Colombia: The Last Days on the farm


Susan Couprie at the beginning of the hikeThe camp was a success- 24 people in attendance. Youth were the campers and young adult volunteers from the YMCA Medellin were being trained so that they can run this camp in the future. Mel and I along with 3 volunteers taught all about the process of farming and the English words associated with it. We learned all about the parts of a seed, how to prepare the soil- it started off as a grassy area, how to plant corn, composting and we spent some time with the farm animals (chickens, goats, my friend the parrot and the rabbits who have 18 new little ones). We also went for a hike around the countryside to see the local crops and of course played many leadership games and had a campfire. A fun and much appreciated time were had by all.

After 2 days of camp and a long sleep, we were up and ready to get going on our last adventure of the trip. We travelled to Guatape where we climbed the El Peñon de Guatape rock. If you remember, in a previous post, I talked about climbing a mountain in Strata One, well this climb was even more challenging. There were 740 stairs on the side of this650 foot rock and every step was challenging as we twisted and turned all the way up.

My last day on The Farm was filled with chasing chickens (they all got out of the pens overnight, so off me and the farmer went chasing them around the farm and back into their pens), checking out the little bunnies (almost impossible to take a picture as they kept jumping!!) and of course packing.

Thank you all for following my trip to Medellin. I hope you enjoyed my adventures and learned a lot about the YMCA along the way. It is with a hopeful heart that I said goodbye to all those I met here. If all goes well, I will see many of the friends I made on this exchange in the next couple of years. Until my next adventure, with my friends and colleagues from the YMCA Medellin….

Colombia: What does an exchange look like?

Monday morning I was back at Soliera School. This time, the objective was to promote the upcoming exchange next year to The Academy and to invite the students to an English Immersion camp that we will be running next week. I visited with all the grade 8 and 9 students as they are the target for the exchange. It was important to get their feedback and concerns to help us create a meaningful exchange.

Looking down on Soleira School from above
Looking down on Soleira School from above

In the afternoon, I led a teacher meeting with two focuses. One – presentation on what an exchange might look like based on previous exchanges run by The YMCA Academy (again asking for feedback and concerns) and Two – a presentation and discussion on inclusion in the classroom for students with exceptionalities focusing on ADD/ADHD (as requested by the school). Unfortunately we ran out of time before I finished the workshop on inclusion (when the buses arrive, all the teachers need to leave as this is their transportation down the mountain). I left the rest of the workshop with the school, so they can continue it at a later date.

With all the feedback from staff and students, it was time to sit down, reflect on the feedback we had received so far and make some decisions about the exchange. We agreed upon:

• The objectives of the exchange
• The criteria for participating
• The possible dates
• The student/staff ratio
• A list of tasks to do before, during and after the exchange.

We were well on our way!!

At 6am on April 5, I was back on the road to visit the Catholic University (1 ½ hours away) to present a sample exchange to interested parents. Although we ran into some traffic issues and ended up being late, we had a warm and welcoming meeting.

We were kindly invited for lunch at Diego’s home (volunteer at the YMCA and one of my interpreters) with his father (YMCA Board Member) and back on the road we went to arrive in time for me to participate in three evening classes. All three were English classes. The first was a children’s class and the other two were adult classes. Every class is run by a volunteer. What a wonderful wealth of dedication I see every day in the volunteers here.


It was now time to solidify the exchange, so Carlos (Director of the YMCA) and I sat down and discussed options of activities that would fall under the objectives of the exchange which included:

• English immersion
• Environmental theme
• Cultural exchange
• Tour around Canada’s largest city and surrounding areas
• Experience the life of a student at The YMCA Academy
• Experience YMCA Camp
• Become actively engaged in the Toronto and surrounding community

We presented our exchange to the Director of the Soliera School the next day. We ended that meeting with my first “high five” from Carlos and a celebratory ice cream snack. All ends well as this was the closing of the allotted time for organizing the exchange. Although there is a lot of work left to be done, we have the groundwork of a great exchange. I anticipate changes to the work we have done here as a lot can change in the next 12 months and I am sure that there will be feedback from staff in Toronto. The important thing is the relationship building that I have been a part of and the dedication and interest of all.


Colombia: Travelling to Rionegro Town

Sunday, April 2 was my day off of work, but by no means was I idly sitting in my room. To my delight, we travelled to a small town called Carmen which is known for ceramics. As many of you know I am a potter and as you can imagine, this town was the perfect place for me to spend some time. Everywhere you looked, pottery is used.

Lamp Posts
Yes, there are plates, tiles and even bowls decorating the buildings
Yes, there are plates, tiles and even bowls decorating the buildings

If you take a close look at the pillar in the middle of the town square, you will see from bottom to top the history of ceramics.
If you take a close look at the pillar in the middle of the town square, you will see from bottom to top the history of ceramics.  The brown at the bottom represents the earth all the way to the blue at the top which represent the sky.  If you look closely, you will also see plates embedded into the structure.

I also travelled to Rionegro Town. We visited the house called Casa de la Convención, where the constitution of 1863 was signed, and we were allowed to touch the table that was used.   We learned about the culture that was emerging at the time and how the people used printing presses to communicate.

Cabinet that held the letters and numbers for the printing press
Cabinet that held the letters and numbers for the printing press
Close up of one of the drawers with letters in them
Close up of one of the drawers with letters in them
The table at the far end of the room was used to sign the constitution
The table at the far end of the room was used to sign the constitution

This is the box that carried the constitution and all the notes that were taken during the writing of it.

This is the box that carried the constitution and all the notes that were taken during the writing of it.  Notice that there are 3 key holes.  Three different people each had one key to ensure that nothing was tampered with.

During these times, communicating with your significant other before marriage was carried out through a special window in the homes where one person sat on inside one side of the wall and the other was outside the house.  Only holding hands was allowed!!!

The seat on the inside of the house if you were communicating with your significant other.
The seat on the inside of the house if you were communicating with your significant other.

And we finished up the day at Tutucan which is on the outskirts of Rionegro.  It “is a replica of a typical paisa town with a church, park, mill, taverns, coffee farm and livestock. The site features ‘locals’ who animate the streets. It also has restaurants serving local Antioquia dishes.”

A day at Tutucan which is on the outskirts of Rionegro

Colombia: Visiting the Soleira School

Last Tuesday and Wednesday (March 28 & 29), I was immersed in the Soleira school, which is a private school in Medellin, for two days.  I was kindly welcomed by Paula, an English teacher, into 5 of her classes — which quickly turned into a cultural exchange.  There seemed to be no topic that was off the table.  We talked about school systems, weather, politics, transgender issues, same sex marriage, prostitution, drugs, to name a few.  The senior classes’ ability to speak and listen in English was exceptional.  There is no doubt in my mind that they are receiving an exceptional education in the areas of language and social issues.

The school itself is beautiful.  It is nestled on the side of a mountain and the property stretches out forever.  There is a path that circles the property that is used by “the best teachers” according to the two senior students that took me and Francisco (my friend, interpreter and former staff and volunteer with the YMCA).  They told me of their philosophy teacher who, after teaching them, will take them to contemplate what they have learned.  There are gardens, natural forested areas, statues, and a manmade pool system for the young children to play in.

The school gets its water from the runoff from the mountain, so after a heavy rain late last week, the pipes were overwhelmed and needed to be fixed.  We had no running water for one day, but it was easily fixed and fully functional the next day.

Alexandra Castrillon

Tuesday night was the farewell ceremony for Alexandra Castrillon (now former Director of the YMCA) and the welcome to Carlos Augusto (new Director).  This was both a joyous and sad occasion.  Alexandra spoke to each staff member publicly and told everyone what she valued in them and then each staff member shared with Carlos about themselves and welcomed him into his new position. It was an emotional time for all and I was honored to represent the YMCA of Greater Toronto.

On Friday night I participated in a conversation club at the YMCA.  The devotion of the club to come out to practice their speaking and listening skills was inspiring.  There were some beginners and some quite accomplished youths and adults.  Some loved English and others openly told me they hated it, yet there they were practicing it anyways on a Friday night.

Saturday was a busy day as I started the day again participating in a YMCA English group.  This time it was with 7-10 year old children.  They made me welcome signs, we sang “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and I taught them the song “There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o!”  I also had an opportunity to briefly chat with the parents of these children, who were meeting in another room, to learn about the brain development associated with learning a second language.  I thought that these two programs running simultaneously at the YMCA was a great idea.  Although most of the parents knew little English, they wanted to give their children encouragement and the hope for greater opportunities that learning English would give them as Medellin works towards becoming a multilingual community.

I was quickly whisked away from the YMCA to visit one of the YMCA’s university prep classes.  Although the class was almost over, I had the opportunity to try out one of the questions and I got it right!!!  This was a relief because I wasn’t 100% confident in my answer as it was being translated to me.

That is all for now.

Colombia: Learning about Medellin

I am slowly learning about Medellin. There is much to know as it has a long history. Today I learned firsthand about the strata system. Medellin is divided into six strata: 1 and 2 are lower income, 3 and 4 are middle income, and 5 and 6 are upper income. Today I was taken to a community which is considered strata 1. To get there I had to climb what felt like a mountain of stairs.  By the time I got to the top, my legs were shaking and I was quite tired.  The community has electricity, but no running water. The people we met along the way welcomed the YMCA staff with open arms.  It was obvious to me that there was a relationship that ran far and deep. Once at the top, we talked with the nuns who lived there and ran a kitchen.  They feed the children and the elderly every day.

Street Art in Medellin
Street Art in Medellin

I spent the afternoon talking with a social worker named Julian (who works for the Y) about the education system.  This is what I learned:

Although it is considered a right for all to receive education, the poorer communities face many issues: Teachers who agree to come to these communities receive less pay, often travel for 3 hours (1 ½ hours each way) and have larger class sizes.  It is not uncommon for 60 students to be in one class. It is likely that a teacher will find him/herself caught between fighting gangs, drug issues and bullying.  All of this adds up to an inferior education.

Once a student completes high school, the poor primarily have 3 viable options:

  1. Join the army
  2. Become a parent
  3. Work – usually physical labor

A fourth option is university, but this is difficult as they have likely received an education that is inferior to those against whom they will be competing for the highly sought-after public Universities.    Each year, 80,000 applications are received for 10,000 spots.  In order to be considered, you have to sit an exam.  If you are not accepted at a public University, a person can apply to the private universities, but this usually comes with a hefty price tag.  Recently another option is opening up to the community.  Public Works is now beginning to offer scholarships, but you have to agree to stay and work in the community.

In order to improve this situation, the YMCA has begun to offer university preparation courses.  This not only gives the poorest of the community a better chance, but as youth are accepted, they inspire others to dream.

So, what does Julian believe needs to be done?  The public education system needs to be shaken up:

  • The student/teacher ratio needs to be addressed
  • The content of the classes needs to become relevant to life
  • Add labs to the schools (students need not only to rely on books for their education, they also need to experiment and see what they are learning)
  • Teachers need to teach differently to different students
  • Verbal and physical discrimination must stop in the schools (teachers need to take a more active role in ensuring the safety of the students)

Julian had heard that I enjoy art, so, later, he took me on tour of downtown.  The tour focused on graffiti and bronze statues at Botero Square Sculpture park.