Worldfund Supporter Visits Colombian
Andres Mejia recounts his experience at Mano Amiga Medellín
Every year, hundreds of poets from around the world gather in Medellín for the city’s International Poetry Festival and celebrate the legacy left by Andres Bello, a Venezuelan scholar best known for authoring the lyrics of Colombia’s national anthem. It is also in Mr. Bello’s honor that one of the Aburrá Valley’s municipalities bordering Medellín was named Bello. Founded in 1883, the municipality of Bello hosts approximately 10% of the population of the valley’s three million inhabitants (2002 data). Sadly, Bello’s infrastructure cannot sustain the town’s growth and new settlers must battle nature as they try to conquer the surrounding mountains. During the annual rainy season, mudslides kill and/or leave hundreds homeless in Bello’s shanty towns.
This is the backdrop of the Mano Amiga Medellín School. It was founded on May 12, 1997 in a small house with 25 students, and today, it plays a critical role in the formation of 800 students and will graduate its first high school class in the spring. The students pay nominal monthly fees but the school is able to operate thanks to individual and institutional donations and local government funding. The school’s “padrino” or scholarship program also provides a significant amount funding and enables individuals throughout Medellin to fund a specific students’ education during the entire school year.
Equally important is the quality of Mano Amiga Medellín’s faculty and staff, all of whom could earn more money in private education centers in affluent areas in the city. Instead, however, they choose to continue educating new generations of Mano Amiga Medellín students. This labor of love clearly manifests itself in the way teachers interact with students on a daily basis, and it is this sense of community that keeps Mano Amiga Medellín alive. The efforts of Gustavo Henao, Mano Amiga Medellín’s principal, for the past two years are evident in the way the school is run. Mr. Henao also utilizes his previous experience in the private sector to negotiate partnerships with local companies and with social programs sponsored by the local government.
The challenge ahead is the one Mano Amiga has been facing since its foundation: funding. The school's immediate needs include a chemistry lab, a computer room upgrade, summer school programs, an after-school activities program and a cafeteria upgrade that will allow the school to feed more of the students.
During my visit to Mano Amiga Medellín, I had the pleasure of spending time with two tenth grade students, Christian Alejandro Ortega and Daniela Sosa Montoya. Both students have padrinos sponsoring their education and are members of the class that will graduate next year. Christian would like to pursue a career in TV production and is a dancer at heart. He flaunted his Hip Hop, Merengue, Salsa, and Swing moves as he discussed his desire to perform in Las Vegas should he pursue a professional dancing career. Christian enrolled at Mano Amiga Medellín when he was in fourth grade and is expected to lead next year’s graduating class. Daniela is a talented athlete; her favorite sports are swimming and basketball and she has participated in several local and national competitions (most recently in Mexico). Daniela hopes to become a doctor and serve her community.
Christian and Daniela are very proud of their accomplishments, but are even more proud of what Mano Amiga Medellín represents for the community. They tell the story about last year’s mudslide, which killed two Mano Amiga Medellín students and their families who were not able to get to the school. Hundreds of locals had gathered there after fleeing their homes to avoid the avalanche of mud and rocks. Christian and Daniela show their pride in their teachers, their friends and their community. Most importantly, they want to develop their careers, become leaders that transform their communities and return to Mano Amiga Medellín so they can become “padrinos” for future students.