In travelling to Medellín after 50 years, there is much emotion in rediscovering a place where for two years I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Castilla, a hillside barrio with little water or light, no school and thousands of displaced people. At first I wondered if I could make it a year; after a year I didn’t want to leave. Upon returning to the U.S. in the 60’s, I experienced culture shock; in February 2015, I was once again suffering culture shock at the changes in Medellín. Poor hillside barrios now have two and three-story brick buildings, paved steep streets into the barrio, water and power. It is an ideal place for skateboards. Now there are motor scooters and motorcycles everywhere, many driven by women. Parents pick up their kids from school and wear helmets for safety.
Cars, buses, cycles and scooters create traffic jams. But Medellín has dedicated bus lanes, surface metro systems, bridges over urban infrastructure, and gondola cars to lift residents and tourists to the top of their steep neighborhood hills. I am in Medellín to support my Peace Corps companion, Maureen Orth, in celebration of the 10th Anniversary of her rural schools’ success through her Foundation Marina Orth. This school is community-built for kids who would not have had the opportunity to learn to read or write, yet with Maureen’s help they have immersed themselves also in English and technology. She has helped the school obtain a laptop for each student, which they learn to repair. Many of her rural students are doing very well, competing with other schools in robotics competition. Maureen’s foundation is supported by Colombian and American colleagues, as well as corporate foundations. Graduate students from the U.S. come to teach. They are smart, fluent in Spanish, and enjoy the cross-cultural teaching and living experience. Some are former PCVs who enjoy the City of Eternal Spring. Americans are even thinking of retiring in the area since the historical violence is under control. Medellín is an exciting city with superb medical facilities and a research center for kidney, heart and trachea transplants. Its Medical School is associated with Harvard’s. There are cultural events, great restaurants, and an international airport. Medellín’s coffee country will be the next Tuscany. Maureen is preparing her students for tourism and other jobs in an expanding economy. Her Foundation is partnering with Colombian foundations to start schools in an area called the Choco, just below Panama. It is dense jungle, with very poor Afro-Colombianos and Indian tribes residing on rich land. The Choco has lots of rivers (360 inches of rain a year), gold and other mineral resources … but no roads. There are hundreds of miles of an untouched Pacific coastline, all waiting to be developed responsibly for eco-tourism.
The tours of Maureen’s school and the new ones that have asked her to partner brought tears of joy to my eyes when seeing the awards and accolades she and her team received from the community. The kids range from preschool to high school, all poor, so neat in their uniforms, so practiced in their English and their performances.
Maureen and I share a long history: two 20-somethings in 1963, after President Kennedy’s death, apply to the Peace Corps and train in Urban CD at Columbia U’s School of Social Work in NYC. We meet on a plane in San Francisco, one from Carmel and Maureen from Piedmont, with common friends. We both end up assigned to Medellín, Maureen to a barrio on the south edge of town and me to a large barrio in the north end. She lived in an upstairs apartment from the family below. I lived with a partner, Scott Hutton, in a small house with no windows but a raised cement patio in the back, giving us a million-dollar view of the Aburra Valley. Maureen was invited to help build a school, and through one brick at a time with campesinos doing all the work by hand, that four-room school got built. Today, it is a multi-story school for elementary students in the morning, middle school in the afternoon. Each child’s computer cost US $248, a real bargain. Maureen needs hundreds more, so check out her website at www.fundaorth.org.
A take-away thought from my return to Medellín: Maureen’s schools are the least costly, best managed, community-involved project in the world. I want to expand UC Santa Cruz’s school garden project training center to help it. And, I want to convince Gov. Jerry Brown that California and Colombia, particularly Antioquia (the state), and Medellín, could start a partnership to send trained, retired people to live and do on-the-job training there, sharing ideas and upgrading their skills while enjoying crosscultural living in a wonderful country.