Archive for March, 2014

Felipe Hernandez, Fulbright, Colombia: So Much Work To Be Done

It’s hot. No, not just hot but it’s humid and boiling hot. It is 1:55 pm on a Monday and I just had a great big lunch for $3. Now I am walking, drenched in sweat, to Santiago Vila, a school in an underprivileged area in Ibagué, Colombia. As I walk up the steep hill I can see the children at the top. Some are sitting on the library steps trying to cool off. Meanwhile, others are playing by the church in front of the library. They are here after school to attend the free English and Leadership class that I teach every day, rain or shine. There are about thirty to forty children who attend this class every day. We all sit in the library where the only ventilation is the half broken ceiling fan that works only a third of the time. However, their attention is unwavering. They are so focused on the lecture and activities that they forget about the heat and so do I. We work through a series of new elementary vocabulary and play some games in groups. They love it. I love it.  This is how I spend my free time in Colombia.

This is the social program I developed as part of my U.S. Fulbright Teaching Assistantship Grant for Colombia. I have established a community based organization that provides low-income middle and high school students with English, leadership, community organizing, and life-skills courses that enable them to develop strategies and projects to improve their community. After seven months, most of my students have significantly improved their English abilities. Also, they have developed their leadership skills and improved their community at the same time by organizing community projects such as murals to remove graffiti, creating a children’s reading room in the library, and developing creative expression workshops to comment on the violence, poverty, and crime in Colombia (see Youtube Links below). Thanks to our efforts we also received a grant from the U.S. State Department to expand and fortify our program.

This may seem like a typical community outreach program back at home, but here it is not typical at all. For these children, this is a rare and unheard of opportunity that they enthusiastically participate in everyday. Most of these children have never been exposed to leadership programs or free English courses. In fact, some mothers even came up to me a couple of times and asked “This class is free? Really? ” They were also doubtful that I was really from the United States because I look Colombian, due to my full Mexican descent and good Spanish speaking abilities that I acquired growing up in Southern California. However, once their doubts are reassured they ask if they can bring other children from a brother, sister, neighbor, or a friend. I of course never say no. The most kids we’ve had at one session was about sixty and I will admit, that got a bit out of hand. I guess I have a problem saying no to them. I mean, wouldn’t you? However, the fact remains that there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

When I applied for the Fulbright I thought I was just going to be teaching English everyday and maybe volunteering somewhere. However, when I got here there were no non-profits in the region that I was placed in. Also, the culture of volunteerism was nonexistent at the University and in the community. It’s not because of a lack of compassion, but rather just a different country with different customs. So, I faced an immediate challenge. I could give up and take on another simpler project or I could face this head on and create my own organization. I chose the latter and I am glad that I did. In the last seven months I have faced some new challenges but also celebrated some extraordinary gains with the community I now call home. The children here are taking over their own community, which they once deemed too dangerous, dirty, and poor. Now, they are cleaning the streets, painting murals to replace graffiti, and organizing campaigns to improve their community. There is a new energy that has taken over the children and yet I did not do anything extraordinary. They have always had it in them; I merely provided them with simple resources. This is why we need more Fulbrighters to continue to facilitate this kind of powerful community change.

The Fulbright Program is unlike any other program that I have ever done before. My professional communication and organizing skills have been uniquely challenged here because I am responsible for developing and managing the entire program, recruiting volunteers, teaching classes every day, developing the curriculum, cultivating community partnerships, and obtaining funding. Aside from this, I have traveled extensively and formed new life-long relationships. There is much work to be done in Colombia and around the world. This Fellowship allows for that work to get done. As the first in my family to attend college this opportunity was unforeseen when I was a freshman at UC Irvine. Now, I am glad I took that study break during my senior year to look up this Fellowship. It has not only changed my life but also influenced the lives of those that I serve every day.

Homer Simpson Mural
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feUNGfMLiBk#![/youtube]

Children Reading Room
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bvrsfNwve4[/youtube]

Gallery

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Partnered with Beyond Violence to host Creative Expression courses in English

Partnered with Beyond Violence to host Creative Expression courses in English

Students in MENTE Program in Ibagué Colombia. 2013

Students in MENTE Program in Ibagué Colombia. 2013