Friday, October 4, 2013

Money Matters

Money and people who want it often get a bad rep—that superficial, self-centered, materialistic, Mr. Scrooge. Likewise, those who don’t have excess cash get the dirty, stupid, and miserable label. People discriminate against socio-economic backgrounds different than their own because of that--it is different. Unknown, therefore scary and threatening.

I do not think that money or the desire to have it is always a "bad" thing; indeed money is often times crucial to people's livelihoods and to spark changes. Money and lack of it can have both positive and negative repercussions. But regardless if we all cannot agree on if money is “good” or “bad”, I think most can say it is “bad” when a mom cannot afford food for her children or when a highly motivated student cannot fund the education he/she wants. The good/bad debate becomes complex when people choose to save or spend their earned money in situations that clearly harm others’ wellbeing… to choose to drive a Hummer when you know how polluted our planet already is; to choose to save $10 to buy a shirt than you know was made in a sweatshop; to choose to spend the little salary you earn on beers when you know your child needs a new school uniform.

We all do it, me included.

Money can be harmful when it is an excuse to not look at the real person, the real problem or the real situation, and furthermore, when it creates power, respect and validation in people and circumstances that otherwise would have none.

- - - - - 

Neither “development” nor my Peace Corps objective is to help poor people become rich. Instead, the aim should be to ensure that people’s basic needs (food, clean water, security) and rights (to education, to a job, freedom of expression) are met and moreover change larger societal structures that hinder these needs and rights (conflict resolution, political corruption).

The “When I Grow Up Project” has been a large part of my PC work, especially recently. It gives hard-working and talented students at my school a shot at a higher education degree that they want and deserve. Money has played a “bad” part in this because lack of it inhibited students from even applying.

But now, we officially have 36 students enrolled in a preparatory course and furthermore signed up for the University of Cartagena’s entrance exam! The majority live below the poverty line. However low their family’s income, it is important for each to try to pay for a portion of the entrance exam’s cost so that arguably they will study for and value it more. The exam cost is 100.500 pesos, or about US $53 dollars. Most of the 36 paid 40%, while a few 20%, and the WIGUP funded the rest. In the end, five could not come up with 20.000 pesos (US $10), and, after it was obvious that they tired, the WIGUP paid for 100% of the cost. Most of these students do not live with their family, and getting relatives to send money from another town proved too complicated or the money just did not exist.

A group of us traveled to the bank to pay for all 36 entrance exams. From there, students individually signed-up online, which, because I have a laptop, I helped several to do. Seeing the poverty of my students in writing and numbers never ceased to astonish me… I’ve always known they were poor, but filling out the form for one who I have become especially close with and typing-in that her family of 3 only makes 300.000 pesos, or (US $150) a month, makes her poverty seem more real. Writing down that another lives only with her 20 and 12 year-old brothers and they get no outside financial help takes her family’s finances from rumor to reality.

- - - - - 

Across time and place, the “others” are dehumanized to justifying their further alienation. Look at how conquistadors called the natives, how slave owners spoke of their slaves, and how we often speak of those (richer or poorer) outside of our socio-economic class…

The poor are animals and the rich are robots.

Despite living and working here for two years, it shocks me how “normal” my students are despite their extreme poverty, which just goes to show how deep our judgments of the poor (and rich) are rooted. After my family visited my school they replied “they are the same; kids will be kids”—a school without resources or in Colombia doesn’t change that.

It could be me.

That is the shock.

That message that has been ingrained many times over is wrong. Get them in a polo and a North Face backpack (and teach them English), and they would just be another student at my old high school. 

The group during our visit to the University of Cartagena (their first time at a university!)

The Linguistics professor, Udiluz, teaching students during 
one of our 11-week preparatory course sessions.

Four of the 36 students showing-off their receipts proving 
that they ARE signed up to take the university entrance exam!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Tell me, I'll forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand."

Babies. Route to school turned obstacle course; the street marked with children and whatever trash they have reinvented as a toy. As the school year goes on, many of students become pregnant and mothers of such infants that overflow from the houses and take over the neighborhood streets… the cycle of young, single mothers and surplus babies is reinforced. Over the past two years, as a part of our “Chicas Lideres Inedsoristas” program, we have done a lot with sexual health education. We don’t teach that it is wrong to have sex and get pregnant, however aim to help girls stay safe and plan for children when they are ready, professionally and personally. Last year girls from the program taught fellow 10th graders at our school about HIV/AIDS prevention. It was a huge success and we have been looking to do more peer-to-peer teaching. Being about to teach something truly demonstrates that someone has learned it. With the help of a friend and a foundation on Tierra Bomba Island, off the coast of Cartagena, our girls were able to go there and teach a group of 30+ locals about pregnancy prevention in adolescence. 

Tierra Bomba is a large island with four towns. Inhabitants live in extreme poverty, some of the most extreme cases I’ve seen. Babies galore. I have been to the island about 10 times, and despite their lack of possessions, adequate housing, and sanitation, among other issues, nevertheless the people that live there are unified and happy. I always enjoy my time there.
While Cartagena is a large city of a million, there is little movement within and inhabitants stay-put in their neighborhood. We love any opportunity to take students into other sectors. Tierra Bomba was another chance to see and meet more of Cartagena and its people. Furthermore, our girls were able to interact with people who have even less money than them, something that can be hard to come by.

At school, we worked preparing materials and activities for the presentation. Girls were grouped, each responsible for its own subtopic. Neither the social workers nor I would participate in the presentation in Tierra Bomba; it would be completely up to the girls to teach.

Finally all was ready and, accompanied by family members and teachers, 28 of us took a 45 minute bus ride followed by a 10 minute boat ride to get to the island where we were warmly welcomed.

The presentation took about an hour and a half and consisted of a variety of activities. I anticipated success, but the girls blew us all away. They were SO confident and practiced and knew what they were teaching, speaking in detail and responding correctly to questions. Maybe most remarkable is that four months ago they did not know any of this—none knew what an ovary was and many thought that drinking beer after having sex prevented pregnancy… Now look at them!


Reproductive parts

Functions of reproductive parts

Fertilization process

How a fetus grows

Cultural reasons why people don't use anticontraceptives

How to use a condom

Other methods of birth control

Pregnancy myths



Our group!

The foundation gave provided lunch for all and finally everyone went to Playa Linda, a beach on the island to swim and play soccer and kickball together. All in all a special day and very empowering for our girls.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Full Speed Ahead!

The When I Grow Up Project is officially up and running!!

Two professors from the University of Cartagena are teaching the preparatory course for 11 weeks, educating our 39 select students on test taking strategies for the University entrance exam. We have high hopes that more graduating students will apply to the University and be accepted! This week students took a 2-3 hour diagnostic test, the results giving professors awareness on students’ current knowledge and what concepts need more focus.

What started as an idea last year has now turned into a reality! Thank you again to the NBC Children’s Fund, the NGO who is supporting the project, and to all donors. Lives are literally being changed; opportunity is widespread.

Many people are involved now, and finally it’s not me overseeing all aspects. It has not been easy to put everyone on the same page. I have learned a lot: despite feeling costena in many ways and living in my barrio for 2 years, my appearance still gives the impression that I have copious amounts of money. Everything is negotiable (our final, negotiated cost for the 11 week preparatory course is almost a fourth of what was initially proposed to us) and furthermore do not assume that everyone’s motives are pure  when you’re dealing with large sums of money. That being said, the best in people has come out, and I am indebted to the social workers at school for their extra effort and dedication despite not gaining anything monetary in return. Much love to Dayra and Mariela!

A principal challenge has been selecting students, amidst so many. Initially, we presented the project to students above a certain grade point average, and those interested had to complete an application and three essays. Some applicants were easy to eliminate because essays were not well written; however, the majority were thorough and thought-through.
This is my second year working with these students. Those selected for this project have always struck me as impressive and I have known about many of their challenging home environments, but reading their essays made it an amplified and tangible reality. Most kids come from households that make less than $250 a month to support a plethora of people. Many expressed that they have the emotional support of God and family, but they cannot count on families to support them financially. There are also those who at 16 years old have to run an entire household themselves. Nevertheless, they have excelled academically at our school and want to continue their education. They will seek scholarships, work extra, and do whatever else it takes to gain a higher education degree. And why? Because they want to return to help their families and community: their single mom, their grandmas who has raised themselves and 4 other siblings, their neighbor who took them in when there was no one else…
They are SO excited to be in this program. Somehow I don’t remember being as thrilled to go to my SAT tutor?
If they are accepted in the University, they will be the ones who will return and impact the poverty and inequality that is so prevalent in Cartagena. They are familiar with its harsh realities, do not take opportunities for granted and understand that hard work produces results, despite their socioeconomic class or ethnicity.

They are pioneers, they are motivated, and now they are in the When I Grow Up Project. There is no turning back… they will be applying to the University of Cartagena!

You can read more about our project and watch our promotional video on the NBC Children Fund's website:
If you want to help finance the cost of the University's entrance exam ($60 per student) for these 39 students, YOU CAN!... simply donate in the website above and make an impact. Thank you again to all those who have donated!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Spanish/English Video Exchange with Colorado

Last year each of my ninth grade students got a pen-pal in Colorado. On both ends, students received letters and pictures from their pen-pal and sent the same back.

This year we did a video exchange instead. When I was home in Colorado for Christmas vacation, I met with my old high school Spanish teacher, Dan Gilden, about his idea. It turned out to be a success! My 11th grade students loved seeing kids in my old high school stumble through Spanish (as they themselves do in English) not to mention how different the students, school and dress-code appear. We selected participants for our video by rewarding students who got the highest scores on an English vocabulary test. They did a great job!

Unfortunately the video from Colorado is protected and therefore cannot be seen publicly. But at least here is our video from Colombia to Colorado. It's a decent representation of my [chaotic] school and some of my awesome students. Enjoy! 
We’re hoping after vacation to start again with more video-exchanges.

Here's the video:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Planning for the Future and Higher Education

Last year I surveyed most of the 220 graduating students about their plans for the following year (as the school has no records concerning what students do after graduating). Many indicated interest in higher education, however only were actually enrolling in a public university...
SO many of my students are capable and would excel at a university. Lack of intelligence, motivation or hard-work is not the problem. So what's up?...
Most cannot rely on economic support from their families and therefore will have to work in addition to study. It can be expensive and difficult to pass the university entrance exam. Their low scores on this exam do not accurately reflect intellect; students lack test-taking strategies and do not have funds to hire a tutor. Excluding finances, other factors inhibit university enrollment. Students know few university graduates and therefore about professions that require a university degree. They have never stepped foot on a university campus. And let’s not forget about the power of stereotypes: universities are full of rich, well-dressed, private-school kids and not ones from a “poor, dirty, ghetto, trashy” school.

The “When I Grow Up Project” (see earlier blog posts) is one of our projects aiming to get more students applying to and enrolling in university. In addition, over the past month we have focused on goal setting/planning for the future/higher education with “Chicas Lideres Inedsoristas”, our girl’s empowerment and leadership program. I have become very close with this group of 25 young girls, many of who are at the top of their class and highly ambitious.

We started the unit identifying values and personal strengths. The girls presented a professional, familial and personal goal and how they picture themselves five years in the future. Finally, they selected a goal for the remaining school year and detailed how, when and with what resources they would complete it.

Yeinis and Dayra, the social worker who has been the biggest help with both 
Chicas Lideres Inedsoristas and the When I Grow Up Project

Next it was off to the University of Cartagena!—again, the first time any had been on a university campus. We spoke with university professors, took a tour, met with an admissions coordinator, and went into classes (including one with human brains and bones laid-out on tables—undeniably the number of girls wanting to study medicine was significantly increased). Four hours later and no one wanted to leave; the prospect of studying there was contagious, not to mention excess giddiness due to a plethora of university boys.

We brought in current university students who were also graduates of Soledad Roman de Nunez, our high school, as guest speakers. Poised and composed, they spoke of how rewarding and challenging their experience has been.

Based on which jobs girls in the group had interest in, we give them information about various professions in addition to bringing in professional adults from some of those fields. They explained to the girls what they do in their job and what they had to do/study to become a professional. 

Learning about being a masseuse

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Inside Out Cartagena Photography Project

A returned Peace Corps volunteer put me in contact with Arturo, a Colombian-American professional photographer living in Boston. His plan was to return to Colombia to do a photography project with impoverished youth. After a few months in contact with him, he finally arrived to Cartagena, thereafter giving cameras to ten of my students.

The ultimate aim of the "Inside Out Cartagena" photography project was to expose the faces of leaders from the inner-neighborhoods of the city, simultaneously giving a voice to the youth who took their pictures. My students were instructed to think of leaders in their communities, people who combat and defy problems on a daily basis, and take their picture. After printing the pictures, we gathered in the historic/touristic/wealthy area of Cartagena, or the City Center, and walked around with the photographs, finally finishing at Cuidad Movil, an art and cultural center, where the pictures were exhibited for the following week.  

Monday, April 1, 2013

Colorado Meets Colombia

It's ‘bout time my separate realities collide!

Colombian Caribbean culture is not one for the timid—it’s in your face, loud, spontaneous, hot and humid, energetic. Just after leaving the airport, you’re in the hustle and bustle of motorcycles, blasting salsa music, poverty, bright colors, exotic people and foods. The Kuntz’s undertook it all head-on, and I loved re-observing the Costeno culture I’ve grown so accustomed to as my Colorado family confronted its strange and particular aspects… unheard of fruits, bus rides along the beach, tongue-twisting Spanish, resource-less schools, excess soup consumption, people everywhere in the streets, the lack of processing and packaging of materials, everyone hugging and kissing you. A mix between familiar and unfamiliar. 
Plus, I didn’t mind taking a break from my peso-pitching Peace Corps salary: taking cabs instead of buses, eating in restaurants instead of oatmeal for the 4th time that week, and staying in hotels with air-conditioning!!

Often described as a mix between Spain and Cuba, we started here, in the historic center of Cartagena. The layout, architecture, fortress, and wall surrounding the city are testaments to Spanish colonization. Cartagena was also one of the most prominent slave trade centers in the Americas, and its Spanish and Caribbean cultures are fused with African dance, music, food, and people, thus making Cartagena’s historic center unlike any other.

Next it was straight to the barrios—that’s right, only one day to “settle in” before confronting the very different and arguably more “real” side of Cartagena that few tourists see. The center is just one small part of a sprawling city.

My Cartagenian family is comprised of about 25-30 people (give or take; I’m still not sure how everyone is related) who live on my street, but in my house itself it’s just me and the abuelas. My Colombian grandmas turned giddy teenagers—giggling about how gross eating a cow’s tongue or a turtle was to my family, thrilled that my mom learned how to cook fried plantains, using their best china and cooking special meals for us. They even swapped nightgowns for their best dresses.

Taking my family to my school was also incredible. Being teachers themselves, my parents noticed how “kids will be kids” and similarities in students uphold despite the stark differences in resources available. Colleagues were met, students realized they could communicate with people who knew very little Spanish, and finally my family met “Chicas Lideres Inedsoristas”, the girls’ empowerment and leadership group. I had four expat friends living in Cartagena come and present to the girls about how women in their culture live, giving the girls a chance to meet foreigners and broaden their mindset (and taste twizzlers and jolly ranchers).

Next we traveled to Santa Marta, with a short lay-over in Barranquilla to have lunch with my family who I lived with during three months of Peace Corps training prior to my service. We ate some chicken soup, played cards, exchanged gifts, walked around in 105 degree heat.

Tayrona National Park is located right outside of Santa Marta. Being Semana Santa (or Easter/Holy Week), I opted to take them on a path less-traveled in order to avoid the tourist craze. Well, 3.5 hours of straight mountain climbing later, we arrived at Playa Brava, pitying the donkeys that had to make that trip every day.

Back in Santa Marta, we visited with Henry, Angelica (a colleague and great friend), Sebastian and Laura Guzman and stayed at Henry’s military hotel where he lives. The “hotel” turned out to be a resort, complete with a pool, farm, pond, spa, restaurants, and hundreds of Colombian Generals and their families on vacation, plus us four random gringos. The Guzmans couldn’t have been more hospitable or kind.

Finally it was off to Isla Rosario, a national park with 20+ islands off the coast of Cartagena. It’s aesthetically overwhelming; a place you’ve only seen in postcards and paintings. After enduring the trek in and out of Playa Brava with us, we met up again with Jose, my boyfriend who works on an island as a scuba dive instructor. Through him I’ve become increasingly inspired and amazed by the coral reef that hides so close to Cartagena and right underneath the water surface; however, the rest of my mountain-dwelling family had never experienced anything like it. It’s feels like you're on another planet: the strange animals, the detailed coral, how delicate, intricate and interconnected it all is, the sensation of breathing underwater... Amazing! The pool lying, beach swimming, hammock napping, and excess eating weren't too bad either.

Having my Colorado life-line experience Colombia for themselves confirmed that this amazing life of mine actually DOES exist. I am so lucky for my family and Colombian life that I have haphazardly been given. It’s amazing to feel so in love with life (from the people in it, to my job) and to have my achievements and decisions recognized by my family. Here’s to all the rest of you visiting and seeing it for yourselves…!

On a separate but somewhat similar note: J Balvin, one of the most popular reggaeton artists in Colombia, just made a new music video filmed in the neighborhood right next to my school and where I live, called Olaya. Represent! It's also where Granitos de Paz, the local NGO that is collaborating with us on the When I Grow Up Project is located.

Wanna help these kids reach their higher education dreams and potential? YOU CAN! Donate to the NBC Children's Fund (the US-based NGO helping with the project, along with Granitos de Paz) using PayPal credit card services or sending a check. A little bit goes a long way! And make sure to watch OUR video... Visit this website and click "DONATE":