Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth on community building in Colombia
By Maureen Orth
My decision to join the Peace Corps at age 20, right off the Berkeley campus, and to go to a place I had never heard of — Medellin, Colombia, gave me the best education I ever got.
In those pre-cocaine days, Medellin was merely known as the “City of Eternal Spring”. One Sunday a dramatic posse of five men on horseback dressed in black gaucho hats and traditional wool ruanas galloped up to my door in the barrio. They were leading an extra horse for me. We rode straight up into the mountains for about three miles to meet an isolated community of campesinos in a small community called Aguas Frias. The people were desperate for a school.
Several Sundays later we began with a community work day and formed a human chain to throw rocks down the mountainside to clear the land. A year later there was a brick building that on dedication day bore a crude hand-lettered sign that was a happy surprise to me: Escuela Marina Orth. We had two classrooms and 35 students.
There were many years that I could not visit Medellin but the people there never forgot. In my first visit back in many years, in 1995, a second story had been added to the school and the community showered me not only with lilies and birds of paradise and lemons from their gardens but a five hour homage of songs, poetry, dances, a serenade, a lunch and a mass!
They did it again in 2004 when then- Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno stopped by the ceremony. The next day I was summoned into the new secretary of education’s office. “Marina,” the secretary told me, “these kids cannot hope to compete in the 21st century without knowing technology and English. Will you please help us make your school the first public bi-lingual school?
I had no idea how I would achieve this request for help, but I was an investigative reporter, after all. And the biggest lesson I had learned in the Peace Corps was that God does not discriminate when he hands out brains, guts or the ability to have fun. It’s only the opportunities that are restricted.
When we started, the teachers did not even know how to use email. But through public private partnerships, Intel and Chevron gave me my first donations of computers and Seagate Technology gave restored models; later General Mills and Proctor and Gamble, HP and Coca-Cola also helped, and thanks to Motorola, my old Peace Corps site became the first WIFI village in Colombia and the first to have families on Facebook!
Today, in our five schools, my greatest thrill is to see the smiles and the potential unleashed in all these beautiful children as they pick up their new computers and start learning. When we didn’t have the funds to repair and maintain our computers, we taught the kids how to take them apart and put them back together from age 7, and the most proficient kids how to do the repair and maintenance themselves. Now we have a growing consultancy business to set up platforms for other schools and entities that want to learn with computers.
My foundation work has not only been a way to answer the question “What am I here for?” But it’s also a path to follow — in my mind, and in my soul, and in my heart — away from the darkness of the subject matter that I am so often assigned to cover in journalism — as well as the darkness of my own personal losses– toward the light of those shining little faces that I get to see in their joy of learning. To all the boomers out there, I’d say that this kind of work is the most fun you can have at a certain age — with or without your clothes on!
Maureen Orth was awarded the 2015 McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award from Refugees International for her work with the Marina Orth Foundation, which she founded in 2005. Ms. Orth is a Washington-based journalist and special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine.