When my friend Miriam and I visited Colombia in the beginning of 2014, we fell in love with the country and it’s people. Unfortunately we could only stay for two weeks at that time, so we decided to go back after finishing our studies. Besides traveling, we also wanted to do something meaningful and help the people of Colombia. After intense research, and not without some difficulties, we found the perfect organization for us to help: the Mariposas Amarillas Foundation. This amazing NGO, founded by a Colombian named Oscar, tries to provide basic education for young kids (age 4-10) living in poor neighborhoods of Santa Marta. The foundation built a little school with only three rooms in Barrio Fundadores, with two permanent teachers and the volunteers running it. In cooperation with a Colombian NGO, the foundation also runs a health center in another poor neighborhood, where they are trying to education the local people about health issues and disease prevention. Colombia does have private and public schools, run by the government, that are free, but the students still need to pay for the obligatory uniform and books, and some families can’t even afford those. A lot of people with no income or low income in Colombia tend to move around a lot, they are called desplazados. If a family moves during the official school year, there is no way for the kids to change schools, as admissions are only in the beginning of the term. So there is actually a great need for schools run by NGOs like Fundación Mariposas Amarillas, because otherwise a lot of young kids would not get any education at all.
Miriam and I were assigned to teach at the school and to help with fundraising money for new school supplies and the teachers salaries. For the time of our stay we found an apartment in the old town in Santa Marta. We didn’t know how to get to the school, so on our first day we met up with one of the teachers, Helga, and got on the public bus. It took about 20-30 min to get to the barrio and then a short walk to the school. Just seeing the neighborhood already gave us an idea of how poor the people living there must be. Especially for only being run on donations, the school looked great. There were three classrooms, a little backyard, toilets, and a while after we left, they started building a kitchen, to be able to prepare the kids a healthy breakfast as most kids don’t eat anything at home or the parents just give them a package of chips or cookies. The rooms all have white boards and plastic chairs and tables, as well as supplies like books and pens.
We didn’t really know what to expect of our first day, but certainly not that we would get started right away! Helga introduced us to all the kids, which was quite a task remembering all their names, luckily some had a picture and their name pinned up on the wall. The kids were super friendly and excited to see us. From now on we would be called “seño”, an abbreviation of señora. We were assigned to teach the preschool class, which had about eight students on most of the days. There was a more or less fixed schedule, which would have classes like Spanish, maths, art, nature, sports, and English. We were a little nervous when we had to start with our first class, as we both didn’t have experience in teaching, but Helga showed us how they structured their classes and it was actually quite easy. Looking back I must say, it is great that at Fundación Mariposas Amarillas we got the chance to really do something right from the beginning.
The kids were mostly pretty young, from 4 to 6, so we taught them letters one by one, numbers, some calculations, and some words. They had to learn it in a more playful way as they couldn’t really concentrate for too long. The kids were so different, some of them were really eager to learn and would always ask us for more homework and finished the tasks we gave them super fast, others were really behind and we had to constantly watch them, so they would learn anything. We were two people for that one class and sometimes there were only half of the kids, but still all of them individually required so much attention that we never had a quiet minute. We thought the break would be a moment to relax, but we were wrong, now the harder part started, when 10 or more kids run around and all want to play with you or play with the same toy. The classes the kids like the most were sports and arts of course. For the arts classes we always prepared something they could paint, glue, or cut. The class they liked the least was English. They couldn’t really write, so we tried to get them used to the sound of it and some words, we tried with songs and games but it was hard to get them to focus.
Even if they sometimes needed a lot of attention, we quickly learned to love all of the kids. Most of them were super trustworthy, wanted to be around us all the time, and said the sweetest things to us (although their Spanish with a strong local accent was sometimes hard to understand). One little girl was very shy in the beginning, but after a while always came to us, held our hands, and told us half hour long stories or wanted us to read to her.
One time a week in the evening we headed out to do some fundraising for the Foundation Mariposas Amarillas. They have an agreement with a hostel in Santa Marta, La Brisa Loca, where we would host a Trivia Night at their bar and inform the people about the work of the foundation. Some other volunteers already prepared various questions, most of them either funny or with an intercultural background for the international tourists at the hostel, so we just had to read them to the participants. The hostel would sponsor the prize (alcohol of course) for the best team, so it was a very funny experience. At the end of the quiz we would ask the participants to donate how ever much they can for the foundation, and we were happily surprised that we always made between $80-100, despite of most of them being low budget travelers.
Every single minute at Fundacion Mariposas Amarillas was an amazing experience and we learned so much about ourselves and about how the simplest things in life can make you happy. We learned to be more grateful about how much we have and how lucky we were to have gotten a great education. The foundation is always looking for new volunteers, even if you don’t speak Spanish, so for more information you can look on their website or write me!