People visit Medellín for a lot of different reasons. There are those looking to party hard in Poblado, others keen to relocate or retire in the city, and a plethora of foreigners taking Spanish classes and working at internships.
Then there are the people who want to volunteer.
They research some ideas online, maybe get some suggestions from other travellers, and a lot of them eventually find themselves high above the city in a cable car with an American expat named Marcos, listening to the history of Angeles de Medellín.
What is “Angeles de Medellín”?
When he first arrived in Medellín from New York state, Marcos Kaseman started teaching English, voluntarily, at a local school.
Eventually he moved on to opening up a community center, in a rented building of a barrio of Regalo de Dios, where a number of displaced families live.
Here, local children can spend their afternoons playing games and using computers, teenagers and adults take part in English lessons and everyone meets the ever-revolving group of volunteers who help out at the center.
Anyone of any age can volunteer, for as long or as short a time as they want. Unlike a number of other volunteer projects, Marcos doesn’t stipulate a minimum period of time, although he does ask for a small one-time donation from every volunteer who spends a day at Angeles de Medellín.
A Typical Day at Angeles de Medellín
When new volunteers first meet Marcos at the Acevedo Metro station, they’re looking out for the telltale bright blue shirts that he and regular volunteers always wear.
Once he’s assembled the troops and awaited any stragglers, it’s a trip up in the cable car. The journey takes about 15 minutes, just long enough for Marcos to explain his back story, why he moved to Medellín and what the Angeles project is all about.
Once they jump off the cable car, the group walks up the hill to Marcos’s regular panaderia.
Chairs slide, metal tables move and everyone takes a seat with a styrofoam cup of coffee.
It’s a chance to catch your breath after the steep incline of the hill, to look around at the goings on in the comuna – and to watch Marcos wave hello and exchange greetings with a number of different Colombians who recognize him.
Then it’s a brief ride on a local bus up a bumpy dirt track before the group arrives at a small street, at the end of which is a bright blue building: the headquarters of Angeles de Medellín.
The center doesn’t open until later in the afternoon so it gives Marcos to show the newbies in the group around.
On my first visit, we took a walk with a few of the kids who’d been accidentally on purpose playing games near the blue building exactly when we arrived.
Within moments I was holding the hands of two little ones: after ten minutes I was the resident piggyback-giver.
Looking out over Medellin from the heady heights of Regalo de Dios is like seeing a totally different city.
Up above the tops of the tower blocks watching the clouds roll in, and realizing that the pseudo-countryside lifestyle up here is worlds away from the bustling metropolis down below. And it’s all connected by a cable car!
The group heads back to the center just in time to set up a multitude of plastic tables and chairs, which are swiftly appropriated by the hordes of children streaming in through the door.
Board games and puzzles are requested from a volunteer at a metal cupboard, and in no time there are Lego creations and Jenga contests being undertaken by children and volunteers alike.
Although there are a lot of games that I’ve never seen or heard of before, Marcos has a lot of my old favorites in stock too – including a giant box of Lego that a number of kids go wild over.
Just make sure all the pieces find their way back into the box at the end of the day…
If there are enough Colombians wanting English lessons on any given day, Marcos will set aside a couple of hours to do some teaching.
While Marcos and other volunteers wrote tasks on the board, I sat with a fifteen year old girl and we laughed our way through writing key sentences in English.
The Colombian teenagers were really keen to practice their English, meaning the rest of the afternoon was spent in a confusion of Spanish with the younger kids and English with the older ones.
Why volunteer here?
Part of the reason volunteering with Angeles de Medellín is so much fun is because there’s an immediate regression to childhood, regardless of how old you are.
You can play games and chat in nonsensical Spanish to kids and help out with their education a bit, which always feels good.
But one of the biggest factors I took away from my time at the center was a new appreciation for the city of Medellín and the people who call it home. Spending a few days in Regalo de Dios allowed me to see a side of Medellín that I’d probably never have visited otherwise.
After six years in Regalo de Dios, Marcos has become a permanent fixture in the community and is known by everyone.
The area is poverty stricken and has its fair share of dangers, so the fact that a safe place exists for members of the community to gather is incredible – and it’s all down to him.