Saturday, December 29, 2007

Global Opportunity Garden teams up with Mercadeo Social

I'm very excited to announce that after meeting with representatives from Mercadeo Social in Colombia, an organization that helps non profits to become more effective, we've decided to team up to work together on the Lives Worth Sharing Community Photography Project. We are accepting proposals from small foundations and organizations in Colombia that are in need of digital cameras to help document their work and the lives of the people living in remote, violent, and poverty stricken regions of Colombia.
Because certain areas of Colombia are still too dangerous for journalists, there is often no one to document the desperate poverty and injustice endured by the people living there. Unfortunately, because the people usually live in such poverty that they lack the tools, training, and access to the media that they need to get their message out.
Visit for more information in Spanish.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dear Alison, how can I help?

Since getting back to Camden about a week ago, I've been so busy I've not had much of a chance to post any updates.... After being in Colombia, El Salvador and Brazil for about a month, truly immersed in my element, returning to Maine has reminded me that I still have a car payment and health insurance to pay for; and hence, the new bar tending career I've embarked upon.
With all the people in need and projects I've seen, I remain committed to giving 100% of all donations I receive directly to projects and people. Having a day job, though, would get in the way of speaking to students and organizations, which is, without a doubt, the part of my life I most enjoy...
I've found that so many young people have an inert desire to do something for others, but often think they have to wait until they're older to make a real difference. Having the chance to speak in schools about my experiences is something I'm truly grateful for.

Today, I received this email that really touched me, and I thought I'd share it with all of you:

Dear Allison,
I want to make a difference in the world like u did. how can i help people in like El Salvador,Mexico, and Columbia? I've always wanted to help whether it's seeing people in the hospital on x mas or helping kids in need. I'm 11 and in 6 grade. How can i help?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Visiting families on the volcano

Originally uploaded by alison.mckellar
This lady has been so hard for me to stop thinking about.... she's 76 and has no access to clean water and has just learned she'll soon be forced to leave her land because a new highway is being constructed to facilitate trade routes to Panama... part of the ongoing saga caused by free trade agreements in El Salvador. Although desperate and withdrawn, she remains feisty and frequently jokes about her own death. She doesn't want us to leave, and embraces each member of the group, offering a dramatic appeal for us to return to spend New Years with her and her family... I am the only one that speaks Spanish in the group, but the woman seems not to have understand that my friends don't understand her, so each time I turn around to talk with someone else, I am called back to translate a message from her. She asks us not to forget her, and I try my best to translate her words into English with the same sense of urgency and sorrow that I hear them in Spanish. She says that her community needs plastic barrels so they can store more water... she and her daughter both agree that this is their greatest concern. The metal barrel they have now is corroded and leaking. $10 the barrel costs.... she doesn't forsee getting a barrel anytime soon... this is one of their long term goals...
Being back home, in Camden, I can't stop thinking about this woman and all the people she, without knowing, speaks on behalf of. I've heard so many stories over the past month, and now it's time to start organizing and figuring out how to best help these people... how I can possibly communicate their message. It's so hard to make people here feel what we all felt speaking with this lady. Still, it's not so complicated... I shouldn't have to think of all kinds of creative strategies to communicate such a simple message: these people don't have food or clean water, and here, we have more than enough of almost everything.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Five years later...

First of all, for all of you who receive these updates via email, it has been brought to my attention that you only receive the text of my post in your email, and not the pictures, so make sure to visit the actual blog site when I mention pictures if you want to see them. Here's the link:

Also, it's often worth looking at the full size version of the pictures by clicking anywhere on the slide show.

El Salvador has been amazing. Last night, we went to a meeting of all the members of the community here, after spending the day walking around San Ramon and visiting houses. It was almost surreal, arriving at some of the same homes I remember visiting five years ago when I first came.... but this time, the sensation was completely distinct. Rather than nervously following behind group leaders and waiting for translations, I was able to translate, organize and prompt discussions. Now, when the people talk about poverty, or the violence of the war and the family members they lost, I am able to ask questions, relate to them, and share experiences from what I've seen in Colombia.
At the meeting, all the community members were given a chance to speak about what our visit means to them. I remember being blown away by the same process five years ago, left speechless by their generosity and graciousness. This time, though, I was able to get up in from of 100 members of the community and tell them how the two weeks I had spent with them five years ago had changed the entire life. I couldn't keep from tearing up as I thanked them for the inspiration that has motivated me to learn Spanish, and delve into humanitarian work with Mexican farmworkers, deafblind people, and Colombians. One on hand, I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction, that my sympathy for and solidarity with the Salvadoran people has been transformed into concrete action, but on the other hand, I find their commitment and compassion to be so immense, that I feel deeply humbled... reminded that I have only brushed the surface of what I hope to contribute to society.

Today has been a day of rest, but also full of activity. We spent the day at the beach with the families were staying with, and had an amazing day, swimming in the ocean of one of the most beautiful beaches we've ever seen. We also got a chance to ask questions about the war during the 80's and hear about all the family and community members assassinated during that time.
Then, on our way home, as seen in the picture to the right, the van we were driving broke down in the middle of the highway. We decided to slowly, and carefully get out, one by one, and dodge through traffic to wait on the side of the road until another truck came along and picked us up. Much to our surprise, rather than calling a tow truck, the best option was considered to be tying the van, by rope, to the truck and pulling it all the way through the city back home.... quite an adventure, needless to say... but we are all safe and sound now.

Also... a quick note about the February Educational Trip planned to Colombia for all of you who have been asking.... Yes, there are still spots available between the 16th and the 23rd. The trip will be a perfect opportunity to learn more about the projects I'll be fund raising for during the next few months, and also to learn about Colombia, and the dynamics of the environment, poverty, and NGOs in developing countries. Please visit for more information, and contact me with any questions.

Monday, December 3, 2007

In El Salvador

Well, I just arrived to El Salvador but have a few minutes before Kevin's flight arrives so I thought I'd take advantage of one of the last opportunities to use the internet that I'll have before getting back to the U.S. on the 10th. I left Barranquilla this morning, wishing, as always that I had more time in Colombia, but also also with an incredible excitement for my arrival to El Salvador. As many of you know, my trip to El Salvador five years ago profoundly changed the course of my life and my sense of purpose and commitment. The last time I was here, I did not speak a single word of Spanish, but vowed to learn the language, and learn as much as I could about poverty, Latin America, inequality, and possibilities for change.
My experiences in Colombia have deepened my understanding of social justice as well as injustice, and I believe these five years have profoundly enriched my perspective and capacity as an agent of social change.
I am excited and grateful for the opportunity to reunite with the same group of people, in the same country, that so remarkably changed the course of my life five years ago. And now I can speak Spanish!

Pictures from Barranquilla

Saturday, December 1, 2007

News from the jungle prisoners of the FARC

Yesterday was a difficult day for people in Colombia. For the first time in years, families of people kidnapped by the FARC received videos and letters from their loved ones. Here, this photo is of Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate with dual citizenship in France and Colombia. She was kidnapped five years ago during a negotiation process with the FARC. The videos and letters are sent as "proof of life", and although families here are happy to see their loved ones alive, everyone is appalled by the conditions in which the people have been kept. In past videos, Ingrid has been strong and outspoken, but in this video she doesn't even lift her head.
For more information read:

Today, I am continuing to visit more social projects in Barranquilla.... I continue to be amazed and humbled by the warmth and generosity of the Colombians I meet and work with, but also, at times I find myself overwhelmed by the human suffering I've seen from hunger, flooding, and only hope I can communicate their message to the outside world, and make some meaningful contribution, however small.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Catching up...

I've been so busy I've had a hard time getting everything posted.... so many pictures and so many stories.....

Here are some pictures from Ibagué, Colombia as well... about four hours from Bogotá

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ciudad Bolivar

These are a few pictures from Ciudad Bolivar, in the south of Bogotá. Bogotá, like Colombia as whole, is marked by extreme inequality. In the north, the city is as modern and wealthy as anywhere in Europe of North America, but the farther south one goes, the poorer it gets. Ciudad Bolivar is about as far south as one can go, and made up largely of groups of displaced people who have arrived to the city seeking refuge from the armed conflict in other parts of the country. Most people in Northern Bogotá never have occasion to venture to the South and the vast majority of the southerners lack the resources to make it to the North, which is quite beautiful and well organized. In Ciudad Bolivar, I am always struck by the juxtaposition of desperate poverty and spectacular, panoramic views.... it's like nothing I've ever seen, and you really have to go there get a sense for it, but I've done my best to capture some of it in photographs... more to come...

Monday, November 26, 2007

We reached our goal!

I'm very excited to announce that, in 3 days, we reached our goal of raising 500 dollars for a new roof and a stove for Gloria and her two girls. Today is my last day in Bogotá before going to Barranquilla, so I am actually going to be able to give them the money before I leave so they can get started right away. Everyone here is so excited and so amazed that we were able to act so quickly and it makes me feel so proud to be part of a community that cares. I've been able to start with the photography project, so the best part of all of this is that we'll be able to see updates from the construction of Gloria's house, through pictures taken by donated cameras. I'm also hoping that, in February, when I come with a group of people, that we'll be able to see the improvements made to the house, and hear the reaction from the two girls. If anyone is interested in joining me on an educational trip to Colombia in February, please visit my website: and click on "educational trips" or email me at

Thanks so much to all that contributed!

Friday, November 23, 2007

It's easy to forget how fortunate we are and how much we can do...

Today, I was able to return to Fundación Formemos where I worked for several months during 2005 and with which I have continued a close relationship for the last two years. The foundation is set up as a boarding home, a school, a small farm, and a community resource for kids that have been displaced by the armed conflict. There, they teach children from ages 4-18, the skills they need to stay in the rural areas and not displace to the city. The stories of some of the kids are so heart wrenching, it's hard to imagine how they get up, go to school, smile, laugh, and play like any other child. Browsing through their files, there are many girls who have been raped, abandoned, or severely malnourished. One boy is at the foundation because his father is in prison for killing his mother in front of him. Many of the children live at the foundation because their parents are either not around or live too far away, but some come from the surrounding rural area and commute to the foundation in bus, or on foot.
The girl in the picture above is named Dianica. Her mother, Gloria, is mentally disabled and was raped when she was 13. She walks several miles each day to accompany her two girls to the foundation, and, not surprisingly, becomes hysterical if a strange man touches them. The house, if you can call it a house, where she and her two daughters live has no electricity, and only recently has had its dirt floor replaced by a slab of cement. The pictures in the slideshow will give you a closer look, but the conditions are really deplorable.
The social workers at the foundation have worked hard to help Gloria improve as a parent, but she is mentally disabled and unable to get a job. She works at the foundation on the weekends in return for food and schooling for the girls. She's hoping to make a room that has a roof and a floor for the two girls who suffer many health problems due to their living conditions. The social workers at the foundation will take care of all the building arrangements if we can get together the money to make a room for the two girls. Gloria already has some bricks, which will bring the cost down, and Fundación Formemos would handle all the money to make sure it is used properly. If I can raise $500 dollars, we can get Gloria a suitable stove for cooking, and a dignified room for the two girls to sleep.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Interesting energy saver from Brazil

I forgot to mention this earlier.... When I got to the hotel in Brazil, in Sao Paolo after missing my connection to Bogotá, I got to the room and it appeared that there was no electricity... none of the lights would turn on.... nothing. I went down to the front desk and communicated, in broken Portuguese/Spanish, my problem....
It turns out that you have to insert your card/room key into this little apparatus in order to activate the electricity which make it impossible to leave the lights on or the television or anything when you leave the room because you obviously take your card with you... to me, this seemed like a really good way to conserve energy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mal de montañas....

Well, all the traveling, dehydration, altitude change finally caught up to me... yesterday morning, I went to visit the migratory bird project I've been coordinating, and was literally moved to tears by the enthusiasm of the kids and the commitment of the professors.... I'll give a more detailed report of that when I upload the photos and feel a little better.
Then, on my way to my next activity I began to feel the first signs of altitude sickness coming on. I had felt a little dizzy that morning with a bit of a headache but thought it would pass.... then, I just proceeded to get so dizzy and nauseated that I had to go home.... it got to the point where I could even keep water down and became so dehydrated that they almost forced me to go to the hospital... luckily someone suggested that I take a couple pills that would make me stop throwing up, and that worked okay.... they made me drink about three gallons of pedialyte and now I feel a little better but still get quite dizzy when I walk around too much. I'm not sure why this happened because I've been to Colombia plenty of times without getting altitude sickness but I think the sudden change of climate from Brazil, and the fact that I was already dehydrated just pushed me over the edge.


Well, my first evening in Bogotá was great.... I'm staying in Alicia O'Campo's house, the same place where I lived two years ago. My friend, Magda, came over to visit while I unpacked and began caught me up on everything going on in her life. Magda and I met while I was working as a translator for Sense International with deafblind people and instantly became friends with the idea that I would teach her English and she would teach me sign language. We were never ale to stick to the lesson plan though, always finding ourselves drawn away into other conversations. We both seem to share a certain compulsive solidarity with those in need.... For any of you that heard my graduation speech for Stetson, Magda is the girl I talked about.
Magda, though, is in a really difficult situation herself... she studied audiology because her passion is teaching deafblind children to communicate, but literally has to make decisions every day about paying for lunch or paying the busfare to get to work. She has made such an incredible difference in so many people's lives and doesn't even have a steady place to live or the guarantee of enough to eat every day.... If she had even half the opportunities that I have, I can only imagine the amazing things she could do... I wish I knew what I could do to help her, but hopefully during this trip, I'll be able to think of a way. On Sunday, she's going to take me out to Ciudad Bolivar and we're going to photograph and film some of the different kids and projects she's working with... my hope is that when I get back the United States I can raise some money for some of the work she's doing.... I've worked with a lot of Non Profits and volunteers, but I can honestly say I very rarely meet people who are so effective in their work and so sincerely selfless in their intentions.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Stuck in Sao Paolo

If everything had gone as planned I would already be in Bogotá, Colombia but I've ended up instead at Monaco Hotel in Sao Paolo, Brazil. I left the convention center in Ouro Preto at 2:30AM in order to make a 6:30 flight from Belo Horizonte to Bogotá with a connection in Sao Paolo but the flight was delayed and I missed the only flight today to Bogotá. Luckily, TAM airlines was very quick to offer me a hotel voucher and transportation to a hotel. I'm quite exhausted because I didn't go to sleep last night, enjoying my last night of the Partners of the Americas convention, and anticipating that I'd sleep on the plane... As much as I would have liked to get to Colombia today, the good news is that my Portuguese language skills are improving rapidly in this "sink or swim" Sao Paolo immersion... It took a while to get my internet connection going which allowed me to use Skype (a free download if anyone wants to talk to me for free... I should be on a little later... my user name is alisonmckellar) to call Maria Consuelo and Orlando to tell them not to pick me up in Colombia.
I'll write more later after I get a bit of rest....

Here are a few more pictures from the Convention:

Monday, November 12, 2007

From Brazil....

I arrived in Brazil yesterday afternoon and spent the day today participating in the Partners of the Americas Leadership Orientation. So far, I haven't gotten to see much of Brazil because we're staying at a very secluded hotel and convention center a little outside the town of Ouro Preto. While I can understand the importance of bonding and interacting with other members of the organization, it is somewhat troubling to me that a group of people, members of a volunteer organization , and , presumably here in order to promote humanitarian initiatives and cross cultural understanding, would choose to isolate ourselves from Brazilian culture... One of the things that has always drawn me to Latin America is that it's usually much more difficult to isolate ourselves in our own privileged worlds.... In Colombia, the displaced families sitting on the side of the road are a constant reminder of the turmoil caused by armed conflict, and the children selling cigarettes in the street keep us from forgetting the need for better education programs.... perhaps I'm being too critical, but it seems to me that it would be valuable for a group of people getting together to discuss social projects and volunteer initiatives to meet in places that more accurately reflect the social reality of the people we hope to help.
In order to get here, most people flew from various countries and states throughout the western hemisphere, flew into one Rio De Janeiro , or another major city, and then took an additional flight to Belo Horizonte, and then paid for transport by van to arrive at the Estralagem das Minas Gerais in Ouro Preto.... part of me can't help but wonder how many meals could have been purchased for malnourished children with the money spent by 100-200 convention attendees.
Maybe throughout the week the value of this location will become more apparent.
That said, I'm having a great time sharing stories and experiences with some truly remarkable people from around the hemisphere. My roommate is from Trinidad and Tobego and there are about 15 other participants in the leadership orientation from Antigua, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colorado, Minnesota, New York, and several places I can't remember. Wednesday, people will start arriving for the full convention, which should have about 200 people.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A few notes of thanks before leaving....

Well, I'm leaving for Brazil today and I have, of course, put packing off until the very last minute, but I wanted to try and say thank you to everyone who has donated their time and/or money to the Global Opportunity Garden during these past six weeks. I'm definitely going to forget people here, but I'll keep updating as I remember and as more people keep helping.

-John Orlando for insisting I speak at the Camden Public Library
-Amanda Thorndike for being one of my most active spokespeople and helping me get my day started off right every morning with a jog and coffee.
-Don Briggs and Briggs and Counsel for all their ongoing support, encouragement and legal assistance.
-Russell Kaye for website support.
-Richard Ogle for advice and help creating a business plan.
-Alex Calabi, my new partner.
-Joe Corrado, website and design adivce.
-Mike Shroeder, future design and marketing.
-Kevin Hanson, who will be volunteering in Colombia and exploring microcredit possibilities.
-My parents who have helped me a million times on all fronts.... especially my dad for all the answered phone calls, last minute copying, and support.

Also, thank you to the following people who donated money or cameras to the the Lives Worth Sharing Photography Project:

-Patrisha McLean
-Christopher Dodd
-Union Senior Citizens
-Pat Medeika
-Nate Chapnick
-Meghan Flynn
-Molly McKellar
-Amy Cornell
-Riley School
-Nohora Estes

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador

I will be out of the country from Saturday, November 10th until Monday, December 10th.... I will be checking email periodically and, between November 18th and December 3rd, I’ll be reachable at 011-57-316-276-0707 which is my cell phone number in Colombia.

I will begin by spending in Brazil for a conference with Partners of the Americas, then I’ll spend two weeks in Barranquilla and Bogotá, Colombia, and then a week in El Salvador with Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Parish before returning to Maine.

I will be updating this page regularly during my trip....

Monday, November 5, 2007

Welcome, Alex Calabi!

One of the most pleasant surprises I have had since starting Global Opportunity Garden was opening my email inbox to find an email from Alex Calabi with the subject line "ready to work". Alex had told me in passing a couple of times that he had some free time and wanted to help me but I figured it would take some reminding on my part. I was definitely wrong... the email read:

... just wanted to remind you that I'm game to start working for you whenever with whatever you've got. I looked all through your website and you certainly know what you're doing, and I'm excited to contribute....

It's been great having Alex to bounce ideas off of and he has some great ones of his own. Alex couldn't have arrived at a better time because things have taken off a lot more quickly than I anticipated, and speaking, responding to emails, inquiries, volunteer interest, and fundraising is beginning to make it impossible for me to do anything like fill out 501(c)3 applications and plan trips and projects in Colombia.

Alex has already been a big help and will be in charge of keeping momentum going while I'm in Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Thank you

I've been so busy getting ready for Brazil, but I wanted to take a minute to thank all the groups that have invited me to speak during the last six weeks. I feel so privileged to be able to come back to Maine and give my time to some of the schools, organizations, and individuals that have done so much for me over the years.

Camden Public Library
Liz Dailey and her Human Rights class, Camden Hills Regional High School
Cindy Allen and AP English, CHRHS
Lynne Taylor's Spanish 4 classes, CHRHS
Noreen Clark, Quarry Hill Activities
Sheila Caldwell, Sophomore English, CHRHS
Dr. Thom Buescher and his Anthropology class
Nohora Estes and the students of Riley School
Union Senior Citizens Group

Six weeks later....

During the last six weeks in Camden, I've had the opportunity to speak to a number of students, organizations, and individuals about my work in Latin America and have been deeply inspired by the encouragement and support I've received in this community and elsewhere.
With the support of many people, I am in the process of starting a non-profit organization called Global Opportunity Garden whose mission is to provide a common ground that connects people in need with people who want to make a difference one way or another. I will be using my broad network of contacts in Colombia and my experience working with all types of projects and Non Governmental Organizations in order to help people find ways of contributing to the world by donating time, money, and/or energy.
It's remarkable to me the number of people who wish to do something to make the world more fair and equitable but simply don't know how to go about it. Last week, a had the great pleasure of giving a presentation to students at Riley School in Rockland. I showed them pictures from my travels in Colombia and El Salvador and spoke about the horrendous living conditions of so many people in the developing world and was astounded by the maturity, intelligence, and eagerness to help that they demonstrated. They listened attentively and asked thoughtful questions about global poverty and Latin American culture.
They asked about everything from environmental policy in Colombia to strategies for reducing hunger in Latin America, but my favorite question came from a girl who couldn't have been older that 11:

"Is there anything kids our age can do to help reduce poverty around the world?"

She seemed honestly excited when I told her "yes" and at the end of the presentation I was swarmed by other students who wanted to learn more.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Life Lessons on Making a Difference: A Journey from Mid-Coast Maine to Bogotá, Colombia

During my first 17 years growing up in Mid-Coast Maine, I seldom thought about how fortunate I was to live here. I knew, in theory at least, that my friends and I were lucky to have enough to eat, access to an excellent education system, and a network of caring community members eager to meet our needs. Still, the concepts of poverty, violence, and hungry children were little more than vague and intangible abstractions, images used by adults to stop the incessant complaining of teenagers. For as long as I can remember, though, the notion of community and public service has been of utmost importance in Camden, and throughout high school, I embraced this value by looking for different ways of giving back to others; but it was not until my final year at CHRHS that I began to recognize the unique opportunity I have been given to make a difference in the lives of others.

When a friend unexpectedly encouraged me to go to El Salvador with her and a group of parishioners from Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church I never imagined the radical shift it would cause in my world view and life purpose. The first day I arrived in El Salvador, traveling by bus from the airport to the village of San Ramon, my perspective of the world quite literally turned upside down. As I watched out the window at the children begging for money in the streets, the plywood and aluminum shacks that stretched to the horizon, the men and women walking the yellow line of chaotic intersections trying to sell whatever the could, I saw an image so distant from my own privileged, sheltered life, that it seemed almost surreal. I could not fathom how such poverty and struggle could exist in a world so full of wealth and opportunity. I am still not sure. The feeling I had in El Salvador came from somewhere beyond, and perhaps, deep within me. I’m not sure whether to call it divine, supernatural, or transcendental, but whatever the adjective, it has guided the last five years of my life.

After traveling more, and visiting other Latin American countries, the struggle of the community of San Ramon in El Salvador has become a symbol of the plight of exploited people everywhere. Today, most of my work is focused in Colombia, because it is there that I seem to have been placed and appear to make the greatest contribution, yet I always feel that I carry a part of El Salvador with me wherever I go.
During the last five years, I have worked with orphans in Uruguay, studied law in Mexican Universities, lived with displaced children in rural Colombia, volunteered with deafblind people in the Capital city of Bogotá, and translated for Mexican Farmworkers in Florida. These experiences have often pushed me far beyond my comfort zone, but I am convinced that giving my time and sharing in the lives of all these people has been far more enriching to my own personal development than to those I have tried to help. I have learned some of my most important life lessons from displaced and orphaned children, and felt my moments of greatest insight and inspiration from listening to deafblind people.

When one stands face to face with even just a tiny portion of the human suffering in the world, the feeling is so overwhelming that it is tempting to suck back into our comfortable worlds, where war, genocide, poverty, and disease are little more than intangible abstractions. Working in one Colombian orphanage, the young girls would often ask me to braid their hair, but I soon came to dread the request because their hair would always fall out in clumps. This happened with most of children who had only recently arrived to foundation due to extreme malnourishment and micronutrient deficiencies. At first, I was overcome by the guilt of the privileged life I have led. Simply for having been born in the United States, to a caring and supportive family, I will never have to worry about the basic physical necessities of life. I will have access to one of the best school systems in the world, while others will dream, not of getting their PhD, but of having clean water and enough to eat, of completing grade school, of living in peace. I have struggled immensely to reconcile the privileges and opportunities I’ve been given, with the sharp inequalities and injustice of so much of the world and many times over the years, I have returned to this quote by C.S. Lewis:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” It is this philosophy, of reaching outside my comfort zone, giving more of myself, and learning as much as possible that brought me to Colombia.

Two years ago, entering my junior year at Stetson University in Florida, I had taken every class on development, poverty, and Latin America offered, and had studied abroad and completed internship programs in Mexico and Uruguay. Still, I began to feel unchallenged and restless. I felt I was falling into the habit of following the academic path laid out for me and everyone else. I feared I would graduate from college with a strong record but a narrow mind. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, to have my ideas challenged, to have things demanded of me that I was unsure I could accomplish. I withdrew from college for a semester and volunteered to live in rural Colombia a little outside of Bogotá, in a home with 100 elementary school-age boys who had been displaced by the armed conflict.
I also, quite unexpectedly, found myself working as an English translator for an organization that provides support to deafblind people, which has become one of the most enriching experiences I have had working in. When a deafblind person is not given the resources needed to learn to communicate, the most common thing is for them to become aggressive. The family, not knowing what to do, and without the available resources to seek help, often ends up abandoning the family member, tying them to pieces of furniture, or forcing them to live sedated all the time.
In the developing world, the marginalization of people as result of economic inequity is stifling, yet the injustice truly pales in comparison when one considers the marginalization that comes from the lack of a communication system and a society that is unaware and lacks the structure to teach and integrate these people. In the United States, we would consider it tragic if one our children were born with such disabilities, and this in a country with all the resources and structure in place to teach the child to communicate. Colombia and Latin America is at the very beginning of developing a social and political culture that respects the rights of disabled people. For example, it has only been in the last year that a law was passed allowing seeing-eye dogs on Bogotá’s metro system called el transmilenio. Seeing eye dogs are a luxury though which are rarely even considered within the organization because of the tremendous costs associated with them. A more realistic strategy considering the scarcity of resources in the region is to teach the people to use a walking stick.

The life experience that these people have to share is something that I have never really come across before. To be deaf and blind, and to find the peace within oneself to achieve happiness and share that with others is something that takes a depth of thought, a determination, and a level of personal reflection that we seldom realize we are capable of. Although sharing my life with people in such desperate situations is often emotional and overwhelming, it is never depressing. When we see the statistics of poverty and misery in different parts of the world, it is easy to feel helpless, but by sharing in the lives of so many individual people, I have become more and more excited every day about the tremendous capacity we all have to make a difference.