Heaven sent an Angel - Volunteering

Trip Start Dec 10, 2011
Trip End Sep 29, 2012

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Where I stayed
Black Sheep Hostel Medellin
Read my review - 5/5 stars
What I did
Santo Domingo

Flag of Colombia  ,
Monday, March 12, 2012

He is called the 'Father of the Mountain', Mark Kaseman from Rochester, New York met us at the Avecado metro to take the cable car further up the mountain to the foundation Angeles de Medellin he has created to help the displaced children and families of years of the Colombian civil war and problems caused by the drug cartels and violence in this country. 

The days fly by with listening to all of Mark's experiences and also meeting the people of the small village in the mountains outside of Medellin. It runs a little like a community centre, both adults and children come to learn English, playes games, draw, chat and use the donated computers which he has installed learning games to educate the children. Before this 98% of the children here had not used a computer before.

The first day waiting at the metro station watching the peple pass to work I am full of excitement and a bit nervous about my first day at school! I'm meeting Mark or 'Marcos' as he is known. I found out about this foundation through another solo female traveller Eve from Holland, similar age to me and we chatted about traveling alone and I was researching places to volunteer and stay a while. I then got in touch with Mark and we exchanged a few emails. The foundation runs through other 'Angels' donations and Mark himself volunteer teaches English and computer skills.

Information and photos are on his website and the foundation's facebook group. He has two excellent you tube videos and after watching the one where a little girl hugs Mark in the street half way through shooting his video, I was sold on an endearing person working towards a good cause and emailed him. We took the cable car up the mountain to Santo Domingo, then a bus up the narrow and steep hills through towns on the way, most of the roads dirt tracks. On this first day we were asked if we wanted a ride with other people who were going to the same village and I wedged myself in the middle of the driver and passenger front seats on top of the gearstick almost and the three others in the back. We slowly made our way up amongst the busy street sellers, trucks and shoppers while meanwhile one of the guys was sat on the roof of the car to make way for us in the car. Marcos tells us that in 'El Pinar', the community keeps growing larger and larger up on the mountains. First when he was here in 2006 less than 2000 families lived here and now in 2012 some 10,000 families are here, with around 90% of them displaced and leaving other parts of Colombia. Drug gangs still control this Antiqoenean area and when the police go home at night at 8pm, they take over, I'm told it's just easier this way. They skim the money also from the buses travelling up and down this mountain side, taking some 17,000 pesos per ride with around 30 buses a day the gangs are making a good profit. They were friendly people wanting to help us with the car ride up and quite a fun start to my time volunteering, we then arrived at 'Regalo de Dios', in English, Gift of God and head straight to the office that Mark has created into a sense of community for these impoverished people.

There's two other volunteers with me too on the first day, one I happened to already have met in a nightclub queue here and fortunate to have met him the second time, Oliver from Gibraltar. My conclusion is the traveller world is actually quite a small one.

We help set up the classroom and computers before Mark starts his first English lessons. I visit the village and say hello the people as we pass, we kind of stick out here and this is not a place for tourists to visit may I point out, but we are safe as we are with Marcos and on his invitation here to visit his program. I play with the children, practice English (and some Spanish!). The program runs for both adult learners and children, with even two local policemen Victor and Christian arrive to learn English on permission as part of their career development. I had a great feeling of achievement today volunteering, I also learnt a lot about the Colombian culture, poverty and the struggles people face here. 

Mark tells us he has many volunteers visit here with people from over 7 countries around the world. However what makes this program work though is the kind-natured, endearing attitude and energy from Mark. He talks about a smile and a hug will go a long way here and he has both in abundance.

Mark was in the American army intelligence working abroad in Germany and also ran his own Graphic Design marketing company, now retired he is here to give his time and love to the people here in Medellin. He talks about a phrase 'Poor but Happy', that you must dream and there is a tomorrow. This is the catalyst he is creating here in this community and I can see hope in the people here. At first when he arrived the drug lord wanted him out, telling him not to come back to the mountain. Mark was sad he liked these people and wanted to help and met with the drug lord. After quite a stern discussion and a threat of "I'm watching you or out" with a gesture of slitting his throat, Mark continued giving hope the people and sending Angels to this Heaven here in the mountains. 

Later the same day and again during the week we  visited a university called 'Universidad de Antioquiain' in 'El Centro' of Medellin. Marcos talked to the advanced English module students about the Angels of Medellin program and invited us as volunteers, and fellow English native speakers to talk to the students about travel, Colombia and why we were volunteering. Marcos talked to these students that they can make a difference to Colombia and help to eradicate the drug gangs and violence linked to it. That is why he works with the children in Medellin and is so happy to see that smile and a 'gracias' from the people he touches with his kindness. 

The program educates children and adults, hosts children's parties and the last one at Christmas had some 3000 people giving food, clothes and toys. It also goes towards helping people with disabilities and the program for examples has bought crutches for a local man with no legs and funded a computer centre in a children's department in the local hospital. All of this was possible through donations from the 'Angels' of Medellin. He also collects clothing donations, blankets and towels for the poor people here.

While I have been here Marcos has received a lot of interest about the program and impact from news organisations, two local newspapers visited when we were there and will be publishing articles El Mio and El Tiempo, as well as a news crew from Teleantioquia a regional TV channel in Medellin for an English language show called 'What's up?', with interviews and footage of the centre and village and yes apparently I may be famous now with Marcos too as I was also interviewed as a volunteer on the day!

If anyone is interested to donate, due to various issues here in Colombia and a large overhead to set the charity up here Marcos is not currently able to take paypal donations directly, however if you would like to do this drop me a note and you can donate via my own paypal account you can see from this website 'Support My Travels. Make a Donation' and I will ensure that I will be passing all of the money direct onto the Angels of Medellin program. This is a genuine cause with a big heart and I am truly grateful I've had an opportunity to be part of it even for a little while.

I am now staying here for the next week volunteering and really looking forward to the children's party being held on Saturday, I think Colombia is going to be keeping me a while longer!
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greekcypriot on

Charlotte this is another interesting entry. Thanks for the good writing and the many photos you download accompanying your article. When one thinks of Colombia the only thing that comes to mind is gungs, drugs, shooting and killing. Yet you have given us the other side and I am glad that this exists and Mark and the rest are doing an excellent job there. Keep the good work up!

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