Saturday, February 25, 2012

Day 1 - Volunteering at Pintando Caminos and the YMCA

Clothes hang to dry on the roof of a typical home in Ciudad Bolivar.
Twelve of our group spent our first morning in Bogota on the very edge of the city -- where paved streets give way to pocketed dirt paths that climb, plunge and wind around crumbling neighborhoods. Ciudad Bolivar is one of the poorest communities in Bogota and home to the community center Pintando Caminos. An occasionally harrowing (thanks to Bogota traffic) trek across town and into the hills brought us to Pintando's front door, with Elmer's glue and piles of colorful paper in tow.

Pintando's founder and director, Alexandra Tamara, greeted us with hugs and invited us to walk with her to a nearby park to get oriented to the neighborhood. From the top of a hill, we could see the community's sprawl: rows and rows of crude, tin-roofed structures blanketed a wide area. Alexandra said many of the homes did not have running water. Built up by migrants from nearby rural areas, Ciudad Bolivar is continually growing, and it is hard for the government to provide services and infrastructure. Schools are over-crowded, and most children never graduate. Gangs and guerrillas are active in the area, as police struggle to maintain peace and security. Often children are recruited to do work for the gangs because, as minors, they cannot be tried and convicted for their crimes.

Kids paste down colorful paper on their paper plate mosaics.
In the middle of all this, Alexandra and Pintando Caminos give Ciudad Bolivar children a space to play, do crafts and interact with trustworthy adults. The goal is to give them a temporary escape from the bad things in their lives and to teach them self-respect and love.

By the time we returned from our walk, more than 60 kids had gathered in Pintando's main activity room. Half of them would do crafts with us, and the other half would make the short walk back to the park to play sports. After some initial instructions, we set to work making paper plate mosaics and quickly discovered the children to be full of enthusiasm and creative ideas. Outside, the other group was playing soccer and climbing a jungle gym. We played and crafted for a couple hours then helped Pintando staff distribute juice and bread to the kids. Shortly thereafter, the activities ended with even more hugs than we got when we arrived -- this time from the children, who seemed to be having so much fun they didn't want to leave. It was almost easy to forget the terrible conditions they live in, and the fear and uncertainty their families face every day.

But we were soon reminded of these conditions when we piled back in the van and bumped along the treacherous path back to the city. Many of those children, we realized, will never finish their education, move to better neighborhoods and escape poverty. But hopefully some of them will, thanks to the efforts of Pintando Caminos to inspire, motivate and guide them. Maybe homework help from Pintando volunteers or the self-esteem boost of playing a sport will push some of them to make better lives for themselves. We hope so.

Visit us on Facebook to see more pictures, and learn more about Pintando Caminos here.

- Lindsay Minnema


Today in Bogota, 13 of us visited the YMCA to spend time with local children. It was a tremendous opportunity to meet these children as well as the YMCA staff and volunteers who welcomed us to their organization. The area of Bogota where the YMCA is located is know as a "tolerance zone," meaning that while prostitution is not legalized here, the laws against it are not enforced. Much of the community centers around the sex trade, and the Y makes a great effort to provide a normal environment for the local children. When we arrived, the children were involved in various arts and crafts projects, games, learning exercises, etc. There were also some kids playing a heavily contested game of soccer.

The YMCA director, Alveiro, and his staff divided our group into four groups of 3 or 4. We each had a Y volunteer and a translator (although several of us, not including myself, are proficient Spanish speakers) and took a walk around the neighborhood. We visited a family consisting of a grandmother, a mother, and a couple of young daughters. They were kind enough to invite us into their home while our YMCA hosts explained their situation, which is very similar to many other families in that neighborhood. While most of them have a loved one who is a sex worker, they all seem to enjoy a close family relationship.

We then returned to the Y to meet some of the kids who were participating in painting and we even had a dance competition. We taught them how to say "Go Blue" and immediately after doing so, some of the boys swarmed around me and proceeded to paint me blue! We then walked to what is called "The Jungle" which is a community recreation center where local kids who are not necessarily part of the Y can go to play and let loose a little. At the Jungle, there is miniature golf, basketball, soccer, a climbing wall, a jungle gym, a zip line, and a rope bridge. After looking up at the rope bridge, I realized why this place is called the Jungle as there were stuffed monkeys hanging off of it!

Before we left the YMCA, we played a friendly game of soccer with some of the kids, staff, and volunteers. I think it's safe to say that everyone in our group fell in love with those kids who were incredibly happy to see us and be spending time with us. Spending today at the YMCA here was truly an eye-opening experience. The biggest take-away from today was that these children are at high risk of becoming delinquents for enduring the environment and conditions in which they live on a daily basis. Despite this, the vast majority of them become success stories proving that this program -- which gives these kids love and care where they would otherwise not receive it -- truly works.

- Neal Carter

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