The YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka proudly fosters an annual Youth Advisory Council. Motivated young leaders who are involved with the YMCA as staff, volunteers or participants apply for the opportunity to be involved with steering future YMCA initiatives, representing youth in their community and being a part of a Global Learning Experience. This year our YAC travelled to South America to volunteer with the YMCA of Colombia. They had the unique opportunity to learn about, tour and give back to the communities in the Coffee Region. Check out exciting stories of their travels below.
Communication is an amazing thing. Our first day in Colombia challenged the YAC to communicate better as a team and to communicate with new friends through language barriers. We spent the morning learning about Colombia and the YMCA here; appreciating the amazing ability of our hosts to translate the long an informative presentation. After a traditional Colombian lunch we went on to tour Armenia, practicing Spanish as we purchased our first souvenirs. This busy city was fascinating. It was both enlightening and overwhelming to be the tourists in a strange new world. Later we visited a local school in a very vulnerable neighbourhood where youth had the chance to sing, play games and visit with the students. We were surprised by the very stark differences between this environment and our own local high schools but noticed many similarities in the social dynamics and circles of friends. After a student led presentation about their town and school we exchanged friendly notes with our new friends. The volunteers here hoped the exchange would inspire the students to continue to study English. Despite the language barrier, communication was strong. It’s amazing how connections can form without speech, how a song on the radio can unite different cultures and how laughter sounds the same in any language.
This morning began with group activities to build trust; a theme we carried forward throughout the day. Members of the YAC had the pleasure of visiting an all-girls school to play games, share presentations on our unique cultures and enjoy song and dance performances by the students. We spent the afternoon running children’s programs in a nearby neighbourhood. It was eye opening to see the difference between this space and our Canadian community centres. In Colombia the YMCA does not operate the large facilities we are familiar with in Canada, rather volunteers travel to public parks and courtyard, where neighbouring kids gather. In this particular area there was a small shaded structure where they could store supplies. Though the space was small, the experience was big; we shared our favourite games and learned a couple new ones. The day really challenged us to trust our hosts to guide us through these new neighbourhoods, to trust each other for support in the challenges and adventures we faced and trust ourselves as we continue to grow as travelers and ambassadors.
I think we all would agree that today has been the hardest so far, both physically and emotionally. We started off with group work to prove that we are more powerful than we sometimes believe and that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to. We then left our home base to visit a very devastating community of seniors in need of help. This slum shack community houses 15 elders who lost everything in the great earthquake 20 years ago and have since been surviving by relying on each other, the bare minimum supplies they have acquired and the loving care of the YMCA. The youth worked hard all day helping to clean and organize the small shacks where they live, they reinforced walls, helped with laundry, replaced many tin roofs and helped with some necessary landscaping. We didn’t work alone, the seniors that were able pitched in and many local YMCA volunteers joined us in the village as they do every week. When the rain stopped our work it didn’t stop our spirit. Not wanting to waste even a minute of opportunity to brighten their community we chose to sing as a group. We enjoyed sharing traditional Colombian food with the residents for lunch and did our best to get to know the people who so humbly accepted our help and welcomed us into their homes. They were so grateful for our visit they shook fresh mangos from the tree to share with us and one gentleman performed a traditional song with maracas. It was inspiring to see that even those who have so very little were so willing to share with others. A lesson we will always remember is that no matter how little we think we have, we always have something to give. It was very sad to see the poverty but empowering to see all that can get done in a day. We will keep these kind new friends in our hearts forever and carry on with new found confidence that with faith and hard work we really can accomplish anything.
Today really lifted our spirits. We started off the morning with an exercise that showed how we have more in common than we do different and allowed us to celebrate the new friendships that are forming. We carried on to a local school for children, youth and seniors with special needs. We had a blast playing soccer and games then had the unique opportunity to learn the special technique the students use to make the bracelets that they sell. This is one of many skills they learn at the school to help earn income and gain independence. Before leaving we exchanged songs with the seniors and then headed off to the Recuca Coffee farm. Here we had the chance to tour the farms, pick our beans and learn how to process, brew and drink coffee from the funniest tour guide I have ever met in my life. The experience ended with youth dressing up in traditional clothes and learning to dance. It was a great opportunity to learn more about Colombia’s history, agriculture and economy. After a long day of laughter we went back to the hotel to get ready to dance the night away with the local volunteers who had been working alongside us. It was nice to celebrate all we had accomplished, to foster these new friendships and gain a true understanding of how the locals enjoy their down time.
The smiles continue. Colombian spirit is contagious and we’ve all caught a case of it. Last night’s party with the locals allowed us to enjoy song and dance and feel the warmth and welcome of our new friends. Today we journeyed to Risaralda to learn about how the YMCA works to change lives here. We toured the house that is their head office to learn about local projects then we headed out to volunteer. The group we worked with goes out once a month to very vulnerable neighbourhoods where children may be exposed to violence, poverty, drugs and prostitution. They go dressed as clowns and perform educational songs and skits and play games. This project began as just a “crazy idea” and has blossomed to be a very successful intervention. Through laughter, play and love these kids learn there is beauty and joy in the world and are inspired to pursue a life better than their parents have known. The program teaches English and builds connections to other YMCA social projects that foster opportunity for children and youth. The volunteers were nothing short of inspirational and the children were so excited to play with us. Our team has become experts at breaking through the language barrier and making new friends. They have shown true strength in character, kindness and humility. We couldn’t be prouder.
Today in Colombia our host Juliana let us experience life as she lives it. We began the day at the University where she teaches. Learning English is important in Colombia and required to obtain your degree in any field. First we worked with teenage students who attend English class on the weekends. Through various exercises we were able to help their skills and they taught us some very interesting Spanish phrases. After that we helped university students practice for an upcoming oral exam. When we left the university we went to Juliana’s favourite shopping mall where the group was delighted to find some more familiar food and then went on to Volunteer with Play LEE( Playing to learn English) where Juli volunteers her time almost every Saturday afternoon. The experience only added to our appreciation of our amazing host and the meaningful way she enriches the lives of others. Though we still have a few more days it was our last night to see Nelson the local manager who helped to coordinate our trip. He bid farewell at a beautiful restaurant with delicious food, a mariachi band and some very kind words to our group. He shared a Spanish phrase that we now all know to be true. Despite a sometimes negative reputation “the only real risk in Colombia is never wanting to leave”. We look forward to spending our last couple of days making the most of every second.
Today the YAC had the privilege of touring Salento and the Cocora Valley. The sights were amazing; pictures don’t begin to do it justice. It’s was nice to spend the day just enjoying each other’s company and reflecting on our journey thus far. Though we have seen many sad and overwhelming things this week we all agree that Colombia is one of the most beautiful places on earth. On the scenic drive back some well-placed clouds reminded us that life is full of silver linings. We are forever changed not just by what we’ve seen but how we will choose to see things from here on out.
Our last day in Colombia is bittersweet. We had fun this morning working with students at the Educational English Centre. Not only were they able to practice their language skills they were able to learn a lot about the opportunities available to them with the local YMCA. After a delicious lunch in Armenia we visited city hall. Here we learned more about this beautiful area and picked up some great tourist information to bring home. It’s seems fitting that we ended our day on the same city corner in Armenia where we shopped our very first day. It’s hard to believe just over a week ago this group stood close together, in culture shock in these busy streets filled with new people, language and customs. This afternoon they seemed right at home, confidently navigating the area and managing to shop and socialize with the locals in our broken (yet relatively improved) Spanish. Of all the lessons learned this week, confidence in themselves is among the greatest. It’s with mixed feelings we return to begin packing.
The YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka would like to thank our Colombian friends for being so hospitable and our Youth Advisory Council for their hard work and dedication in representing our Association. This global experience has hopefully revealed the incredible strength you have as a youth and inspired you to use this power to build a better self, better community and better world.