Kiwanians from two different continents bring seasonal joy to Colombian children in need.
Story by Jack Brockley
Photos by Joaquin Sarmiento • Archivolatino
On the indigenous reservations in the most remote regions of Colombia, Christmas is a day much like every other day. Toddlers, living in the northeastern peninsula of Guajira, for example, join their families on hours-long walks to find food. At the nation’s southernmost tip, the boys and girls of the Amazonas District play games with objects made of twigs and plants.
December 23, 2017, however, was a Christmas unlike any other. For the first time, these children played with balloons, ate bread, opened presents and met a kindly strange man named Papá Noel. On that day, the Kiwanis Club of Nativos hosted Christmas parties in two locations that are more than 950 miles apart — a massive undertaking for a club only one month old. But that’s exactly why the club formed.
“These are the most forgotten children of Colombian society,” says Olga Eby, a member of the Nativos club as well as the Kiwanis Club of Upper Keys, Key Largo, Florida. “The Nativos club wants to reach the remote places where poverty and lack of support abounds.”
The Nativos club organized in November 2017 with one purpose: serve the nation’s indigenous people. Its roster, comprising Colombian and Florida Kiwanians, also includes members located within the reservation communities. These satellites coordinate Kiwanis activities at the reservations. Such members proved invaluable as on-site resources for planning and conducting the Kiwanis Christmas parties.
Long before the Nativos club officially organized and many, many months before Christmas, Kiwanians across Colombia and abroad, notably in Florida, began collecting gifts, sorting them according to age and gender, packaging them and storing them in readiness for delivery to the reservations. Those who would travel to the parties provisioned tents and hammocks for sleeping arrangements. They hired security guards for their journeys.
Eby recalls her itinerary, which began with a flight into Valledupar to meet other Colombian Kiwanis members. From there, the caravan drove seven hours to Cabo de la Vela. The next day, after another five-hour ride, they arrived at Punta Gallinas to embark on a 45-minute boat ride by sea to the reservation.
The fatigue of long-distance travel and the complications of logistical challenges were well rewarded. On the day of the party, Nativos Kiwanis club President Moises Ramirez recalls the scene in the Amazonas community of Miriti Paraña, where 105 children gathered in a room prepared by the Kiwanians.
“It was decorated with simple things like balloons,” Ramirez says. “They’d never seen balloons before! We wanted to prepare a meal, but something different for them. We made a chicken rice with bread. They had never eaten bread!”
In both locations, the families entertained their visitors with cultural shows, wearing costumes of the regions and dancing. In La Guajira, where 2,000 children were gathered, they and their families welcomed their Kiwanis guests with Christmas carols. One song opened:
“Let the children sing, let them raise their voices.
“Make the world listen
“That they join their voices and reach the sun.
“In them is the truth.”
The performance, with the children holding one another’s hands, remains an enduring, endearing memory for Olga Eby. As does Santa’s arrival.
“With a boat on the seashore and fisherman sitting nearby, Santa came walking along the sand,” she says. “Many children followed him. They didn’t know if they should help him.”
It soon became evident that Santa was carrying packages. Gifts! There were soccer balls, shoes, dolls, diapers, toy cars, hygienic items and clothes, each received with a hug, a smile and a “muchas gracias” or “pala pilichaka nula.”
“The bicycles were cheered the most loudly,” Eby recalls. “They are means of transportation. For some, it is the only way to get to school.”
The next day, Ramirez watched as children continued to show off and share their presents.
“They didn’t care if something were blue or yellow or pink. They were happy. For me, this was a very different Christmas.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.