Hillary Merwin
Hillary Merwin
Colombia 2013
VIEW FINAL REPORT
Hola! My travels are taking me to Bogotá, Colombia where I will be spending six months volunteering with a community development organization called Fundación Comunidad Viva by tutoring children in after-school programs, planning community events, leading camps and much more. Join me on this adventure! Read More About Hillary →

Leaving home to go back home

This past week was definitely bittersweet. I’m so thankful that I got to begin my journey in the little town of Pacho and end my Colombian adventure there with all the people I’ve come to love. Even though I’m now safely back in the states, I’ve most definitely left a part of me in Colombia.

My last weeks in Colombia were busy to say the least. We were simultaneously planning and preparing for two back-to-back SuperVacas (first in Pacho, then in Prado). So let’s do the math. An estimated 100 kids for each week, times 5 crafts per day equals preparation for about 1,000 kid’s crafts, not to mention planning lessons, games, and making decorations. It was a whirlwind but by the grace of God we got it all finished in time!

Making a mosaic desert landscape out of old magazines

Making a mosaic desert landscape out of old magazines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you guess our new theme for the week?

Can you guess our new theme for the week?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 paper roll telescopes

100 paper roll telescopes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally all the hard work paid off when we traveled as a group of 30 to Pacho. The kids had a great time with the ocean theme and I know the team had a blast, too. Unfortunately, I had to leave for Bogotá a few days before we finished, but I know it was a definite success and we are really startung to grow great relationships with the Pacho community!

Getting the school ready

Getting the school ready

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the group

Some of the group

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching

Teaching

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spending time with the kids

Spending time with the kids

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of my buddies

One of my buddies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this month, we also celebrated the closure of Ciudad Corazón (the group of kids that meets every Friday evening). We made them each a diploma and threw a block party for the whole neighborhood. The kids were so excited to share with their neighbors everything they’d learned and to show off their new certificates!

The graduates

The graduates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most special memories I have is of our Colombian Thanksgiving dinner. With two American girls living in a house of Colombians, we of course had to share with them a bit of our culture. After some difficulties finding a few ingredients (and some canned pumpkin pie filling brought from the U.S.) we made a Thanksgiving meal worthy of the name. We shared with our friends the tradition of saying what we were each thankful for and it turned into quite a beautiful evening.

The feast

The feast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just some of my Colombian family

Just some of my Colombian family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family is a word that perfectly describes my experience here in Colombia. I found a group of people who accepted me as I was and immediately included me in the already amazing outreach they have in Bogotá. They trusted me with huge responsibilities and had faith in me that I could get the job done. I’ve felt so loved and so cared for, that it allowed me to love and care for others who I met during my time there. I learned what it meant to transform broken neighborhoods to loving communities and the value of one-on-one relationships. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes we didn’t find success–at least in the eyes of the world–but I know that my life was touched and I think I can say the same for many people I met.

Thank you for following me on this journey. It has truly been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Thank you to Lumos for giving people like me the opportunity to travel the world and find hope and love in another culture. I am so incredibly grateful for it all and for the new home I found in this beautiful country.

A quick update

Just a quick update to say we are in Pacho for another week of SuperVacas and wifi is a little sparse. I leave this Friday for the U.S. and will be sure to have many updates and photos then. Hasta entonces!

Finishing up…

I can’t believe my time here in Colombia is so quickly coming to an end. It feels like yesterday that we started the after-school tutoring program in the Prado neighborhood, getting to know each of the kids more and more every week as we worked on homework together, played games, read stories, and made crafts.

Yet this past week, we held our last tutoring session of the semester and it was incredible to see how many relationships we had built with both old and new kids in the neighborhood. So many started telling their friends about it and soon our group of about 8 turned into 20!

We had a special craft for the kids on their last day since most of them had already finished up with their classes and didn’t have homework. We wanted to use up a bunch of the old crayons so I had the kids make shavings of the colors they chose, then cut out two identical shapes from wax paper, and finally put the shavings inside the two pieces and iron them together, melting the crayons and making a beautiful sun catcher!

Tutoring is one of the most successful programs for the foundation (in terms of outreach) and it was such a blessing to get to plan each day and help the kids with their work. One of my girls, Viki, came up to me with a handmade card on the last day and told me that she’d received a 5 in her English class (equivalent to an A+) and that her teacher told her she was the best English student in her class! What a privilege to have been able to watch her grow and learn through this program! Definitely thankful for everyone I met and the friends I made along the way :)

As far as what’s coming up next...SuperVacas, SuperVacas. A few of us spent the whole day today preparing things for the next SuperVacas coming up in Pacho. We’re expecting about 150 kids so needless to say it’s a bit time consuming preparing five days of crafts for a massive amount of kiddos! We’re also making a mid-week daytrip to Pacho tomorrow to start solidifying details, locations, and spreading the word about the upcoming festivities. One of the cool things we are adding this year will be a concert at the end of the week for the entire community in the town square. We’re gathering both friends and professional bands to put on an amazing show and hopefully give the town of Pacho a reason to celebrate and get to know each other a little better!

Now here are some photos from the past few months of the tutoring program!

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A break

While these past few weeks have been full of afterschool tutoring, planning, meetings with girls in the neighborhood, Pacho English class and movie club and cultural Friday nights, it was a relief this past Sunday to hear that we as a team would be taking a little break.

After returning from Pacho early in the morning on Sunday, Jorge told us to repack our bags because we were going camping. A few hours later we were on windy roads again, weaving our way around the mountains and over rough dirt roads to Cachipay, a city about 2 hours outside Bogotá. It’s amazing how quickly the landscape can change in this country. In just under 2 hours, we had entered a lush, tropical jungle. The temperature rose at least 10 degrees and there was green as far as the eye could see. Absolutely beautiful. One of our friends’ parents owns some property there and we wound up setting up about 5 tents in their woods.

But what made this trip truly special was the fact that we could spend some time together as a team, reflecting on how far we’d come and refocusing our plans and goals for the future.

Sitting around the campfire, we discussed new plans for Pacho, what we wanted the new nonprofit in the downtown area to look like, needs that still needed to be met in Prado, and so much more. I even got to introduce the group to the concept of s’mores (can you believe that’s not more of an international thing?!) and we all stayed up until late talking.

The next morning was a breath of fresh air as we decided to explore the surrounding river. Climbing over rocks in the rain and slipping on huge banana leaves has never been so fun. What a privilege to get to take advantage of the beautiful nature surrounding us!

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And here are some pictures from our Friday night halloween party. We tried to make it a “safe” alternative so instead of alcohol, we planned a bunch of  “minute-to-win-it” games. So fun!!

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SuperVacas

This past week was SuperVacas!! All of our hard work and planning finally came together in a week full of dancing, crafting, singing, and water balloon wars.

All the volunteers got their own hand-made sailor hats!

All the volunteers got their own hand-made sailor hats!

I won’t give a day-by-day account of everything that went on (to be honest, it’s really all a blur of sweaty kids and wiping glue off sticky fingers) so I’ll just give some of the highlights:

Our fearless leader, Jorge, managed to find a complete captain’s suit–much to the entertainment of the kids–and stayed in character all week. One day, he even dressed in a camo army outfit and somehow incorporated salutes and “drop and give me 20’s” into the lesson that day–again, much to the entertainment of the kids in the audience.

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Jorge as the captain

One night, Jorge gathered some of us volunteers and told us he wanted to make 100 treasure maps for the teaching the next day. We proceeded to spend the next 6 hours hand drawing a pretty awesome map full of sea monsters, pirate ships and storms (it was super cool if I don’t say so myself ;)) and glueing them onto 100 pieces of paper, all of which we burned the edges to make them look authentic. The maps were meant to teach the kids how to navigate the “storms of life.” I’m definitely learning that it’s “go big or go home” with Fundación Comunidad Viva. And I love it.

The map!

The map!

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The kids working through their maps

On the third day of teaching, we wanted the kids to learn about serving others. We decided to do something pretty radical and teach them about the ultimate service of foot washing–by washing their feet! The kids were definitely taken aback at first, not sure what to think. We had all the volunteers participate and used cups of water and towels to wash each child’s feet. We told them that before we are able to serve others with a willing heart, we must first learn to accept gifts from others. It was an incredible symbol to demonstrate service and I think all the kids really took away something that day.

Jorge, telling a story about service

Jorge, telling a story about service

Washing the kids' feet

Washing the kids’ feet

The last day was chaotic, to say the least. Let’s just say we filled 300 water balloons the night before and the kids went wild. But the highlight of the last day was definitely the meal we shared with the neighborhood. The day before, we asked each child to bring either peeled potatoes, yuca, or plantain to be used for a giant sancocho (a typical Colombia soup) we would make for the next day. So by the end of the last day SuperVacas, we had three huge pots of sancocho which we dished out to all the kids. But what’s even cooler is that we set up tables for the parents to come and spend time having lunch in community. We even passed out some bowls to curious neighbors who had come out of their houses to see where all the noise and music was coming from!

One big party!

One big party!

Even though the foundation has hosted countless SuperVacas in the past few years, everyone kept saying this one was the best yet. It was such a privilege to be a part of planning something so influential in this community.

While we will use the same theme, decorations, lessons, etc. for the SuperVacas coming up in Pacho, we have another SuperVacas here in Prado at the end of the November. And guess what? We have to come up with a totally different theme and plan. Ah well, the work never ends here in Bogotá but I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world :)

These boys couldn't get enough of the drums

These boys couldn’t get enough of the drums

Making boats that actually float!

Making boats that actually float!

Time for some singing and dancing

Time for some singing and dancing

He wanted to make his sailor's hat Bruce Wayne-themed

He wanted to make his sailor’s hat Bruce Wayne-themed

The hat's a little big!

The hat’s a little big!

 

 

 

 

 

Prep time

These past few weeks have been all about planning. Any free moments we had as a staff team, we were seated around a table discussing lessons, crafts, games, decorations, and schedules for one of the biggest programs put on by the foundation–SuperVacas!

It’s been a great experience getting to be on the other side of the action for once. Though this will be my third SuperVacas with the foundation, it’s the only one that I’ve actually helped plan. I’ve always seemed to arrive in Colombia just in time to participate as a volunteer but never to be part of the planning process.

I definitely appreciate all that goes into designing a week of structured activities and lessons–completely from scratch. Down to the very last detail (like how many toilet paper rolls we would need for the kids to make telescopes or drawing and coloring over 50 paper fish for decoration), we did it all.

The theme for the week is the ocean. God is the captain and we are the sailors–the teachings will revolve around what qualities make a good sailor (a clear mind for thinking and making decisions, an open heart, and hands for serving others).

Needless to say, we had a blast decorating the room. Our team clocked about 15 hours this past weekend making a huge boat to go on the stage, blowing up balloons to look like bubbles, cutting out life-size waves to put on the wall...and I could go on. What I love about the foundation and Jorge’s leadership is that he always wants to make the programs the best they can be. While this often requires extra work on our parts–revising plans, changing ideas at the last minute, late nights of planning–I also have no doubt in my mind that this week’s SuperVacas will be the best we’ve ever had.

We also had fun passing out flyers to literally the entire neighborhood. It was great getting to know more kids in the area and such a fun time seeing familiar faces in the street and realizing that I’ve become a part of this neighborhood. There are few things more rewarding than walking to work and having one of your kids from tutoring run up to you, yelling “profe!” and giving you a big hug.

One this is for sure...it’s going to be so incredibly hard leaving this neighborhood and these beautiful kids and families I’ve come to know and love so dearly. Community is truly a special thing and I’m so excited to get to know more of these kids during SuperVacas week!!

Experimenting with a boat craft

Experimenting with a boat craft

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Getting creative with balloons

The beginnings of the boat

The beginnings of the boat

Finishing touches

Finishing touches

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Finished!

Reaching new heights

The reason this update is coming so late is because my life has been extremely busy. I truly feel like a part of the team here at Fundación Comunidad Viva and I wouldn’t change my hectic schedule for anything. It’s incredible that I’ve been given so much responsibility as a mere (gringa) volunteer. I’m getting to see first-hand how a nonprofit should work. FCV isn’t afraid to change, evolve, take risks, and do something different every now and again.

We took one of those risks a few Sundays ago.

The whole process of starting a nonprofit in the downtown area is complex, to say the least, but the only starting place is to learn the needs of the community first rather than starting to develop programs in a neighborhood without a solid understanding of the people who live there. One of those needs in downtown Bogotá rests in the homeless population. So we made it our goal to get to know as many homeless people as we could–with the help of almost 100 sandwiches, steaming hot agaupanela, and a guitar.

It was a beautiful night full of conversations, singing, and sharing meals with countless people we encountered on the street. Never did I feel in danger (it did help that there were about 12 of us in the group), but rather a deeper understanding of the community here in downtown Bogotá.

Cooking up 2 huge vats of agaupanela

Cooking up 2 huge vats of agaupanela

Getting to work on the sandwiches

Getting to work on the sandwiches

Aaand having some fun at the same time :)

Aaand having some fun at the same time :)

pacho

The work in Pacho continues. So far, we’ve had 4 movie nights (cine foros) and 2 English class! Basically, we get to spend the whole day with the youth of Pacho, which is so cool. This past Saturday after we finished the English class, a few of the youth stuck around to chat and we wound up hanging out and working on their homework for the next hour before the cine foro started. Two years ago, I never would have thought I could lead a discussion in Spanish about a movie, and while it’s never easy facilitating the conversation, I’m always so amazed when people actually understand what I’m saying. And I praise God for my partner in crime, Marina, who is another volunteer serving with the foundation, and makes the the trip to Pacho with me every week. In the last few cine foros, we watched Slumdog Millionaire, Argo, Source Code, and are planning to watch Freedom Writers this Saturday.

Cine Foro! (it's hard to get a good photo in the dark)

Cine Foro! (it’s hard to get a good photo in the dark)

tutoring

Tutoring continues to be some of my favorite parts of the week. We now have a good group of about 15 that come every Tuesday and Thursday. We’ve even started to play more games as a reward for working so hard on homework and we are going to take the kids on a field trip to a science museum later in the month! Here’s a little video from last Tuesday:

monserrate

Maybe one of the reasons this past week tired me out so much is because I climbed 2 miles of stairs to reach the top of Monserrate, one of the highest points in Bogotá. I’ve already been up there twice during the time I’ve spent in Colombia, but I’ve always taken the cable car. Hiking Monserrate was definitely a different experience. And totally worth it. While many people make the hike barefoot as a sort of pilgrimage to the church at the top of the mountain, my friends and I opted to do it with shoes. Two hours of climbing endless steps and we had reached the top. Definitely one of my favorite experiences so far in Bogotá!

Halfway there...

Halfway there...

We made it!

We made it!

A very cultural experience

This past week was anything but average. It started with the normal schedule: a time of rest Monday morning, meetings with neighborhood girls in the afternoon, English tutoring Tuesday morning, after school tutoring in the afternoon, more meetings Wednesday, my weekly trip downtown. And then I got stuck.

What began as peaceful protests among the campesinos (farmers) grew into more violent protests among university students and others fed up with the injustices facing the agricultural community.

In short, the Colombian president signed a free trade agreement with U.S. which basically prohibits the campesinos from using Colombian seeds and other national products, rather those imported from the U.S. Because of this, Colombia as a country receives tons of money from the U.S. for signing the agreement yet the lives of the individual campesinos are in grave danger as they can no longer compete against foreign prices and as a result, continue to make a living. The whole situation is extremely complicated (especially when explained to me in Spanish) but I tried to make a point to learn as much as I could as everything that was happening was very “close to home.”

With that said, never were we in danger, we just stayed indoors to take precautions as you never knew when a peaceful protest could turn into something else.

Amidst all the turmoil however, we found peace staying inside as we spent every single day working on plans for establishing another Fundación Comunidad Viva in downtown Bogotá (hence, the lack of pictures this week). We worked countless hours on vision statements, values, strategies, target groups, on and on and on. Yet what a rewarding experience to be able to spend so much time immersed in such an important project.

After the protests and riots calmed down, we started up again our Viernes Culturales (cultural Fridays). These have been wonderful get togethers we hold every week by inviting friends, neighbors, and even random strangers we meet on the street, to hang out with us downtown and return to Jorge’s apartment for food and games. This is also a part of starting the new nonprofit here. So many of the people we’ve met are already so excited to get involved in programs we’ve yet to even start! Protests and riots aside, this past week was a blast and an interesting change of pace, though I’ll be looking forward to getting back to my normal, riot-free schedule this week :)

Week 9

I can’t believe I’ve already been here for more than 9 weeks! Time has truly flown by. It’s hard to even find a time to sit down and write. The work here is definitely keeping me on my toes!

This past week, we began a new initiative and I am so excited about it. The foundation is trying to have more of a presence in Pacho with a particular focus on the youth. Jorge basically handed this task over to me. What a learning experience this has been! After deciding that a cine foro (movie discussion night) would be the best way to start to get to know the youth here, I began planning. Finally last Saturday we had our first cine foro...and with about 20 teenagers! After a few weeks of coming to Pacho and just walking around the town getting to know the youth, I felt so blessed to see these familiar faces coming to an event so important to me. We had a great discussion (in Spanish, of course) some snacks, and went out for a bite to eat afterwards. We watched the movie in the garage of one of the families living in Pacho. What a beautiful night. This next Saturday, we will begin our first English class to take place right before the cine foro with the same group of kids. I’m so thankful for this opportunity to spend time with the youth of Pacho every single week.

Sometimes on the way to Pacho, the car doesn't make it up the mountain--thankfully we had the brute strength of Sofi to push us up :)

Sometimes on the way to Pacho, the car doesn’t make it up the mountain–thankfully we had the brute strength of Sofi to push us up :)

Can't get over this view

Can’t get over this view

Just to prove I was there

Just to prove I was there

Cine Foro! (it's hard to get a good photo in the dark)

Cine Foro! (it’s hard to get a good photo in the dark)

Another great moment from this week was when a group of us took the Transmilenio an hour to the very southern part of the city to visit a woman close to the foundation who had fallen on hard times. She lives in a part of Bogotá that is extremely poor but at the same time breathtakingly beautiful. Little shacks with roofs held on by rocks litter the mountains as far as the eye can see. The roads are treacherous and it’s a miracle how the garbage trucks can even climb to the top of the mountain. It’s hard enough on foot. Yet the view from this neighborhood is absolutely gorgeous. We spent the day with Josefita, bought her groceries, and shared lunch. A beautiful time in community.

With Josefita outside her house

With Josefita outside her house

Never miss a photo-op

Never miss a photo-op

Breathtaking

Breathtaking

While this past week was a blur of English classes, tutoring, meetings, and traveling, life does have a way of giving you a break right when you need it. Last Monday was festivo (holiday–there are a lot of these here and most people don’t even know what they’re celebrating). After a wonderful morning of sleeping in until 8:00, one of the women from the foundation came over to teach us how to make ajiaco (an absolutely delicious Colombian soup with chicken, potatoes, whole corn cobs, and more potatoes). It took half the day but was well worth it as we all sat down at the table together and enjoyed this authentic Colombian meal.

A family meal

A family meal

I will definitely be bringing this recipe back to the States!

I will definitely be bringing this recipe back to the States!

I’m also happy to say that in the little free time I’ve had, I managed to start going to a salsa class. I feel like it would be a travesty to leave Colombia without having learned the salsa, so here I am, trying to learn how to move my hips after 22 years without rhythm. Updates on my progress to follow.

Busy, busy, busy!

It’s hard to wrap my mind around all that has happened these past few weeks. It’s been such a whirlwind. A beautiful, exhausting, exhilarating whirlwind. I’ll start with one of my last days of having free time.

Last Friday, I took advantage of my free day to explore the historic center of the city–La Candelaria. In just a 20 minute walk, I arrived in the famous Plaza Bolívar. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen so many pigeons in my life. I spent the next few hours weaving up and down the cobblestone streets, visiting the Botero Museum (Colombia’s most famous artist), the cultural center, and the original home of author Gabriel García Márquez.

La Plaza Bolivar

La Plaza Bolívar

The church in Plaza Bolívar

The church in Plaza Bolívar

Beautiful view in La Candelaria

Beautiful view in La Candelaria

That night, I traveled back to the northern part of town to attend and help out with the Cine Foro. This is a new program for the foundation and consists of a movie night for the teenagers in the neighborhood followed by a discussion. I got to pick the movie and chose “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (dubbed in Spanish, of course). It’s a great witty drama that focuses on universal issues of depression and anxiety, especially for teenagers. We followed the film with a great discussion about the difficult themes and of course, a quick game of soccer.

The next day, I started a new adventure. I have the opportunity of traveling to Pacho (the town up into the Andes Mountains where we held Supervacas) every Saturday. I wake up bright and early, take a bus to a taxi station and grab a cab that makes the beautiful but not so comfortable weaving drive up the mountains. While there, I will be teaching an English class in the morning, meeting with some of the youth during the afternoon, and developing another Cine Foro for the teenagers during the night. On Sunday, I grab a cab, take a bus, and make it back just in time for church. Though a tiring journey to make every week, I’m so thankful for this opportunity to work with the youth in Pacho and deepen these relationships as well as the foundation’s influence in this beautiful town.

I can never take too many pictures of Pacho!

I can never take too many pictures of Pacho!

Sunday was a very special day. Because of timing issues, my work with the Alturo family ended the day before their daughter, Laura returned home from the hospital, healed from her brain tumor. For this, I never got to meet her. But on Sunday, the family invited us over for dinner and I got to meet Laura for the first time. After a long hug and trying to hold back tears, the weight of what we did for that one month– though sometimes tedious cooking so many meals and spending so much time in the house–hit me. What a blessing to be able to hold this girl who was so close to death but is now so full of life!

Laura’s in the middle, with her favorite angry birds hat

On Wednesday, we took advantage of the holiday and planned a welcome home/block party celebration for Laura. What an incredible opportunity because the neighborhood in which Laura and her family live is another area where the foundation wants to begin more programs in the future. To put it simply, it was a beautiful day. In Colombia, you don’t need to send invitations to a party. You just need a couple of speakers to blast music and the whole neighborhood comes over to check it out. And that’s exactly what happened. We hung giant banners, made some finger food, brought out the sidewalk chalk, and of course, blasted the music.

Hanging the banner

Hanging the banner

The neighbors

The neighbors wasted no time in jumping in to help out

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Everyone having a good time

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Painting a banner

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Sidewalk art!

Tracing handprints and writing notes for Laura

Tracing handprints and writing notes for Laura

This week also began the tutoring program. Tuesdays and Thursday, kids from the neighborhood come from 3-5 to get help with their homework. We plan crafts, snacks and games for those who finish early or don’t bring work at all. Lucky for me, the majority of the kids have English homework so I haven’t yet had to deal with tutoring math in Spanish.

Preparing for tutoring with Luisa, one of the directors of the foundation

Preparing for tutoring with Luisa, one of the directors of the foundation

Our token-reward system for good behavior

Our token-reward system for good behavior

Helping Vicki with her English homework

Helping Vicki with her English homework

This week has also been full of teaching private English lessons. Currently, I have four people who I meet with on an individual basis, to help them with English. It’s a blast getting to work with people at all different levels of English.

I’ve also been meeting with several girls in the neighborhood, just to talk about life. I’m excited to grow these relationships and maybe even get these girls more connected with the foundation.

Hanging out with one of my girls, Tatiana!

Hanging out with one of my girls, Tatiana!

Also a quick language update: I can’t believe how quickly my Spanish has improved. One day I realized I was having conversations effortlessly (definitely a new experience) and I even found myself beginning to translate for other foreign visitors. It’s such a freeing feeling being able to communicate without the struggles I had before.