University fellow program

Rineicha Otero in Colombia – Day 8

Saturday, 8/24/2013

This week has gone by so fast; it’s my last day in Colombia. It has been an awesome opportunity, where I have learned about myself, the Colombian government, culture, nutrition views, entrepreneurship, and where partnerships can begin.

I made my last trip to the University of San Buenaventura. Today, the outreach office offered a gardening workshop to the members of the San Jorge community.

Professor Luis Alberto Gonzalez gave a presentation to the group about the importance of gardening. He demonstrated different techniques used in urban areas, where space and nutrient rich soils are limited.

The professor had been working with his class on growing different crops on raised gardens on campus. The students were all ready to give their presentations and provide details on how to care for the plants that were going to be given to the community members.

At the end of the presentation, the youths were able to select a plant to take home, care for, and use in dishes.

It was a great way to end the day on a subject I am so passionate about. The youths were excited to get home and plant. I was able share information on nutrients that were found in the plants they had selected.  As soon as I walked away, I could hear them sharing the information with other peers who had gotten a different plant.  It was an amazing feeling!

Rineicha Otero in Colombia – Day 6 & 7

Thursday, 8/22/2013

Today I got to visit la Universidad de San Buenaventura Cali, where Ginna received her degree.  I could see Ginna’s pride while she gave me the tour, along with a colleague. The campus was environmentally friendly; it was surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes.

I had the opportunity to present to a group of 30 Agro-Industrial Engineering students. I spoke about the University of Connecticut, its outreach programs, and 4-H. Many students expressed interest in starting 4-H in Colombia and the positive impact it would have on the youth.

I also met with Claudia Gutierrez, the director of the Agro-Industrial Engineering program.  Claudia gave me an introduction to the department and its outreach programs in indigenous areas. She expressed great interest in collaboration with UConn Extension.

Friday, 8/23/2013

I got to go to San Jorge, today, using public transportation. It was very exhilarating; you felt every shift on the transmission of the 15-passenger truck. There was a driver and a spotter; the spotter looked to make sure you were totally off the bus before telling the driver to keep on moving, and the bus never really stopped. I had never jumped off a moving vehicle before—if my mom could only see me now.

Johnnie was waiting for us at the bus stop to give Ginna and me a detailed tour of the community. He showed me where the brick company was working and where they were still excavating. There were many brick companies in the community, which have now gone, since there is limited nutrient rich soil left.

Families have constructed their homes in this community. Most homes are made of bricks with wood roofs, while others are made of wood and tin roofs.

Doña Nelly and Erminia are working with the other women to produce more of the bracelets. They have chosen patterns and colors to work on as a group. For the ladies that need training, they learn by doing and little instruction, I was awestruck with the rapidness with which they worked and got the patterns down.  I enjoyed the conversations I had with the ladies; listening to their stories and seeing their positive attitudes towards life made me have a moment of reflection.

Rineicha Otero in Colombia – Day 5

Wednesday 8/21/2013

Ginna works as mentor to entrepreneur students at ICESI University. Every year ICESI hosts a competition for entrepreneurs to showcase their businesses’ plans. The winner has the opportunity to showcase his or her business at the national level. The presentations I viewed were very impressive; all of the business plans and concepts were exciting and new to Colombia.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Central Cafeteria at ICESI.  A private company is contracted by ICESI University to be in charge of the cafeteria. The company employs 25 men and women who serve more than 600 plates in two shifts. Their workday begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. It was impressive to see the small size of the working space versus the amount of dishes produced.

After being in the kitchen, Ginna and I walked over to the Health Department, where I met with Ruby Casteñano, a nutritionist. Space was used very wisely in this office; there was a section for oral health, nutrition, sexually transmitted disease, and maternity, to name a few.

During this visit, I wanted to focus on the challenges being faced by the country and the types of nutrition education being offered to the public. I learned that there is a 23% rate of obesity in infancy, 10% low birth weight, and 89% of malnutrition. It was interesting to hear about the different initiatives in schools, food safety, and healthy lifestyles.

“El Tren de los Alimentos” (food train), is the tool used to educate the public on the food groups, as well as the amount of foods that should be consumed from each group, and it shows variety.

As we walked to our next destination we spotted a Chontaduro street vender. I have never seen such fruit, so I decided to have a taste. The skin was peeled; salt and honey were added. I did not know what to expect, but it was really good! It was a combination of the texture of sweet potato and yellow potato. I can actually have it as a snack anytime of day.

Rineicha Otero in Colombia – Day 4

Tuesday 8/20/2013

Today I visited Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Cali, where I met with the director of the university’s social responsibility office.  During this meeting, I learned about current programs established to target social issues in different communities throughout Cali.

A two-week program has been created in collaboration with Gonzaga University (Washington) to focus on production of agriculture and to create an association that will promote farming to youth.

Fe y Alegria (Faith and Happiness) was established in Venezuela, but its model has been used for many years in Colombia. It is a learning center dedicated to inclusive learning (meaning people with disabilities and different ethnic groups). Over 6,000 youth have been reached. Programs are geared to visual communication, psychology, sociology, and art in communications, among many.  Fe y Alegria also targets adults who want to learn some technical skills. One of the amazing aspects of this center is the peer-to-peer education. It provides leadership opportunities to members of the community.

Comuna 18 focuses on communication and politics related to students. Visual communication is used to express the personal experience (what they see and feel) of students throughout Cali.

The director had interest in what I did back home. I explained the different programs in extension, including 4-H. She showed great interest in possible collaborations in the future.

After lunch, I met with one of the board members of San Jorge, Johnnie. Johnnie is originally from a city called Neiba, a middle class community that was surrounded by a displaced community. During his time in Neiba, he learned about the challenges faced by these families. Johnnie decided he wanted to influence a positive social impact. At the time, his business was declining and he was looking for different options. Johnnie ended up moving to Cali, to help a friend, and when asked to help the San Jorge community, he did not hesitate. He has become one of the leaders in the community.

Johnnie lives in the community center, where he opens the doors for youth to come throughout the day to read, learn math, and draw. “They absolutely love to draw,” said Johnnie.

Johnnie also stated “I have never been so happy and never laughed as much, as I have in the past three years; we are strong and look out for each other.”

His passion for this community is very evident. His respect, solidarity, and generosity reflect the community’s principles.

Rineicha Otero in Colombia – Day 3

Monday 8/19/2013

The day has finally arrived; I was able to visit the San Jorge community. San Jorge is a community composed of displaced families. The community is comprised of 400 peoples, 125 being youth of diverse ages.  Ginna has been working with this community to empower the women and children economically. There are three lines to Ginna’s project Amarte (Women), Panita (Youth), and Historia (History of Community). Amarte focuses on the economic empowerment of the women in San Jorge. They have been receiving the support to become entrepreneurs of a community artisanal company. So far, they have created bracelets, bags (using recycled materials), and sandals.

During my visit, I was able to meet a group representing the National University of Colombia. The group was composed of students and professors of the school of business, focused in marketing. The marketing team is teaching the women how to use recycled materials for the packaging of the products.

The women are so proud of their work and put a lot of detail, care, and patience into each of the products made. “Quality versus quantity, and great customer service is the goal,” Doña Erminia states. “However, it is very important to understand that we are not looking for riches but for a better way of living”, she says.

San Jorge is such a giving and humble community. At lunchtime, they begin to gather spoons, plates, and cups from all of the houses in the community. They begin a community sancocho. Sancocho is a meat stew with plantains, cilantro, potato, and yucca. Delicious!

Everyone completed a task to make the amazing stew; some chopped cilantro, others peeled potatoes and plantains.  Once done, they mixed them into the large pot already placed on the high flame.

After lunch, it was time to burn some calories. I prepared a team-building workshop for the youth of the community. It was a diverse age group, and once the balloons came out, I had their attention. I went prepared with the expectation that the children would learn from me, but I was so wrong. I learned so much from observing their interactions and listening to their conversations. I asked what they had learned, and they spoke about leadership, communication, and the importance of working together to achieve the task at hand. It was very rewarding to work with such a wonderful group.

I learned so much about this community. The people that make up the community are resilient, unique, rich in culture, warm, and welcoming. This community hopes to be the model for other displaced communities in the country. Sustainability is the mission for the community, and all are working strongly towards accomplishing their hopes.

Rineicha Otero in Colombia – Day 2

Sunday 8/18/2013

I wake to find another gorgeous day in Cali. The clear skies and fresh air made it for a great day to have a walking tour. Ginna and I walk over to a near by lake known as Humedal El Cisne La Babilla Tomasa, where you can sit and feed the ducks or simply enjoy a good book. I watched families take strolls and ride their bicycles on this early Sunday morning. Families rode their bicycles on the road, since some of the roads were closed every Sunday for physical activity.

We later joined our friend, Cesar, in Colseguros, his hometown, where the homes were decorated with marble tiles, smooth stones, and large window openings with railing, instead of glass. The living room area has constant fresh air coming through, rain or shine. His home was decorated with artwork created by his family—once again, echoing the creativity of the Colombian people. The artwork focused on religious interpretations, objects, and nature; they were breathtaking.

At about 1 p.m., we visited Alameda where the “Galleria del Mercado” buzzed with shoppers. There were fruit, vegetable, meat, poultry and flower stands.  As we walked around, vendors would scream out “a su orden,” as you order.  We purchased some ingredients for lunch.

We later walked to “La Loma de la Cruz,” known for its steep hills and beautiful views of the city. La Loma led to San Calletano, where you can see colonial homes. We then moved on to San Antonio, a barrio that has conserved its traditions. The San Antonio Church reflected a typical barrio and Sunday afternoon.

Today I had the opportunity to experience Cali as a local would. I walked and ate my way through the city. I can totally get used to this!

Rineicha Otero – UConn Extension Fellow in Colombia

Saturday 8/17/2013

Rineicha Otero

I finally arrived in beautiful Colombia! After much-anticipation, the visit has come and the expectation of reconnecting to the different cultures around the world has increased even more. As soon as the airplane touched the ground in Bogota the crowed cheered with excitement to be back in their homeland. I remembered the times I returned to my own land of Puerto Rico and the inexplicable excitement that I felt about being back home.

Thinking all I had to do for my connection to Cali was walk out of the jet bridge and find the gate, I soon discovered I had to go through immigration, find my checked bag, recheck the bag at the national airline and take a shuttle to the next gate. I was sweating drops and hoping I didn’t miss the connecting flight. During this journey I met another American who is also in Colombia to complete a fellowship.

Ginna (the Colombian Fellow) met me in Cali’s airport with our driver, which opened our first conversation about Colombia. I learned that Colombians are proud of their culture, heritage, homeland and the diversity found in their country. Arriving during a holiday weekend was quite evident when we headed to the center of Cali, Colombia. The traffic composed of many scooters, motorcycles and shift-stick vehicles. Vehicles ranged from Toyotas to Mercedes.  Nonetheless, the drivers drove as if there weren’t any other cars on the undefined roads. Let’s just say I had a very exciting commute to my final destination.

Cali is known for Salsa and that’s apparent when walking around the city. You can hear music from classic to current artists in the salsa industry. Women in Cali are very elegant; while walking in the shopping plaza I noticed their behavior and outfits. I was amazed as to how their hairstyles, makeup and physique were so perfect but they were so humble and friendly.

I met some of Ginna’s friends during dinner and realized that the passion they demonstrated for helping their own is so immense. It made me feel as if they were of an older age but in reality, they’re of my own generation. It was captivating to see how involved they truly are in seeking positive social change. These young adults fight for the rights of their communities without the support necessary and they continue to be resilient. In Ginna’s group of friends there are three industrial engineers, one psychologist and one publicist. All are focused on the changes needed to improve lifestyles in Cali and not money. Impressive, wouldn’t you say?