Yellow butterflies always swarmed around Mauricio Babilonia – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s character from One Hundred Years of Solitude.
They represent love and solitude, and made a striking impression on Oscar Cortes, founder of charity “Mariposas Amarillas” in Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest city.
The foundation provides free education to two communities of Santa Marta’s “displazados” (“displaced”): Communities that were displaced from their homes through violence and guerrillas.
Oscar, a former street kid himself, started the foundation in 2005 as he wanted to do something to help those who couldn’t afford education:
“Unfortunately in Colombia, if you reach 16 and don’t have an education, the options for your future are limited. There’s drugs, violence, crime and guerrillas.”
Volunteers: The Lifeblood of Mariposas Amarillas
Mariposas Amarillas receives no aid from local government, but relies on support from volunteers, most of whom are international.
Backpackers help out at one of the two schools during weekdays, and have weekends to explore Santa Marta and its beautiful Caribbean surroundings.
Volunteers run a wide variety of projects, from tuition of English, basic maths, and other subjects to health campaigns (one plucky volunteer managed to get sponsorship from a toothpaste company, and supplied the community with toothpaste and brushes).
Others help with fundraising, including pub quizzes at various hostels in Santa Marta.
I worked with Mariposas Amarillas for several months in 2011, and can honestly say (pardon the cliché) that it was genuinely life changing.
The friendships and relationships I formed made a lasting impression on me, and I still count Oscar as a true friend, despite now living on the other side of the world.
I had travelled around Colombia for a couple of months, and was getting slightly tired of the road and having to start from scratch at every new place I went.
I initially planned on staying in Santa Marta for a couple of weeks to help out, but that soon turned into several months, as I rented an apartment and got to know more of the local community.
Make a Difference
Colombia has a huge amount to offer visitors, and is overwhelmingly generous to its guests. However, as well as offering so much, it still needs so much too.
This is one way that backpackers around Colombia can help out. It’s great if you need to hang up the backpack for a short while, and you can integrate into a community and, dare I say it, really “make a difference.”
About the Author: Rob is a hispanophile and avid Latin America traveller, and blogs about his passion for Spanish at Spanish Obsessed. He and Liz are currently working on a series of Spanish audio lessons for all levels, and would love to hear what you think!