Colombia offered my favorite experience with an NGO so far. I got to highlight and help out La Ciudad de Dios in Villa de Leyva, Columbia; part of the Santa Teresa de Ávila Foundation, and play with some pretty cute little kids there. It had to be my favorite so far because sadness didn’t seem to exist on the grounds. They run a baby center and preschool for a hundred and thirty poor children and orphans, shelter forty-six handicapped elderly folks and provide job training and housing for the needy, and they do it well.
If happiness for the residents is the main goal, they are succeeding.
I haven’t been in too many elderly care homes, but this seemed to be the happiest place I’ve ever seen. Some of the more functional elderly adults were talking pleasantly with one another in the sunlit adobe dining room around wooden tables with bowls of warm soup and bread. The same delicious warm soup and bread we, the “honored guests”, had for lunch that I was raving about to the cook. There was nothing skimped for the residents there. Some of the less functional adults were being helped to eat by friendly nuns. I saw one nun spill a little of a spoonful of soup on the chin of the man she was feeding, who apparently had no use of his arms, when he closed his mouth before the spoon made it in. She softly laughed like a mother would to her innocent child and he shyly giggled and went for the spoon again before she gently wiped his chin. It was clear this was a happy place for these people.
The kids were so freaking cute! There were so many ways they showed the fact that they loved to be there. Virtually every kid ran towards the schoolhouse in excitement when they were dropped off or came from their rooms. When I held out my hand to help guide the kids from the front grounds to the playground, they trustfully held my hand and walked with me. It was clear they had nothing but confidence in the adults there. There didn’t seem to be a sad or shy kid among them! They put on a little performance for me (and the cameras). All of them happily participated. That kind of thing is near impossible in a place of ridicule or abuse. This was a good place. Orta, one of the world’s largest denim manufacturers, my main sponsor and also a supporter of La Ciudad de Dios; gave a gift of a hundred hobby horses made from scrap denim. I couldn’t believe how much these kids loved them! Within minutes the children were giving the horses names and hugs, having the ride of their lives. May video games never touch this place!
Though it was a place heavily reliant on donations and Catholic Church support, they invited the needy from any religion or creed. And, impressively, Father José Arcesio Escobar seemed open to new ideas introduced to him by Luca, my friend and an NGO expert I was there with. Luca has been successfully involved in several NGOs and helped them move away from reliance on donation to move them towards sustainability. In a religion, like most religions, full of undying traditions it was refreshing to see the Padre excitedly planning with Luca a way to move the organization towards that end.
The job training they offer there focuses on the resources most available. In this case wool is the biggest resource available and the most valuable “export” they have are wool products from the sheep they have on the property. All the products are made in the traditional fashion. The sheep are sheered with scissors, the wool is spun by hand, the yarn is dyed with natural dyes sourced locally and everything is woven with a big wooden handloom. Even the finishing touches to texture are done traditionally. The myriads of different items they have made by hand from the wool are incredible. A finished piece in the US with this kind of care and hand-made craftsmanship would fetch a decent price and help supplement the financial needs of the foundation. It was satisfying to be part of the conversation to help them capitalize on the system they already had in place to help raise funds.