Sunday, May 18, 2014 will forever be a day etched in the collective memory of Fundación, Magdalena, as a distinct moment of trauma and sorrow. A group of thirty-three children, ages between four and thirteen years old, and a chaperone waited inside a bus on their way to a church activity while the bus driver was outside getting gas. Due to a mechanical failure, the bus erupted into flames ultimately taking the lives of all thirty four people inside. Mourning took place nationwide, international press coverage arrived, and the blame game for the failure played out on front porches, in municipal meetings, and in the courts for the following two years; all of this leaving a devastated community in its wake.
However, as dark as this tragedy was for everyone in Fundación, this day also became a call to action for several community leaders. Jhon Fredy Macias, the manager of the local department store Metamorfosis, and Jose Zarante, a journalist for a local radio station, banded together to form Fundación Los Angeles (‘The Angel’s Foundation’) focused on improving the lives of youth in the community primarily through sports and after school activities in honor of the thirty-three angels that passed away in the accident.
Edilsa Moscote, a fashion designer and director of a private technical school, describes the motivation for creating her organization Fundación el Sol (‘The Sun Foundation’), as stemming from local pride, “I travel all around the country for my work and everywhere I go people say ‘oh yeah, I have heard of Fundación. That’s where the kids burned right?’ I am sick and tired of it – there’s too much good that Fundación has to offer so I wanted to create something else that we could be known for”. Edilsa ultimately created the ‘Sun Foundation’s National Beauty Pageant/Fashion Show’, which is hosted annually in Fundación with models and designers from all throughout Colombia and features several aspects of social work such as food for underprivileged children, park clean-ups/tree plantings, and self-esteem talks.
It is worth highlighting for U.S. readers that trusting and promoting charity, or community led social work, is far from the norm outside the United States; in Colombia specifically, charity work is viewed primarily with the suspicion that the people involved are politicians seeking votes in the next election, and non-profit legal status is rampantly abused for evading taxes. Fredy, Jose, Edilsa, and the people they recruited to help are an exceedingly rare breed in Colombia for putting their hearts and personal money into their projects.
In January of this year Jhon Fredy invited me to learn about a new collaboration project that he was running with Edilsa and her foundation. They were both happy with the progress of their respective foundations’ work through the first couple of years but they wanted to aim higher in making a sustainable, economic impact on Fundación. The project’s broad goal was to create a source of employment for underprivileged women, primarily single mothers, via fashion design and producing clothes to be distributed through Metamorfosis and other retailers that typically sold apparel that was imported or produced elsewhere in Colombia. The Angel’s Foundation and the Sun Foundation would sponsor scholarships for a group of twenty women in the study of fashion design at Edilsa’s institute, EEMO Modas. Moreover, the group, which named itself ‘Entrepreneurial Women of Fundación’, would have the opportunity to make and earn money from these clothing articles during and after their studies.
From the moment I met Edilsa and the ladies benefitting from the project, it was evident that this was a committed group of people. Despite not having regular incomes, the ladies saved what little money they had and ran small fundraisers for buying new sewing machines and raw materials. Moreover, they were committed to furthering their education through this five semester fashion design course despite family and other commitments. The first step I took in supporting this project was helping to form a community savings group, a type of small bank, among the ladies in order to formalize and plan their savings better while offering a conduit to low interest loans among themselves. I also facilitated education sessions on entrepreneurship and financial literacy topics.
Edilsa, the team, and I took a large step in accelerating the project by applying for a Peace Corps/USAID Small-Project Assistance Grant for $2,500USD in order to purchase more machines. In April 2018 we solicited money for seven industrial sewing machines, presented the project, and received the grant approval at the Peace Corps offices in Barranquilla, highlighting the fact that the majority of the total project budget would be given by the community in the form of the scholarships and in-kind volunteer labor.
In May the grant money arrived, we purchased the machines, and production has slowly ramped up to over 120 shirts, primarily to be used as uniforms by regional agro-businesses and government programs, with ~30% of sales going to the ladies as payment for their work. Cloth is by far the largest cost of production. However, with loans from Jhon Fredy, Edilsa, the Olla Milagrosa micro-loan project, and the ladies themselves through their community savings group, they have been able to sustain the project thus far with the goal of becoming independent with a buildup of working capital through profits and savings.
On Saturday, August 11, the two foundations, EEMO Modas, Metamorfosis, and Peace Corps held the official inauguration of the tailor’s workshop with various local leaders and the Director of Peace Corps Colombia in attendance. It was a wonderful event highlighted by tear-jerking words from Edilsa about the power of hard work and never giving up on your dreams. There certainly is more work to be done in order to elevate this project to the point of becoming a source of full-time employment for the benefitting ladies and the new members to be added to the program. However, the progress made thus far, the plan we have collectively committed to, and the addition of another Peace Corps Volunteer to continue in my shoes should all contribute immensely to making this a sustainable, impactful business. To call what I have played just a small part in inspiring simply does not do justice. The people that I have worked with in this process are heroes in every sense and work tirelessly to build a better future born out of a tragedy that happened four years ago.
For more information on this project, please see here for the USAID Peace Corps Small Project Assistance Grant Application (all in English).