This is one of those stories that changed my life.
It all started with a work trip to Latin America where I was covering president Bill Clinton’s trip through various countries: a historic moment that would determine US-Latin American relations for years to come. It was October 1997. I was pregnant with my second child.
Without knowing, on this trip I would discover what would, years later, turn into a passion and a priority that would give my life meaning and fulfillment.
At the time, the socio-political climate in Colombia was intense. Andrés Pastrana was running a fierce presidential campaign with the promise of ending the decades-long war with las FARC. He would go on to win the presidency. By 2001, it was evident that Pastrana’s efforts were not going to work. We were seeing countless failed attempts at peace talks in a region towards the south of the country that the government had decided to demilitarize. And so began the attacks and kidnappings, which led to the economic crisis that forced dozens of families to abandon their homes.
While I was in Atlanta, I received a phone call from Juan Pablo Gnecco inviting me to a meeting at his house with a group of ambitious and successful Colombians. He proposed an idea to create an organization that would find ways to help Colombia during a time of great need an uncertainty. I remember my initial response during our first phone conversation: “I don’t have time.” Juan Pablo insisted on my involvement and assured me that, if after the meeting I didn’t like the idea, he would not press me any further.
I went to the meeting. Not only did I love the idea and the group, but it was in that meeting that I was named president of what would become the board of directors. Since then, volunteering for COLOMBIANITOS has become one of my top priorities.
In the beginning, all we knew was that we wanted to help children affected by war and extreme poverty but we had no idea how to do it. We considered building schools but thought that would be too hard for an NGO that was just getting started in another country.
One day, after several months of meeting and discussing without knowing what we were going to do for Colombianitos, I found a magazine in my office with an article about Bill Clinton’s visit to Vila Olímpica da Mangueira, Rio de Janeiro. In the article was a photo of the president kicking a ball around with the king, Pelé, who at the time was the Brazilian Secretary of Sports. I had kept the magazine since I had covered Clinton’s trip to Latin America for CNN en Español.
I remembered that Vila Olímpica da Mangeuira had started off as a soccer academy in a favela. The organization gave kids the chance to play soccer and participate in local tournaments as long as they were going to school. As a result, crimes rates dropped in the neighborhood and resources began flowing in until the Vila became a significant sports academy.
Convincing the board of directors to adopt this model ended up being easy. The plan accomplished our two initial goals: helping kids and improving their education. In this case, we were doing it through sports; the costs were low, and we could assure that every child was in school without having to lay down a single brick. All we needed was a flat plot of land, some soccer balls, and a few trainers. Everything else was magic.
We used the power of soccer to keep the kids in school and the achievement standards high, all while keeping them off the streets, and instead, participating in extracurricular activities. With this we could prevent them from getting caught up with drugs, gangs, crime, child labor, or prostitution.
Through our program entitled Goals for a Better Life, where ethics and teamwork are strongly emphasized, we are able to offer these children the tools to develop their potential and take control of their own lives.
Our Colombianitos dream about becoming famous soccer stars without realizing that they really are becoming stars of their own lives; they learn how to live healthy lifestyles and become inspirations to all of us.
Sixteen years ago, a trip to Rio inspired a group of individuals motivated to improve their homeland to reach out to 42 kids in a small neighborhood outside Bogota. Today, thanks to the amazing work done by the team that makes up Fundación Colombianitos and dozens of volunteers, we have been able to help more than 63,000 children through various programs in 55 communities around the country.
By helping children, we are changing the future of Colombia. Promoting healthy values and lifestyles through the use of sports should become public policy. We have not only transformed the lives of many people in the communities where our programs exists, but also proved that our model is one of the best options for growth in the post-conflict era.
I did not realize that working towards finding ways to give kids opportunities for better lives would also change my own life.
Colombianitos is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It brings me immense satisfaction and, incidentally, became another way to leave my mark on the world; by helping someone from whom one expects nothing in return.
Simply put, helping others is a way of helping yourself. You too can help. Find out how at www.colombianitos.org