Emma Newbery meets Colombia’s returning Youth Ambassadors and finds out how they plan to build change
It’s not often that you get asked for a hug at the end of an interview. And even without the hug, it was hard to maintain any kind of hardened cynical journalist façade in the face of the guileless enthusiasm of this group of young people who’d just returned from their first trip to the USA.
“I saw snow for the first time, it was a dream”, said 16 year old Laura Valentina Rodriguez Oliveras. “Can you believe that in the USA they sell frozen worms for fishing?” asked 15 year old José Ricardo Quintero Gonzalez.
Laura says her homestay was the first time she had seen people separating their rubbish, now she wants to introduce it – first in her home, and then in her whole community.
“This is an opportunity that many people don’t have”, she says. “This is our opportunity to make a change, to connect people, to share ideas.”
These youth ambassadors, who come from seven regions of Colombia and all live in estrato one and two, were wowed by the love and care they found in their host families, as well as meeting people from India, China and other countries in Latin America for the first time. Some found it hard to encounter negative perceptions of their own country, or even meet people who didn’t know where Colombia was.
But José explains that those types of cultural differences were part of the experience. “They changed my life. I changed their lives. We connected a lot.”
Freshly back from their adventures, I watched the kids brainstorming how they would work together on their joint project, before flying back to their respective homes. This year’s theme is the three Rs of Reduce-Reuse-Recycle – and they have plans to work with schools, use social media and work with the Venezuelan Youth Ambassadors.
My cynicism resurfaced briefly as I watched them throw away a whole black bin bag’s worth of polystyrene containers and plastic cutlery after a take away lunch, without even blinking – but then those are the realities of feeding groups of people on the go.
I’m then a little ashamed of my small-mindedness when I get talking to 17 year old Ayxa Chaverra, an ambassador from 2013.
After returning home, she set up a language project in Quibdó that now continues in her absence and teaches English to around 30 kids.
She is currently studying chemistry here in Bogotá with a full scholarship, though she plans to switch to physics. She says she comes from a community with hardly any exposure to science and after she’s got her postgrad, she plans to return and change that. As well as studying and volunteering here, she is writing a novel and learning French in her spare time.
If Ayxa’s experience is anything to go by, this year’s group will go far.
José introduces me to a great new word, which I think he made up: citizen-ism. He was struck by people walking on the right side of the pavement to make it easier to move around, and by the way that people were aware of those around them.
He was so enamoured with everything American that at one point I was concerned his taste of another country had made him almost critical of his own. But then he said, “We spend our whole high school with the same friends. In the USA, lots of people are alone”. He was proud of the way he’d bridged that gap with jokes and hugs – and said that he’d almost cried when he’d been able to share all the good things about his own country with his new friends.
The ambassadors are shepherded by a group of well-thinking adults, such as programme co-ordinator, Jorge Fabian Gonzalez who pointed out, “We call them underprivileged communities, but actually they are lacking in opportunities”.
Carolina, from the Youth Colombian Leaders Foundation, tells me that volunteering is not so common in Colombia, but that it is becoming a lot more popular. She explains that she is motivated both by the joy of receiving a hug, kiss and a thank you, as much as by playing her part in building a better, safer community.
She says, “One thing that touched my heart was one kid that we work with who said: ‘Today I’m not going to rob any more, today I’m going to protect”.
For her, it is about understanding that we are all connected. “If we do it together, we can change a whole community, a whole city, a whole country”.
She continues, “We don’t need to wait for the government, we can do things for ourselves – we don’t need the government to tell us not to throw rubbish on the floor.”
- Youth Colombian Leaders are looking for volunteers in a range of areas – translation, media, campaigns, teaching – anything that floats your boat.
- Playlee is looking for volunteers to teach English to families with low incomes through games.
- The teams are also looking for small Christmas gifts for children from deprived communities.
- Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
These ten Youth Ambassadors were picked from about 600 applicants across the country. Under the tagline ‘A lifetime of service begins with a 3-week exchange’, the Youth Ambassadors programme is sponsored by the US State Department and the US embassy in Bogotá. It is one of several schemes that come under the umbrella of a charity called Partners of the Americas, which aims to connect, serve and change lives by building partnerships that lead to lasting solutions.
Here in Colombia, the coordinating team is made up of US embassy officials, Partners of the Americas, and Youth Colombian Leaders (YCL) which was started by returning Youth Ambassadors participants and has since spread across the country.
YCL co-founder Carolina Cabezas explains that it can be tough to single out just ten applicants. The criteria are quite strict – you have to be between 15 and 17 years old, be an excellent student, be a leader in your community, show volunteer spirit and speak some English. “You may think it is difficult to find, but kids are smart”, she says.
The idea is that by touching the lives of these ten kids, they will not only be inspired by the potential for what they can achieve in their own lives, but also go out and become change-makers in their communities.
The Youth Colombian Leaders Foundation is a network of Youth Ambassadors alumni, connecting projects throughout the country. They have a dizzying array of activities, from annual conventions, each with different themes like climate change or bilingualism, to Playlee, where volunteers use didactic approaches to teach English through games. Playlee is currently operating in Armenia, Barranquilla, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Medellín, Pereira, Popayan and Quibdó.
By Emma Newbery