Cindy and Todd Ryan (Dirty Wall Project), visited Colombia in March/April as one part vacation and one part DWP mission. Wanting to dedicate at least part of the trip to finding ways that DWP could help in Colombia, we researched charities and NGO’s in the country. The following post is about our success at finding a charity DWP was excited by and happy to support in a barrio in the city of Cartagena.
Dodging the equatorial sun, visitors and citizens of Cartagena, Colombia zig-zag down cobblestone streets, seeking shade under carved wood balconies draped with vines and pots of flowering plants shedding petals with the slightest breath of air. Like watching a romantic movie that transports you to another time and place dazzling with possibilities, Cartagena seduces visitors with historic buildings, their original colour faded into soft shades of turquoise, amber, gold and coral. Losing ourselves in this splendid city, walled and protected from ancient marauders and modern beggars is easy. We lose hours sitting in squares shaded by large trees harbouring lazy lizards, drinking sugary thimble sized cups of cafe tinto sold by vendors from carafes. We watch beautiful, abundant creole women dressed in bright colours and flowing skirts, their hair hidden under neon turbans, slice fruit into delicate spears to sell. Horses pulling sleek, black, open carriages stuffed with happy tourists prance by, the sound of their hooves making quick melodies on the hard cobblestone. Cameras click and whir while the fruit-ladies pose for pesos. This version of Cartagena is exceptional, tourist brochure worthy and ready for a close-up with a camera.
Getsemani, a neighbourhood a short walk away is a shabbier, bohemian version of the walled city, a neighbourhood with numerous hostels, less splashy hotels and streets where people live and work. The sheen is different here. Graffiti becomes art, bar patrons spill out on to the street, children run barefoot while parents sit on plastic chairs in spots of shade near crumbling doorways. As the area widens the poverty becomes more apparent. Eyes are adjusted to the reality of the living conditions for most of the population. Most Colombians are poor and live in communities where violence is normal, where housing is makeshift and education is not available for everyone. But here in Getsemani we found a couple who are making a huge difference to one community a 30 minute taxi ride from the fabled walled part of the city.
Nathalie Rietman came to Colombia from her home in the Netherlands years ago to continue her environmental studies. The poverty that surrounded her, the children who were not in school, who were begging and not being cared for littered the streets of Cartagena. Devastated by the sight of children in circumstances that would keep them poor, undernourished and uneducated like their parents, Nathalie decided she needed to do something about it. In 2005, she left her studies and her Environmental Career behind and with funds from the Netherlands and a committed partner in her friend Gerard van der Haas, the duo embarked on a mission to address the lack of education available to the poor living in barrios surrounding the city. Their devotion to this educational initiative in Cartagena has resulted in a school in La Boquilla, (a barrio where men fish for a living and women sell trinkets or massages to tourists 45 minutes away on the beaches of Boca Grande), where children receive a solid education from kindergarten to Grade 8 and a nutritious daily meal.
Gerard gave us a tour of the school in April. The daily meal comes from a clean, well equipped kitchen run by mothers from the community who follow meal plans set up by a nutritionist. Over the years, the school has grown to two buildings. Run with expert efficiency by Nathalie and her paid staff and occasional volunteers, the children, in full uniform, are expected to come to classes daily. There is a curriculum, tests, a nutritious meal for each student, and expectations to be met by the parents and the children. This no-nonsense approach to education, discipline and mandatory compliance from parents to see that their children attend school, has resulted in a school that gets results and is a stable influence in an otherwise bereft community.
Leaving the school, Gerard led us on a walking tour of the surrounding community. Located in a fishing village, the houses are a shamble of wood, tin, cardboard and plastic. This community is not serviced by the city, leaving no place for garbage disposal, no potable water, no serviced roads, and unlike the heavily policed tourist area of Cartagena, there are no police to solve problems in this community or keep the area safe. “La Vecina,” the name Nathalie and Gerard gave the school, means “the neighbour”, stands alone as a positive influence in this community of poor fishermen and their families.
Nathalie and Gerard operate this school with incredible efficiency and a thorough awareness of the problems of the community. A psychologist is on staff to deal with personal problems brought on by poverty, abuse and despair. While the focus is on education up to grade 8, there is always time for outings and physical fitness with an emphasis on fun. The students are happy to have a place to go, and the families, for the first time in this community have a place where their kids might find a future full of possibilities. Once regarded as foreigners with a crazy idea, Nathalie and Gerard are now well regarded and respected members of the community. Living in Cartagena full-time and depending on the fund-raising efforts of a team of dedicated professionals in the Netherlands, their devotion to the school and the children is steadfast and honest and compelling. This is their home and they have given up a life in the Netherlands to assure the school is successful and the students have a permanent place to access a quality education. Their devotion to this community is a testament to the Dirty Wall Project mandate, “see a need and fill it”.
The Dirty Wall Project donated $600,000 COP ($330 CAD) to La Vecina on April 1, 2013. Check out their website: www.fundacionlavecina.com where you can read about the school, donate and be inspired.
***We brought back four beautiful mixed media paintings on canvas mounted on wood stretcher frames (16.5″ x 16.5″) created by four of the children of La Vecina. A minimum $200 donation that goes right back to La Vecina, will get you a beautiful painting that makes you feel good every time you look at it knowing your cash is buying school supplies, food, paying hard-working teachers or fixing the generator. Muchas Gracias from Nathalie, Gerard and the incredible children of La Vecina.The paintings are on display at: lost + found cafe/33 W. Hastings St. Vancouver, B.C. V6B 1G4/604-559-7444 All proceeds from the sale of these paintings will be donated to La Vecina.