Founded in 2005, Fundacion La Vecina ('The Neighbour Foundation' in Spanish) is an indirect result of a trip to Cartagena by Dutch philanthropic businesswoman Nathalie Rietman in the late 90s.
On that trip she witnessed high volumes of street kids abandoned with no one to watch over them, let alone provide them with an education and a chance for a better life.
So she decided to do something about it - taking the leap from her Dutch homeland and setting up camp in Cartagena. Not one to let obstacles get in the way, Nathalie quickly mastered Spanish and set about scouring Cartagena's city limits for a suitable spot to launch the school.
She settled on La Boquilla, one of the city's more run-down barrios to the north. Finding a beachside location for the school based centrally in the barrio's make-shift iron shacks and cramped sandy alleyways, Nathalie admits the first year or two were a major challenge.
"The locals didn't know what to make of the project initially" she grins, a cheerful determination and resilience evident on her face. But since the school's opening in 2007 - after two long years of physical and administrative graft - Nathalie has won favour with the local community who now openly support the school and the value it adds to the local children and the community.
"It shocked me how kids weren't being made to go to school and worse still, how so many families couldn't afford the disproportionately high fees needed to send their children to schools in and around Cartagena."
As such, Nathalie and her Dutch team made sure the entrance fees at La Vecina were demonstrably lower than your average Cartagena school, but with an emphasis on fun, experienced teachers and volunteers*, healthy hot lunches of vegetables and high quality meat and loads of play on the beach nearby. Football, running, athletics and dance all feature on the school's curriculum.
As a result the happy, healthy smiles of the 80 strong students are proof that Nathalie's action packed school calendar is a popular formula. Combined with plenty of art workshops (where students exhibit paintings for visitors to buy), a sizeable school library and constant laughter peeling through the hallways, Fundacion La Vecina is a refreshing solution to alleviate the poverty that's affected Cartagena's La Boquilla for decades.
"It's so rewarding when kids ask me to teach them English, or declare they want to be a pilot, or even inform me they've taught their parents to brush their teeth after meals," Nathalie enthuses. "To know we're inspiring these children to study hard, improve themselves and make successes of their lives. Well, that's why I like getting up in the morning."
The foundation is always looking for international volunteers visiting Colombia to help teach the kids English, lead art classes or help coordinate sports, dance or other classes on the school's curriculum.
Volunteers must be available for at least 3 months continuously, for at least 15 hours per week. English and Spanish bi-lingual skills are also a must, as is experience and an enthusiasm for kids! Living costs not provided, but the rewards of helping out at the foundation are vast.
For more info visit the Fundacion at http://www.fundacionlavecina.com/
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