Mike and I crouched in the center aisle of the tiny bus, hanging on to the handrails as tightly as we could as we bounced up the washed out road and up the side of the valley. Earlier, Marcos was telling us about how some members of the local drug cartel had wanted to kill him several years ago. He pointed out their homes from the windows of the bus as we passed. “They used to extort the bus drivers,” he said. “If the drivers didn’t pay the extortion fee, they’d blow up the bus. They only blew up a couple of busses before everyone paid.”
Well that’s unsettling. Mike and I exchanged glances. “Oh no, you’re totally safe now,” Marcos smiled, “It’s all different now.” Regardless of safe, we were certainly famous. During one part of the ride, when the bus was overfilled, Marcos had been riding in the doorway, hanging on to a rail. Children in the streets hopped up and down and waved as we passed. Marcos clearly had a following.
So what in the hell were we doing? A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity to go volunteer at Angeles de Medellín, a community center in Regalo del Dios, a tiny town comprised of some of Medellín’s poorest people. Compared to the community centers I have known in the US, the building seems pretty bare-bones. But, the building isn’t the magical part. That would be Marcos Kaseman, the crazy, passionate, and delightful expat gringo who is making the whole thing happen.
Marcos fell in love with Colombia when he and his son visited nearly a decade ago. And back then, with it’s ranking of being the #1 most dangerous country on Earth, Colombia had a face only a mother — and apparently Marcos — could love. Despite the violence, Marcos decided to move here. Having been a coach in the US, his role as a teacher here in Medellín was a natural fit. And after a few years, he thought there was more he could be doing for the children and the communities here so he created his own community center. And that’s where our rickety bus was headed.
When we arrived at the center, Marcos unchained the doors, and then we volunteers began to set up the tables. Some adults and older kids would be arriving soon for English lessons. I partnered with another volunteer to teach a couple of young women while Mike flew solo, delivering English knowledge as best as he could. We’ve taken a number of Spanish classes and lessons at this point, so being on the other side is a whole new thing for us. Try explaining to someone whose language never requires a subject pronoun (ex: I, He, She, We…) that 1) these are all subject pronouns and 2) you have to use them or no one will understand what you’re talking about. It’s a little harder than I had imagined.
After lessons were over, we only had a few minutes to eat our peanut butter and banana sandwiches (a travel food classic) before the younger children all arrived to play for the rest of the afternoon. Play meant jumping rope, playing catch, spinning hula hoops, putting together puzzles, and for us, being totally dominated by 5-year-olds in memory games.
It was a high-energy afternoon, but when it was time to clean up, all of the kids snapped to attention and quickly put their toys and games away, then stacked the tables and chairs before getting in line for a cookie. This whole thing went off without a hitch — like clockwork. Marcos clearly knows how to manage a building full of children.
After all of the children were gone, we volunteers stopped at a doughnut stand on our way down to catch the bus home again. It was a lovely day and if we can find time to do it again before we leave, we sure will.
Marcos is doing some good work and the community seems to love him for it. Seeing all of these kids playing so happily in a safe place was really wonderful and it is a great reminder that one person can make a big difference in lots of lives.
You can read more about the center here: http://angelesdemedellin.blogspot.com