Before I came to Angeles de Medellin I was full of doubt and questions about what it really means to give and what it really means to help “the poor.” It’s still very unclear for me, but my experience here definitely gave me food for thought and showed me the hard work really required to make a difference.
Angeles de Medellin
Angeles de Medellin, or Angels of Medellin, is an organization started by Mark Kaseman (aka Marcos) to help the displaced people of Medellin.
The people are displaced as a result of the years-long conflict between the government and the drug cartels/gangs. As people moved have moved back to the city with nothing, shanty towns have developed up in the mountains on the outskirts of the city. In one of these shanty towns, Regalo del Dios (Gift of God), Angeles de Medellin is making its mark.
In short, Angeles de Medellin is a community center. But it’s so much more. It is a safe place where kids can come and play games Mark has provided or that have been donated. Kids can learn computers, typing, English, and even baseball and American football!
It’s not just for kids though. While the kids are in school, Mark teaches the adults computer skills and English as well.
When Mark receives donations, he distributes the need where it can best be used. For example, while I was there he received a big donation of new clothes after the holidays. He generally allowed each child who passed through to take one item of clothing, but for the families in need he provided more.
There are rules to be followed before entering. For example, the kids can’t eat or drink anything inside, no gum, clean hands, no yelling, etc. As such, manners are indirectly being taught and enforced. That said, the kids take pride in the center and truly appreciate what Mark has done for them.
In the picture to the left, you can see the kids sweeping the floor before closing up the center for the day. We didn’t ask them to do this. They did it on their own accord. Amazing. It shows they take pride in the center and have respect.
And that kind of gets at the heart of what Mark is doing. He’s taken a long-term approach at the social problems and poverty in the mountains and is focusing on the kids to help break the cycle.
Every year he has a Christmas party. It started out with 200 kids a few years ago and this past year there were 3000 kids at the Christmas party. Incredible. The kids start talking about it in September because they so look forward to it.
There are always volunteers with Mark. He’s had volunteers from over 20 countries and he says they leave an impact on the kids who would otherwise probably never meet a foreigner. Months after volunteers have left, the kids still ask how someone is doing or what they are up to – and, of course, when they are coming back.
Mark is the kind of person I had hoped to meet when I first started this adventure six months ago. He is inspirational in what he is doing, full of passion and purpose, yet completely realistic and down to earth. He doesn’t speak in pie-in-the-sky language.
Mark was a business owner in New York State, but after a trip to Medellin in 2004 he fell in love with the city and country. A chance encounter led him to question things in life and he started Angeles de Medellin.
As I mentioned in Panama, Jessica, the Peace Corps Volunteer, is very plugged in to her community. Mark’s community is significantly bigger, and the fabric of his life is truly interwoven into the community of Regalo del Dios.
It was just shocking how he knew the stories behind all the families, how much they trust him, and how everyone knew him. Every day we’d walk around and someone I hadn’t seen before would shout out “Good Morning, Mark!” and Mark was always ready to greet them with a smile and friendly banter.
Being interwoven into the community means Mark knows the victims of domestic abuse, the babies having babies, and the lure of the gangs. Yet he stays optimistic and continues focusing on what he’s doing. He isn’t trying to save everyone or anyone – he’s just offering the tools and skills needed to survive and thrive in today’s world. And it’ll stick with some of the kids and they’ll have a better life.
The first day I volunteered with him was the day we gave out all the donated clothes. They kids were very grateful in a way I haven’t seen kids in “rich” countries. I guess the less you have, the more you value things. And these kids were extremely grateful.
At the end of the day we were exhausted. But he turned to me on the way back to the city and said “this is what I do.” But I disagree. Mark is giving the kids and the community in the mountain so much more. It’s intangible and you won’t be able to measure the results in a spreadsheet, but it’s there.
The kids call Mark “El Padre de las Montañas” or “The Father of the Mountains.” Yes, many of the kids are fatherless, but regardless he is a fatherly figure for the whole community. Below are two pictures of Medellin as seen from Regalo del Dios. Mark is preparing these kids to descend the mountain and do something great down there.
Happiness Plunge In Spanish
One day I wore my Happiness Plunge shirt up into the mountains. One of the kids read the link and asked what it was. I told them it was my website and how I’m traveling, volunteering, etc.
They read it several times and thought it sounded funny. So I took a video of it. Below is my site as read in Spanish by four kids up in the mountains
A New Friend – Juan Pablo
Juan Pablo is a 12-year-old visitor to Angeles de Medellin and we seemed to hit it off from the start. He never lost patience even though I often needed him to repeat things so I’d understand his Spanish. He was quiet, well-behaved, well-mannered, and very smart.
He and his friends would ask me daily to play catch with them using a baseball and American football. When we first started throwing the football they were absolutely horrible at it. But literally, within two days, they could throw farther, with more control, and with a spiral.
With each passing day on The Happy Nomad Tour, I care less and less about the things that used to be important to me. This is especially true when it comes to sports. But what a wonderful experience to teach kids something and see the pride in learning and mastering something. And I had that experience with these kids. Once I taught them how to throw the football and how to catch a baseball, they then taught their friends.
In many ways, it’s a microcosm of what Angeles de Medellin is – teaching them, empowering them, and watching ideas and success spread throughout the community.
Juan Pablo is lucky in that he has a nuclear family with a father. Still, he grew attached to me and, to be honest, it made me uncomfortable. Being a nomad means having to move on and I didn’t want him to be too sad when I left.
But on my last day, he invited me to his house to enjoy some fresh, homemade arepas. I think it was his way of saying thanks for teaching him how to play baseball/football. His family is the town baker of arepas and you can see the mill turning corn into masa (flour made of corn) and then turning that masa into arepas in the oven. How cool to see how arepas are made beside the wonderful gesture on Juan Pablo’s part!
Marcos told me under no circumstances should I eat or drink anything up in the mountains. The water is safe to drink in Medellin, but it’s not safe up in the mountains. As always, que caro es ser pobre – how expensive it is to be poor. But that unsafe water is used in food preparation as well.
Well, I had two arepas and I can happily report nothing bad happened. Actually, all that happened was that I’ll never forget Juan Pablo and maybe he’ll remember the gringo who played football with him and told him he could do anything he wanted to in life if he tried hard enough.
For me, it was amazing to visit Mark and see sustainable, positive change in action. It was a big contrast to the one-off giving I had seen in Honduras that I didn’t like. This is a different way of giving that actually empowers instead of creates dependence.
He has inspired me more than he could possibly know, and I endeavor to be as happy and in love with life as he is when I reach his age. His spirit and energy are characteristic of someone half his age and I’m sure the kids help keep him young. And he reminded me a lot of the uncle I have currently battling cancer.
My chance encounter with the photographer from a local newspaper at El Castillo resulted in this newspaper story. I was in the right place at the right time and it resulted in some publicity for what Mark is doing up in the mountains. Hopefully it’ll attract more volunteers and donations.
You can follow what Angeles de Medellin is doing via their facebook page here.