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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Woman finds new life helping poor

By John Ewoldt
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Liz McKie is the founder and executive director of Dove Missions in the Dominican Republic and, more recently, in Haiti.

JOEL KOYAMA | MST via McClatchy News Services

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In 1999, Liz McKie was living the high life 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."

But McKie's life of luxury went into free fall because of a debilitating cocaine addiction. The onetime Columbia Heights, Mo., 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 trip to the Dominican Republic.

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 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 made of 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 eat 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 center for youths 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.

"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 lost her home to foreclosure, gave her teenage son one of her cars and sold her other one for $6,000. Everything not taken by friends or relatives was donated to charity.

"It was a wonderful feeling," said McKie. "I have no regrets."

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. McKie hopes that the children in the school will find work to lead lives that don't involve 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. At www.dovemissions.com, in addition to options for donations, McKie offers volunteer vacations to work beside Dominicans and Haitians.