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.

Greetings from Colombia!

In support of the growing relationship between Toronto’s YMCA Academy and the YMCA of Medellin in Colombia, Teacher and Special Education Supervisor, Susan Couprie has been accepted for the Henry Labatte Scholarship Exchange Program. Her three week excursion to the Capital of Colombia’s Antioquia Province will lay the groundwork for an ongoing annual youth exchange between YMCA Academy Students and the Youth of Medellin beginning next school year.

It has been a very busy couple of days for me. I have been staying at “The Farm” which is located in La Selva which I have been told translates into “the Jungle”. So welcome to “The Jungle” through my eyes.

We have been learning a lot about what the YMCA does throughout Colombia but specifically about the farm run by the YMCA and how the farm shares the vision of the Strategic Plan of the Medellin YMCA which includes: food security, sharing experiences and respecting mother earth.

Two friendly goats greet us each morning.

The YMCA goes weekly to schools to visit with students to work together on agricultural initiatives. They learn how to take care of the environment and how to feed themselves. This not only benefits the environment but also allows the children to learn about healthy eating and a balanced diet. This area was chosen for several reasons, including that the farmers in this area have a history of using chemicals on their crops. The hope is that by teaching the children about more environmental options, they will be shared with the adults as it is difficult to convince a farmer to change their ways as they have been successful in using their ways for many years. In this way they use the passion that the youth have for the environment to create change in thinking about the earth.

Adults, youth, children and teachers are all welcome on the farm to learn about the environment and how we can contribute to a better environment for all. This is usually on a request basis and the YMCA creates programs especially designed for the needs of the community. An example of this is adults and youth learning how to compost and use organic fertilizers.

The farm itself is not only a teaching center, but it produces 25 types of fruits and vegetables, has rabbits, goats, chickens, worms in their vermi-compost and some unexpected characters like a parrot that enthusiastically yells for “bananas!” There is also a rabbit that will have a litter any moment now. One could also find goat hoof trimming tools and some other equipment in the farm.

A parrot
A parrot named ‘Bananas’ watches the farm.

Yesterday and today, myself and Mel (from Cedar Glen) along with the amazing guidance, encouragement and enthusiasm of the much necessary and beloved volunteers and staff are busy working out an agenda for a 2 day English/Environmental camp for 15-20 youths. We will be combining some of the tried and tested programming done locally at the farm with Cedar Glen programming while helping to develop the volunteers who will run this camp in the future with the focus on developing everyone’s English and leadership skills.

We are both having a great time, but we sadly parted ways a few hours ago as I traveled to Medellin and Mel continues on the farm. Mel will not only be working on the farm and sharing techniques and knowledge with its farmer, but will be joining a few local schools who participate in environmental programs with the YMCA. I will be working towards developing an international exchange program! – to be continued…