Fundación Mariposas Amarillas is a Colombian grassroots foundation in the small Colombia city of Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast. Set up Colombian, Oscar Cortest, it provides disadvantaged and underprivileged kids from Santa Marta’s poorest suburbs with the opportunity learn, engage and grow. In many cases, the two-hour weekday classes are the only education available to these children, whose families are characterised by poverty, unemployment and an array of other social problems.
Established five or so years ago in the front room of a small house in the suburb of Oasis, the organisation now helps more than 90 kids living in the neighbourhoods of Oasis and Fundadores in the outskirts of Santa Marta.
In September 2010, I spent two and half weeks working with Oscar and a small group of volunteers.
This is what I remember of my time with Mariposas Amarillas.
As the taxi turns off the highway and onto the dirt roads of Oasis on my first visit to Mariposas Amarillas, I clutch my daypack and think ‘what am I doing here’. Oasis, located adjacent to the train line and busy highway, is nothing like an oasis. The suburb’s dusty, dirt streets are lined with piles of rubble and rubbish and, more often than not, the roads resemble rivers after the regular afternoon downpour floods the area. Here, 10 minutes taxi ride from the centre and beach of Santa Marta, there’s no escaping the city’s relentless heat and humidity which can reach temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius by mid morning.
As we get out of the taxi, kids come running from all directions to greet the vehicle, calling “Senor, Senor, Professor, Professor”. Some greet the other volunteers – and me too – with hugs and kisses, while others run ahead to the bright yellow building on the corner to join the line waiting (not so patiently) at the door for the day’s classes to begin.
This warm welcome is the same everyday! Clearly Mariposas Amarillas is more than just free schooling to these children.
Every weekday at 2pm, the doors and windows of this former shop are swung open to offer the local children a safe and free haven where they can learn, create, play and interact. Using funds raised through donations and assistance from volunteers, the Foundation’s director and founder Oscar purchased, painted and refurbished the Oasis school building, providing a permanent learning environment for around 40 children, divided into three class groups.
I’m assigned to assist Bo, a fellow volunteer from the US, who has been working with the older kids (aged around 10-12 years old) for about a month. During my time there, Bo and I prepare a range of different activities and learning exercises for the kids, ranging from geography lessons about Santa Marta and Colombia to spanish reading and comprehension exercises about animals and insects, mathematics worksheets, games and art activities.
Each day we come to class laden with photocopied worksheets, maths exercises, colouring-in sheets and pencils, but I quickly learn that for most of the students, our word scramble worksheets are most popular and best reserved for the final exercise of the day or as a reward for completing a ‘more educational’ exercise.
With my basic Spanish, I try my best to assist the kids with reading and writing, and soon discover that skill levels vary greatly. Some children – like Jordan and his 4 y.o brother, Emilio – are clearly very smart and it’s hard to keep them interested for the two-hour period the classes are run.
Others – on the other hand – have had limited exposure to schooling and have difficulty simply writing their own name, doing basic mathematics and reading.
Many of the girls are shy at first and insist on one-on-one attention, constantly called “Senor, Senor” and insisting I initially write the answers for them to copy. The more cheeky kids tease us about our Spanish accent, incorrect grammar or, better still, show-off by practising their English with us.
Knowing how important simple interaction is with each child, I try to work my way around the tables, talking and helping where I can. It’s difficult. The classroom is cramped, hot and stuffy with 8-12 children crowded around one or two small plastic tables. There are limited resources such as paper, pencils and erasers and definitely no structure to the class. The kids come and go as they please, argue loudly over pencils and answers and constantly ask for more worksheets, to play hangman on the whiteboard or to go outside to play.
When the kids have had enough, they pack up their folders, kiss me on the cheek goodbye or simply leave. The stragglers lag behind to play hangman, write my name on the board and help sweep and clean up the room.
Sometime after 4pm, we finally manage to get all the kids out of the rooms, lock up and wave goodbye. Feeling tired, hot and sweaty, we head out to the main street with a trail of kids running after us.
“Chao. Hasta manaña,” I say, as I wave goodbye and hug the little girls who’ve taken a liking to me.
Already I’m thinking of tomorrow’s lesson and the smiles on the children’s faces when we arrive.
As a small grassroots organisation, Fundación Mariposas Amarillas is run on a shoestring budget and is always looking for volunteers willing to provide a week, a month or more of their time to the children. No experience (or Spanish) needed – initiative and enthusiasm is all Oscar asks for.
At the time when I volunteered, there were only five or six other volunteers - some who had been there for several months and others like me who were passing through.
They were all lovely people and I was motivated each person different reasons for being there and the joy they got from their experience.
Each day, we would meet in a cafe in Santa Marta to discuss ideas for the class or just share stories of Colombia and our travels.
Although we didn't all live together, we would regularly go out on a Friday night to the bars or to play tejo in Santa Marta. We also arranged weekend trips to nearby areas, escaping the steam and heat of Santa Marta or just looking for some time away from the dirty city.
What I liked about this foundation was its grassroots nature. Each volunteer was given a certain level of responsibility, trust and independence. And if you're willing to put in the hard work for the kids, you can achieve some very positive outcomes, right before your own eyes. But it is worth knowing, that if you are after an organisation with strict rules, processes, procedures, set tasks delegated to you etc..this is probably not the place for you.
Also, Santa Marta in Colombia is extremely hot and humid and at the schools, the heat is even more unpleasant. If you struggle with even the slightest bit of humidity or summer heat, I'd recommend looking else where.
On the upside, however, the coastline of Colombia to the north of Santa Marta is absolutely stunning and one of the world's most beautiful national parks is just 45 mins bus ride from the city.
Since my time at Mariposas Amarillas, I know things have come a long way. Most significantly, thanks to ongoing fundraising efforts of the volunteers and others interested in the organisation, Oscar has been able to purchase land to build another school in the suburb of Fundadores. Once this is finished, it will be a great achievement as for many years, these kids have been attending school in a cramped corridor. Being able to provide a dedicated space for them will be a rewarding moment for Oscar and all those involved.
I only wish I could be there to see it.
I would and have recommended Mariposas Amarillas to a friend