Colombia: Volunteering and Social Programs

In addition to the school placement and the English programs, which paid the bills, we also were expected to volunteer with the YMCA.  Much of this turned out to be office work:  helping prepare for the different camps and programs, translating and proof-reading documents, and the like.  Given my background, I ended up working on a couple of independent tasks for most of my time.  One was helping some of the office staff and an intern to establish an MS Access database to better track the volunteers and clients of the various English Immersion and exchange programs run by the YMCA-Colombia.  My other responsibility was my work with the Executive Director.

The hope was for us to also support social programs run by the YMCA-Bogotá.  (Note for clarity:  the Prints of Hope program is run by the national YMCA-Colombia Federation, which oversees the local YMCA groups such as YMCA-Bogotá which run the local social programs.) We visited some of the local YMCA social programs around Bogotá.  There is amazing work being done at these sites, and it was easy to see how in need some of the clients were.  We went to visit one site in Bosa, far on the southwestern outskirts of Bogotá.  To get there, we needed to be escorted by a local after traveling for about an hour and a half.  We went past the busy main street full of small shops and street vendors, and people staring at the gringos that had no business being there.  Then once in the side streets, it was obvious how rough this area was. Dilapidated buildings with crumbling walls and barred windows surrounded us.  Trash and filth were everywhere.  People regarded us warily, and mangy dogs sunned themselves in the street.  We were welcomed in to the facility and learned more about the community from the coordinators.  The families often were the ones that would go through Bogotá and sort through the trash trying to find scrap items.  At home, there was little if any emphasis on education, or even basic sanitation, and health problems, especially respiratory, were rampant.  Later, when we spent time with the children, playing games, the lack of hygiene was evident.  But the children were sweet and enthusiastic and wanted to be close to us.  One of the volunteers, Hannah, pointed out how aggressive the children were with each other, tackling and shoving one another if they were in one another’s way, almost certainly a product of their rough environments.  Eventually, we needed to leave, and it was heartbreaking how disappointed the children were that we were leaving them.  Two boys clutched on to my arms and legs, and I was almost literally dragging them as our group made its way down the street.  Eventually, a couple of the volunteers were able to coax the children back to the facility after they gave me one last hug.

Youth Program at a YMCA-Bogotá Site

Another site we visited was the local house in the barrio of Claret.  This site has a variety of great programs going on. They have vocational training for women in difficult situations to help them gain useful skills such as beautician and garment skills that could be useful for future income.  They also have programs that support school-age students when they aren’t in school, focusing on leadership, arts & crafts, sports, and tutoring.  An interesting project they have is a robotics/electronics project for teams of 2-3 kids.  They make their own proposal and then over the course of a few months, they put together a working prototype.  Some of examples of past and present projects are a motorcycle helmet with integrated lights, an app to help with pet care, and another app to monitor your gas and lights at home.

Unfortunately, we had difficulties trying to set up regular volunteering at the social programs for a variety of reasons, including responsibilities to support other activities, such as English activities and camps run by the YMCA-Colombia. I really had hoped to spend more time with some of these programs and the children that are so in need.  Luckily, I spent my last two weeks in Bogotá visiting Claret and helping develop a structure and schedule for our program going forward. Although I did not get to interact with them as much as I would have liked during my time, the current Prints of Hope volunteers are now regularly visiting the site and helping with the kids there.

Despite not being able to do as much social work as I had hoped, I did request a special assignment to focus on management, and received great support in that area.  Soon enough, I started working with Alveiro, the executive director of YMCA-Colombia on a project that turned out to be extremely rewarding, although the details would probably be boring for you to read about.  It basically entailed some information gathering and evaluation of programs and funding at various local YMCAs in Colombia.  What was great, though, is how it opened up opportunities for me to learn more about some of the great activities being done, and being able to visit YMCAs in the cities of Cali and Pereira to witness some of this work first hand.

In Cali, I was able to see a few different sites, all working in partnership with the Instituto Colombiano de Bienstar Familiar (ICBF).  They offer a variety of programs for at-risk children, when they may otherwise be on the streets.  The YMCA offers physical activities, tutoring, and music lesson (I was treated to an impromptu performance of “When the Saints go Marching In” by a couple of the students.)  While visiting Cali, I also met with the local coordinator for a program called Paza La Paz, a national program trying to help teens in troubled communities develop leadership and community-building skills.  While having a conversation with the coordinator, he relayed to me one of the many success stories.  (Disclaimer: unfortunately, this was a one-on-one conversation, and the coordinator didn’t speak English, and my Spanish is still rather weak.  Therefore, I very well could have some of the details of this story wrong.) One of his youths had previously been hired as a potential hitman by one of the local cartels.  Although I don’t believe he had actually killed anyone; he had attempted to, and has been around murders (again, reminder that I may have misunderstood parts of this.)  Over time, he began feeling guilty about his involvement with the cartel.  At around the same time, he started to become involved with the Paza la Paz program.  This became a self-feeding cycle of wanting to make things right.  He has confessed to his crimes and, while serving time (I believe a six-year sentence), he is still trying to participate in the program as much as he is allowed.

From Cali, I went to Pereira in the heart of the coffee region of Colombia, and found even more inspiration and heartbreak.


Volunteer clown visiting children in the hospital

Among the more uplifting things that I was able to witness (and even peripherally take part in) was their clown outreach.  Pereira YMCA uses clowns for different programs, including visiting the children’s ward of the local hospital.  I was fortunate to be visiting at the time a couple of volunteers were preparing to go.  So soon, I was walking down the street in Pereira, Colombia: an extremely tall white blonde guy accompanying two clowns.  We visited six children in the hospital that day, ranging in age from about 2 years old to probably 8 years old.  All were excited to see the clowns, as they laughed and played and made balloon animals for the children.  I played a small game of catch with a little girl of about three, neither of us being extremely coordinated.  Eventually, our lack of grace displayed itself when the ball went out the window.  We looked at each other, gasped slightly, and then began to laugh.  Luckily, there was a small ledge out the window, so I retrieved the ball with no harm done.  Other children were excited to receive balloon swords from the clown volunteers.  And soon, swordplay was happening in each patient room of the children’s ward, laughter and squeals drowning out the beeping of the machinery.

Unfortunately, not all was joyful in Pereira.  I was invited into the family home of one of the youths that is both a client and a volunteer of the YMCA. He was a tall, skinny youth of 17 years old named Christian.  His family lives in a difficult barrio called Las Brisas, but they are very welcoming.  He has been participating in various YMCA programs for about 3 years now and has become extremely involved, even going to represent the YMCA and present the clown program at a conference in Santiago, Chile; an opportunity many in his community likely will never have.  As inspiring as Christian is, while talking to the family, we learned that some of the programs in the barrio for young children had to be cancelled.  There has recently been an upsurge in cartel violence in the area.  Because of this, parents do not want their children out and about after school, understandably worried about what could possibly happen.

What could possibly happen showed its ugly face the day I arrived in Pereira.  After picking me up from the bus station, Nelson, who is the coordinator for two YMCA sites in the coffee region, the one in Pereira/Risaralda, and another in Quindio, took me to lunch and then to grab a coffee.  While at the cafe, Nelson was on the phone a lot, and during a break in calls, he explained.  One of the volunteers at the Quindio office had been killed that morning.  He was 20 years old, and was a university student, and he volunteered with some of the computer related programs at the YMCA.  It seemed to have been a case of mistaken identity, where someone thought he was someone else.  Yet another senseless death in the ongoing cycle of violence.  My last day in Pereira, we began the morning by driving down to Quindio so that Nelson could pay his respects at the funeral.  Another volunteer, Martin, and I waited outside, surrounded by the family and friends grieving a lost loved one that had been trying to make things better in his world.

YMCA youth program participants and volunteers in front of a mural of “Sheriff”

However, I was also able to witness how someone turned a similar tragedy into purpose.  YMCAs will often try to partner with other local organizations to offer programs in communities.  While visiting some of the programs in Pereira, I was taken to meet with the founder of one of these organizations.  A little more than 5 years ago, a man with the nickname of Sherriff was killed during one of the many random acts of violence in the poor barrios of the area.  Wanting to do something in his memory, his friend Carlos and another friend decided to start running programs for the youth in the barrio; just some small programs to help support the youth in a dangerous area.  Before long, this became Impacto Juvenil, an organization that partners with the YMCA, and runs many programs, especially through the aforementioned Paza La Paz program.  One of their bigger projects was putting together a free community library for the youth to meet and receive various support.  I sat in this library, surrounded by old, donated books, almost looking like they came directly from a garage sale, and listened to Carlos tell his story, and my mind wandered.  Before visiting Cali and Pereira, I took my own two-week tourist vacation to the northern coast of Colombia and ran into so many tourists at the various sites and excursions.  With the successes of the peace process, Colombia has become very much a tourist hot spot.  Yet, I was sitting here having a more profound Colombian experience than any of those tourists.  Colombia has come so far in the past 10 years, but it still has so much further to go.  And people like Carlos are the reason it is coming out of a dark time and heading into a bright future.  In that library was the moment I finally decided to start this blog.  These people, and others around the globe, who are doing all they can to make this world a little bit better should have their story heard in any way possible.

More Info and how you can help:

Below are links to the local YMCAs that I worked with in Colombia. A great way to get involved is actually at your own local YMCA. There are likely plenty of opportunities to help out in your local community.  Also, a current goal of the YMCA-Colombia is to have each local chapter eventually have a sister YMCA in another country.  There is already a wonderful relationship between YMCA-Pereira and YMCA of Greater Moncton in Canada.  Perhaps as you get involved in your YMCA, you can eventually help develop a relationship somehow with a YMCA chapter in another country as well.

YMCA International

YMCA Bogotá

YMCA Bogotá – Claret Site

YMCA Pereira