September 26, 2012 at 1:00 am

Marney Rich Keenan

Birmingham man puts poor kids' future first

Birmingham native David Palmer, 26, started a school in a poor village in the Dominican Republic two years ago. His girlfriend, Catherine Serrano, helps the students. (Timothy Leonard / Joan Rose Foundation)

Youth and idealism often go hand in hand, but rare is the person, of any age, really, who converts his ideals into reality. Two years ago, 26-year-old David Palmer, a Birmingham native, turned down law school to live in abject Third World poverty, running a school for kids who otherwise would run the streets barefoot and with swollen bellies. Palmer would not call himself rare. He would not call himself courageous or admirable — not even an idealist.

Palmer is one of those individuals who refuses to accept the world as it is. And he has a steadfast, intrinsic belief that he can make an impact, starting with the poorest of the poor.

Two years ago, Palmer founded the Joan Rose Foundation, named after his grandmother, "the kindest woman I have ever known."

The foundation funds the school in Esperanza, a desolate rural village in the northwestern Dominican Republic. Ninety-seven kids attend Monday through Friday. Most are Haitian and have never been to a school before.

"When they enter the foundation, most of the kids don't even know how old they are, much less what day they were born," Palmer wrote in an email. "They don't know the days of the week, or the months. They don't know what year it is. They have no concept of the future."

There are four teachers: two Dominican women plus Palmer and his girlfriend, Catherine Serrano from Illinois, who came to see Palmer in the spring of 2011. By sheer miracle, Palmer says, she decided to stay, despite sporadic running water, unreliable electricity and cockroaches galore. There are also two cleaning ladies and a cook.

The kids learn to read and write and do basic arithmetic and are fed lunch. Kids gain, on average, 7 pounds in the first month. The kids are taken to a doctor if the need arises, and without birth certificates, much less immunizations, it almost always does.

Raised in shacks, the kids used to spend their time wandering the streets, begging or stealing. "That's another reason why our school is so beneficial," Palmer said. "The streets do have one simple and fundamental rule: Might makes right."

Having grown up in the affluence of Bloomfield Village, Palmer has long been motivated by disparity. "I have always been bothered by how I was given so much for no other reason than being born lucky," he said.

He is the oldest of four children. His father owns Palmer Moving and Storage in Warren, and his mother is a nurse and firefighter for the Royal Oak Fire Department.

"I started the foundation because I think there are few greater injustices than that of a smart, responsible, hard-working kid being doomed to a life of poverty and frequent misery because he was born in the wrong area or to the wrong family," he said.

During college — Palmer graduated from the University of Colorado in 2008 — he spent a semester abroad in Santiago, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic, where he met Serrano.

After graduating, he spent a year and a half on a fact-finding mission, traveling and learning about poverty, forcing himself to live as uncomfortably as possible in Ecuador, the Andes, the Amazon and Brazil.

Returning home, several acceptance letters from law schools weighed heavily. In the end, he decided to Be the Change.

"To feel so strongly about how wrong something is, and believe that you have the ability to do something about it and then not do anything seemed terribly weak and selfish," he said.

With his law school savings, he purchased a plot of land with a run-down building on it and began to rehab it.

Then he called on friends. One of them, filmmaker Tim Leonard (grandson of Elmore Leonard) flew to Esperanza and filmed a promotional video. (Check it out at

Another helped start a Web-based undershirt company to fund the foundation. Every shirt purchased at covers a hot meal for the kids.

He plans to stay for another three to four years to make sure a solid system is in place and then turn it over to others.

To be sure, Palmer misses his lifestyle in the States. Gun-wielding gangs and rampant drunken driving preclude going out at night.

He still pines for his beloved hometown sports teams; in fact, when they begin school with a prayer, the kids always conclude with: "God bless the Detroit Lions."

And don't even get him started on food back home. ("I love barbecue, cheeseburgers, Italian food, deli sandwiches, especially Reubens. You cannot get a decent sandwich down here. It's a real bummer.") Still, he insists: "We don't focus on the negatives."

From his perspective, there are just too many positives.

"The reward or payback is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the knowledge that we are helping these kids who almost nobody cares about," he said.

"People tell us a lot of nice things or write us nice emails and all of that, but as far as a reward goes, nothing even comes close to the good feeling we get inside when we see these kids become healthier, happier and more successful.

"It sounds corny and melodramatic, but the truth is if we do not help them, they will go back to being hungry, unhealthy street kids with few prospects for their future."

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David Palmer’s students in the Dominican Republic have learned whom to ... (Timothy Leonard / Joan Rose Foundation)
Palmer works with a student. The children study and are fed lunch. They ... (Timothy Leonard / Joan Rose Foundation)
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