Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them
– Lady Bird Johnson, Former First Lady of the United States –
Colombia is a magical country. It has charming places and people. It is at the heart of the American continent, just above the equatorial line. It is the entrance to South America. A 365 days paradise, with tropical weather with no seasons.
There is a place for everyone, for every dream, it is a country where we vibrate with passion, stregth, fight and commitment. There are all type of contrasts, diverse realities: the good, the bad and the eternal.
There are hundreds of places and realities and this time around we will focus on one of the realities Buenaventura has to offer.
Let’s start by having a background to this story. Buenaventura is a district and principal port of Colombia. It is also one of the 10 most important ports in Latin America since it moves more than 53% of the country’s trade.
This district is located in the department of Valle del Cauca and is the second most populated city of the department after Cali.
To the south, Buenaventura borders muddy terrain. In the north, it borders the jungle lands of the department of Chocó. It is a landscape of humid jungle, which is typical of the Colombian Pacific Coast.
The city is divided into 12 communes, of which four are in the insular zone and eight in the continental zone.
About la Sierpe
La Sierpe is located three hours from Buenaventura. The access is only possible by boat and the approximate cost is 200 thousand pesos (60 US dollars) one way and 200 thousand pesos back.
The women dedicate themselves to the piangua and take care of the domestic tasks and their children. The men are engaged in fishing or wood activities.
Its 113 inhabitants live in a single block, their houses are deteriorated and the roads are unpaved. They have sanitary latrines and do not have public services. Unfortunately the water is not drinkable and the electric power service runs from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm through a plant that generates very high costs and only benefits 4 families.
As if it were not enough, the closest health center is in Juanchaco, an hour and a half by boat, which implies a costly and complicated displacement.These are not adequate conditions to live.
Fundación por una Sonrisa
Fundación por una Sonrisa (For a Smile Foundation) is a non-governmental organization that since 2008 works in behalf of Bahía Málaga’s children. Bahía Málaga is a small town near the municipality of Buenaventura and Valle del Cauca in Colombia.
Their objective is to create a fair country and they work tirelessly to do so. They want to achieve this goal by promoting the education and health of the youngest and the welfare of the less favored. They want them to have decent conditions and want to develop productive projects that promote their sustainability both in the present and in the future.
We had the opportunity to get in touch with them and the first thing they let us know is their enormous desire to create awareness and social responsibility that will allow them to achieve significant changes and continuous development for our country.
They have extremly defined social objectives. These are:
1. To find out where the populations biggest needs are.
2. To manage and deliver donations in money or things that are meant for a vulnerable population.
3. To give all benefactors photographic reports and support.
4. To participate in humanitarian actions that will benefit the less fortunate.
5. To improve the education conditions of the population.
All of this objectves sound amazing and if they actually come true they will help a great deal of people. That being said, we needed to know more about this NGO, we needed to dig a little deeper.
Laura Viera A: How and when was this initiative created?
Ángela Vásquez Benavides, founder of Fundación por una Sonrisa: I worked for the ARC Málaga National Navy, as Head of Communications and relations with the communities. In this last role, we developed several projects with the Naval Base Commander that would benefit of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, among them the Sierpe, the community for which Fundación Por Una Sonrisa was born, a friendly population, and eager to improve.
Laura Viera A: Why was it created?
Ángela Vásquez Benavides, founder of Fundación por una Sonrisa: Because of GOD, it was his intention from the beginning and over the years Fundación Por Una Sonrisa is a direct result of his will.
Initially, her project was to work during one year for the National Navy, but 3 years passed by. In addition to this, she had to complete a specialization in Cali. However, she was aware that when she retired many things with the communities would not be resumed because the commander would also be transfered. Having this in mind and thanks to the help of a very good friend, they constituted themselves legally.
Promoting education was their initial focus. However, they had to take a step back because it was necessary to resolve other problems such as housing and feeding children, who did not go to school because their houses were precarious and insecure, and many of them only ate once a day.
Taking into account this precarious situation, they began to manage resources: selling backpacks, T-shirts and doing activities to raise money and buy cement, tiles, brick among others. Once the material arrived in the community, men and women joined by contributing their knowledge and skills. They worked to build the homes that were about to collapse.
When dealing with such a complicated issue in our country, they are aware that working as a team is indispensable. But, in order to achieve their objectives, they have developed clear, defined and structured programs.
Laura Viera A: How does the Sponsor a Smile program work?
Ángela Vásquez Benavides, founder of Fundación Por Una Sonrisa: One breakfast and one lunch is given to children five times a week. This is achived through the Sponsor a Smile (Apadrina Una Sonrisa program), the store management and with the help of the mothers who take turns cooking.
Laura Viera A: Talk to me about the project Delivering something about you (Entregando algo de ti).
Ángela Vásquez Benavides, founder of Fundación por una Sonrisa: Sure! Delivering something of you is part of the philosophy of sharing what you have with your neighbor, not what you have left. Based on that we receive markets, school supplies, construction material and new clothes or gifts. They, like us, like to receive good or new things and God grants it to us, and from here our philosophy is born.
The school cafeteria is one of the newest projects they have. Since many children do not have a space to eat properly and did it on the floor, creating a social dining room was imperative. As a result of this situation, it was decided to get down to work and work as a team.
Cultivating athletes aims to encourage sport as a healthy activity in the lives of our children will help them build values and be disciplined.
The program Building Smiles with Future seeks to improve the living conditions of many families who are forced to live in the midst of plastics, wood damaged by the tropics, tiles in poor condition, among other great difficulties.
So far nothing has been easy. Many things have been difficult or have made the way more complicated. An example of this is the indifference of many people, the management of governmental entities and the lack of monthly resources.
The dreams and the nightmares
Laura Viera A: What do you want to achieve?
Ángela Vásquez Benavides, founder of Fundación por una Sonrisa: We want to leave a legacy of service and love, that many people will learn and this multiplies.
There are many goals to achieve. And, so far the road has not been easy and the path is long and full of challenges. Despite all of this Ángela and the team of volunteers who are part of the foundation are willing to work for them.
In the short term, they want to maintain the children’s food permanently with stable monthly resources. In the medium term he wants to build 3 houses, complete uniforms and hopefully some extra classes like English, systems, etc. In the long term, they would like to have a place of passage in Cali for the boys who finish high school and can be located in Cali for their undergraduate studies.
Laura Viera A: Why is it important to ensure the health and wellbeing of less favored populations, seeking to live in decent conditions?
Ángela Vásquez Benavides, founder of Fundación por una Sonrisa: We want to take the example of Jesus by bringing service and love to our neighbor. God decided that it would help the population at the Sierpe. A population that many are not aware of and are neglected. They are a vivid example of solidarity and they will be multipliers, they are our neighbor and for that reason we watch over their basic needs, that is what our step in the world is to help and love.
There are always realities that can turn into nightmares. Things like the lack of energy, no drinking water or poor health services, should not continue to take place in the XXI century. Seeing a house collapse due to a downpour, seeing sick children and not having the resources to help is overwhelming.
When talking with them, the importance of cultivating sports among children is once again evident. They are spaces for learning, currently football training is led by adolescents and the leader of the church, they are responsible for promoting values and principles, apart from having children exercised.
Many things still need to be done. One of the most important is to ensure that all families live with the basics. Achieve electricity for the community, increase the number of teachers and create sustainable projects.
Laura Viera A: Why are you focusing on Bahía Málaga?
Ángela Vásquez Benavides, founder of Fundación por una Sonrisa: First of all, it is the purpose of God, and on the other hand, it is a town where aid does not arrive, many people only arrive at Juanchaco or Ladrilleros, and they do not know this area. In particular, the Sierpe community where there are men and women who are strong and children are dreamers.
Giving their all
Their team isn’t big. They are only three social communicators, one electronic engineer and four graphic designers. They are all “toderos” (people who work in all areas) and multifacetic in the Foundation. The member that has been with the team the least amount of time, has already been there for two years.
They are all volunteers and more than being the team of the Foundation, they have created and become a family. This team dreams big and they know that making things happen is hard but the satisfaction is enormous. That’s why, when they have to work a weekend or all nighter, everything is worth it.
After talking for hours with Ángela Vásquez Benavides, our heart sank a little. The reality exceeds fiction. It seems that for the government the education and good nutrition of children and their families is not a priority. The adult population of the Sierpa is mostly illiterate.
The foundation team knows that it is possible to do something permanent for others, in the midst of our jobs, families or social life, there will always be something to contribute. Likewise, that by depriving us of the mentality (win – win or remuneration), another state of happiness or satisfaction is achieved, even a life purpose.