donated hair dryers and supplies that she collected from friends in the salon business.
"I received so much love from kids who had little to give. I wanted to sell everything I owned and give them all the money," she said.
So she did. After returning to Minnesota in 2007, she called friends and relatives and told them she was liquidating everything. She lost her home to foreclosure, gave her teenage son one of her cars and sold her other one for $6,000 to take back to Puerto Plata. Everything not taken by friends or relatives was donated to charity.
"It was a wonderful feeling," said McKie. "I have no regrets."
Jennifer Saxe of St. Michael, Minn., met McKie through her church and went to Puerto Plata as a volunteer in March 2009. Saxe was shocked by the poverty but stunned by the islanders' generosity. A skinny 11-year-old boy with one peso in his pocket used it to buy a corn fritter for Saxe after he befriended her during a tour of his neighborhood. Saxe almost refused his generosity, but McKie told her that not accepting would hurt his feelings. "He probably hadn't eaten in two days," Saxe said.
Being around people who are happy despite having little food, no running water and next to no possessions changed her. "I thought I was going to help them, but they helped me," she said.
When McKie brings friends or volunteers to the area where she works, the reaction is usually the same. Most of them spend the first day sobbing. First it's the garbage, the sewage, the flies, mosquitoes and pollution so thick that you choke. Then it's the suffering of someone who befriends you, like 6-year-old Stephania, who came to McKie for medical attention. McKie bought the girl an inhaler for asthma brought on by neighbors smoking crack cocaine -- the smoke blows into her family's shack. She had a gash on her forehead from a stray bullet fired during a robbery.
At the vocational and recreational center that Dove Missions completed last year, McKie helps more than 80 boys and girls learn skills -- sewing, woodworking and cosmetology -- to provide them with legitimate income and keep them off the streets. Parents who get the kids to school clean and dressed are given food vouchers as an incentive. McKie hopes that the children in the school will find work to lead lives that don't involve prostitution, drug dealing or other illegal activity.
Before the recent earthquake, McKie was expanding Dove's reach into Haiti. She's working with other groups on the island of Hispaniola to establish an orphanage in a border town three hours from Puerto Plata. At www.dovemissions.com, in addition to options for donations, McKie offers volunteer vacations to work beside Dominicans and Haitians.
It will be a dream vacation, McKie promises. Just not the American dream.