New shoes & big dreams: Lidia Kight overcame poverty in the Dominican Republic
In Lidia Kight's childhood, there were no vacations to Disney World, no piles of Christmas presents, no closets stuffed with shoes and clothing. She was born in a one-room shack with dirt floors, and she was lucky to have food in her belly or a pencil to take to school.
Lidia grew up in the Dominican Republic, barely a two-hour flight from Miami, but it might as well have been another planet. Now 41 and living in Jackson, Lidia has a driver's license, a high school diploma, a job and a college degree in the works. She has carpeting on the floor, a refrigerator full of food, a hot shower every morning -- and a big story to tell about how she got to this point in her life.
It started with a new pair of shoes and a dream.
Lidia's father had never been to school; her mom only made it to third grade. She had two younger sisters and a big brother. When she was 4 or 5, she says, her parents began "farming her out" to other households, where she worked in exchange for food and clothing. Many families beat her. Lidia did everything she could to get herself kicked out of the homes, because she would rather be with her own family. Once, she ran away from a family she was working for, and her mother spanked her and took her back to the house.
"My parents tried to do the best they could ... but it hurt me, even though it was like the thing to do," says Lidia. "We worked for enough to eat that day. That's still how it is today. A lot of stuff still hasn't changed."
Lidia's family often traveled the dirt paths down the mountain to the city, where they tried to sell or exchange whatever goods they had. It was a rough trip for Lidia, especially as she got older -- her classmates teased her, and she never had proper shoes for the arduous trip. Her toes are still curled under from the years she spent trying to cram her big-girl feet into the child-size shoes donated by charities. She remembers feeling resentful during her childhood, wondering why God had given her such a hard life.
"I had these plastic shoes that made a squeaky noise on the hot pavement. I wanted what they had, what looked better to me," says Lidia. "Why did I have to be on a donkey full of food, yelling, 'I've got tomatoes, I've got papayas!' For many years, I wanted to hide under that donkey's tail. That's what I wanted to do."
But Lidia knew there was more to life, and she was determined to find it.
"I always knew there was something else out there; I just didn't know what it was," says Lidia.
When she was about 10 years old, volunteers came to her village and measured the children's feet, promising to return with brand-new shoes made just for them.
"I couldn't believe somebody was going to send me that -- it was kind of like, I've heard that before," says Lidia. Many mission trips came to the Dominican Republic but either didn't make it to her village or didn't have anything for Lidia. This time, though, there was something for Lidia: her first pair of new shoes.
The shoes came from a project sponsored by Michael Jackson. Lidia and the other children also received a pair of socks, a backpack full of school supplies and a small boombox that played Jackson's music.
From then on, Lidia's life was different. School was fun because she had new paper, crayons and shoes, and she didn't have to feel embarrassed for having nothing. She says the shoes and music were proof that there was a better way of life for her, somewhere. Her own friends were already starting to have babies, falling into the same old pattern of poverty and sadness. Lidia knew she deserved better.
"A seed was planted in my heart. I knew I needed to get out of there," she says. "I was determined to change something, and it was not going to happen if I stayed in the Dominican Republic. I came to believe I could do it."
Lidia continued to work for other families until, around age 12, a rich family took her in. For the next few years, they sent her to private school and exposed her to a whole new world of youth groups, hotels, fancy dishes and cable TV. Still, Lidia's peers and the nuns at her school knew she was just a "criada" -- a poor slave girl from the mountains -- and she never felt like she was welcome in that life. When she was 15, she moved back home and started sewing at a factory.
This is where the next big thing happened in her life. A master mechanic from the United States brought a new machine to the factory. As he taught Lidia how to use it, he fell in love with her. Bobby was almost 30 years older than Lidia, but she knew he was her way out of the Dominican Republic. He proposed to her, and they married when Lidia was 17.
The marriage was not a happy one, says Lidia. He was an alcoholic, and he was abusive and overprotective. Once, he nearly killed Lidia and her mother, who was pregnant with her baby brother at the time.
"I left him ... and there went my dream. It was very depressing for awhile. I didn't know what to do with myself. I wanted to take it back, but there my mother and brother were, almost dead. So I still left him," says Lidia. She met another man and became pregnant. When Bobby heard she was pregnant, he said he wanted to reconcile and give the baby his name. Lidia would rather die than let her baby live the same life she'd had -- so maybe this was her second chance to get out, she thought.
"He came back into my life, and I let him," Lidia says now. On Jan. 3, 1989, barely a month after her baby Jennifer was born, the family moved to Jamaica, then to the United States.
"I hated this man because he was not nice to me. He was a drunk ... but he saved me," says Lidia. Bobby's abuse got worse, but she continued to go back to him -- who else could she turn to?
"I had a lot of growing up to do. It was not easy being a mother with no mom, aunts or sisters around," she says. Eventually she divorced him for good. "He made my life miserable ... then I left him, and I stayed gone," says Lidia.
Lidia's biggest goal was to continue her education, but she struggled every day, finding it impossible to accomplish that with a baby, moves throughout the U.S., poor relationship choices, depression and, eventually, her own battle with drugs and alcohol.
"I lost sight of why I came here," she says.
Lidia eventually married another man and had her now-16-year-old son, Eric. The relationship didn't work out, says Lidia, but the man is still a true father to Eric as well as her 22-year-old daughter Jennifer.
When Lidia moved to Missouri and had her son Preston, now 5, things started to change. She grew close to her mother-in-law, Karen Kight, and found herself surrounded by good friends and supportive family for the first time in her life. Lidia tried again to get her G.E.D., but struggled with the language barrier (Spanish is her first language, and her English was not perfect), writing, math -- and a broken self-image.
"I thought I was unteachable, stupid, just a dumb girl from the Dominican Republic. I came from nowhere, from nobody, from nothing," says Lidia. She failed her G.E.D. test three times before passing, graduating in April 2010. With support from friends, family and God, Lidia also began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and has now been free of drugs and alcohol for more than three years.
What kept her pursuing her goals, when most of us would give up after one or two fails? Once again, says Lidia, it goes back to her first pair of shoes and what she learned from a stranger's care and generosity.
"(Michael Jackson) inspired me to dream, when I didn't think I was allowed to do it. I wasn't taught to dream," says Lidia. "I'm thankful that I'm at a place in my life now where I can better myself ... and I don't think God has brought me here to just stop."
Lidia works as a waitress and will start her second year of college this fall at the Cape Girardeau Partnership for Higher Education. Her mother and baby brother, now 23, live in New York, and her older brother and two sisters still live in the Dominican Republic. Lidia hasn't been to visit in six years, but keeps in touch with her family on the phone and sends money whenever possible. Very little has changed there, she says.
"It breaks my heart to talk to my sisters. It makes me sad because there's not a whole lot I can do," says Lidia. She hopes that, with her mother and brother's help, she can bring the rest of her family to the U.S.
"I would love to drive my sisters around in my car. I would love for my sisters to be able to get up and take a hot or warm shower ... to walk on carpet. I would love to take them to Walmart and an all-you-can eat buffet. There are no such things in the Dominican Republic," says Lidia.
As much as Lidia tried to escape the Dominican Republic, she hasn't quite left it behind. She used to lie about where she came from and how much education she'd had.
"I used to be ashamed of these things. I considered myself a chameleon because I became what others wanted," says Lidia. "Now, I'm proud to say who I am -- that I grew up in the Dominican Republic, dirt poor, with no shoes, and using outhouses. I'm proud of myself."
Lidia's daughter Jennifer lives in Dexter, Mo., and her son Eric lives with his father in Florida. She has taken both of them to the Dominican Republic, and plans to take Preston there someday, too. She wants them to see what life is like there and to appreciate all that they have in the U.S. And she wants them to dream, just like she did.
"I've learned to never stop dreaming, and never give up on myself," says Lidia. "You can't stop. There are times I stopped, times I lost sight of who I was. I had to pick up the pieces and keep going. Always have a goal."
Like most little girls, part of Lidia's dream was to fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. Though Lidia is not married now, she might have something better -- herself. Her independence. Her education. God. And, again, her dreams -- because that's something that no one can take away from her.
"For the first time in my life, I feel complete ... and that's something no man can give me, and no relationship can give me. So don't ever stop dreaming. I never stopped, no matter what."