There is not much that could be more rewarding. I stand in the sun, on the patio of Fundación La Vecina’s side building and observe the cheerful chaos. Children run around, from classroom to another, or just for the sake of running. Once in a while one or two of them will come to me and give me a hug. They talk fast and unclearly so I never understand everything and they have to repeat thousand times, but I love the fact that they want to tell me how they are and what they are doing in classes. When I ask them if they are having fun or if they like coming to school they always say yes. This week one little boy told me that I am his favorite teacher. And I’m not even a teacher really. Aww, they are so cute. A clase de danza is going on in the middle of the patio, a group of 15 children is learning to dance to traditional Colombian rhymes. As Cubans and Jamaicans, these kids were also born with the moves and I admire them with envy. This is an ordinary afternoon amongst the children of Centro Educativo de la Fundación La Vecina. We are in La Boquilla, a very poor neighborhood of Cartagena, but somehow the kids still look happy.
My boss, the director and co-founder of the foundation, Nathalie Rietman, always tells the same story when asked how she ended up here. Originally from the Netherlands, she was studying to be an environmental engineer and went to Bogota to write her thesis. People there told her that she couldn’t leave Colombia without visiting Cartagena so that is what she did. When walking around in the beautiful old town she saw street-kids, young children lying there on the road, while cars passed by and no one stopped to help them. This image made a huge impression on N, she decided to put the environment aside and instead do what she could to help these poor kids. She went back to the Netherlands and got a job in a kindergarten to get some experience in working with the kids. She then started an organization there in order to collect funds, and two years later, Fundación La Vecina in Cartagena was born. The foundation helps unprivileged children and their families in La Boquilla neighbourhood. It provides the children with education, food and psychological support, and organizes sports, arts and culture classes. The education is free and of better quality than in public schools. At the moment there are some 120 children, from a pre-scholar group to fifth grade. They also organise activities and give support for adults, as well as for teenagers of “gangs”, so that they would do something intelligent with their life. The kids at the foundation come from families with difficult backgrounds: poverty, violence, physical and mental abuse... It all results in a higher level of communication, concentration and learning problems, which represent a challenge for the teachers and other employees. But at the same time, we all do this for the same reason: seeing the kids learn and feel good. The foundation is for them a safe ground and a road towards a better future. I asked N if she ever thinks of doing something different or going back to Europe. She said she doesn't, her life is here and she could not think of doing anything else than working to help these children in need. It is impressive and I really admire the hard work she does. I can also perfectly understand how she feels. Even if I'm volunteering and thus don't get paid, I don't mind going to work in the morning. I wanted to do something different, and now I am part of a meaningful project, even if I will only stay for a couple of months. Whatever my projects are, I try to do everything I can for the benefit of the organization, and that way for the benefit of these children and their families.
The funding comes from the association in Holland, where volunteers work to raise funds. They also get money from partners in Colombia and from individual visitors and donors. We are now working on a fundraising plan to get more sponsors from all over the world, especially from Colombia and the US.
La Vecina is like a small family, I feel at ease and at home. Everyone is friendly and La Boquilla is a community that I just love. We often talk about that with N, how amazing it is to drive or walk in the neighborhood and despite the marginalized living conditions, see people singing, dancing and laughing. Friends and families gathered together, kids playing. They don’t have much but they survive. Before it was worse but with the help of several associations the area has developed. The houses look more solid and there are more and more small local businesses.
Take a look at this short video and interview with N, and you’ll get a better idea of La Vecina and where I spend my days.
N got a "surprise" visit to our office on her birthday last week. All the groups came one by one to sing a happy birthday -song to her.
As I said before, I don’t really work with the kids. My tasks are more in coordinating projects and managing the communication inside the foundation, as well as with the outside world. Luckily I still get to spend some time with the kids, and I see them all the time. My favorite moment of the week is on Tuesday afternoons when the second grade has a 45-minute break without a teacher, and I get to take care of them. I even wrote it down on their schedule as “pausa con Emilia”. It is really a break for them so we don’t do anything too intellectual, just talk, paint or sing. Or take pictures together:
I found a new English teacher so I’m now only supervising and working on improving the study program. It’s funny how the kids wouldn’t behave when I was teaching but now they keep asking me when they will have a class with me again... So I try to find the time to go see them every now and then because even if they sometimes drive me crazy I still care a lot about them, especially about my 5th graders.
During my first weeks I tried to observe everything as much as possible in order to get to know everyone and to find out what I could do to best improve the organization. I even spent one day in the kitchen, helping the women who work there. That was a lot of fun.
This week we celebrated the 9th birthday of the Colombian foundation. The kids from all the grades had prepared a short performance, a song a dance or a poem. Here’s some pictures from the show.
The kids also received gifts from a sponsor. See how happy and cute they look!
As I already told you, La Boquilla is on the beach and this beach is extremely beautiful. When I leave from work this is where I am:
And the views from our office are quite nice as well:
As part of the digital marketing /social media campaign that I’m coordinating, we are working on a new look for our website. So at the moment it doesn’t really work but you can already like our Facebook page, here. We are doing a makeover for that one as well so more posts to come, stay tuned.
Read the next story here.
I'm Emilia, Finnish-Parisian, a recent Master's graduate. I'm currently traveling around the Caribbean and on a volunteering mission in Colombia. I'm passionate about writing, music and different kinds of sports. I can't wait to discover new places and cultures - and share my adventures with you!