Posted on Mar 26, 2019
At the end of February, a group of Rotarians and friends traveled to Cartagena, Colombia on an international service project.  This trip was the brainchild of Framingham Rotarian Dick Manelis, who works to offer an international service opportunity every year or so.  The first trip, in 2001, was to a small village a few hours south of Veracruz, Mexico.  Service activities have included building homes, renovating a girls' orphanage, staffing remote eye clinics, replacing school ceilings, painting schools, building playgrounds, and handing out well over 1000 stuffed animals at orphanages, hospitals and schools.  They’ve been to every country in Central America except Haiti, and four countries in South America. 
Joining him this year in Colombia was Chris Swain (Framingham), Emilee Twamley (Medway), Susan Hartmere (Woburn), Jenny Whitcomb and Sharon Tardie (Lunenberg), Lunenberg, Brittany Smith (a PHF from Sacramento) and Steve D’Agnostino (Nashoba Valley). 
The trip was a collection of different volunteer experiences, as well as opportunities to learn about and explore the Colombian culture.
On their day of arrival, the group explored Cartegena.  That evening they were welcomed at a joint meeting of the 4 Rotary clubs in the Cartagena area, where awards were given out and banners exchanged.
The first work day involved painting the courtyard of a school.  Like most schools in Central & South America, the heart of this school is the courtyard.  Once school starts, the area is secured, and the children get to assemble and play there.  Parents and staff joined in the painting effort, and the group finished about 4 times as much as they thought they would! 
After cleaning up, the Rotarians walked into town and visited the Chocolate Museum where they enjoyed a wide variety of samples, and then dined at a local restaurant.
Day two allowed time to recover from travel and a busy first day.  Some members of    
the group enjoyed a mud bath at an extinct volcano!  Because the mud is so dense, you can’t sink (even though there is no bottom).  Following the mud bath was a dip in the lagoon and then a lunch of fresh seafood in a small fishing village.
The next day offered a trip to Casa de Nino, a children’s hospital that serves Colombia and Venezuela, where the group handed out stuffed animals that were donated by Rotarians all over District 7910. (Dick organizes the collection, vacuum seals the toys, and carries them on the flights). Sadly, the biggest caseload is children who are victims of sexual assault - about 3,700 cases a year, or 10 a day on average (no photos allowed).   The hospital has been improved and expanded over the years through millions of dollars of Rotary grants, and there are numerous plaques citing this.  In several of the wards, the nurses led applause to show their appreciation of Rotary. Key members of the hospital, including the president, are active Rotarians. 
Rotarians work hard, but also enjoy the culture of places they are visiting.  Dinner was small plates of  mushroom risotto, and an octopus salad (just tasting portions).  Then came something that looked like tater tots. About a two-bite item filled get this......truffles, pate and ants!  That is not a misspelling. Delicious and nutritious! 
The next project was at a school that the local clubs are working on. The travelers’ job was to clear an area and install new plantings. This meant clearing rocks and debris, and then chopping the dirt with a pick axe. Then the planting and watering.  With temperatures high, this was not work for the faint hearted!  Some of the kids from the afternoon session, knowing we would be there, came early to help the group "make our school pretty". 
That evening there was a special Rotary meeting just so the local clubs could say "thank you". Homemade Colombian food was featured, and the visitors used the opportunity to deliver clinic supplies.
Day four had a late pickup time, so many of members of the group took the opportunity to visit the fort in the old section of Cartagena (recognizable to anyone who saw the movie “Romancing the Stone”).  They climbed inclines and went through tunnels for what seemed a couple of hours.
The afternoon was more informative than work, with a visit to a small village where there is a special education program. It is a very impressive literacy program that is deserving of Rotary grant money, and is supported by the active participation of an Interact Club as well as Rotary.   It is a pilot program for providing a pioneering holistic, 21st-century approach to educating poor children to think and act critically and collaboratively. The group presented them with “a ton of coloring books, crayons and school supplies”.
The last work day was one of the best! The group was picked up by several Rotaractors to work on their project.  It is in a village outside of Cartagena that has several homes where the Rotoaractors construct container gardens. Using old pallets, raised beds are constructed.  Black plastic is cut and placed to shape in the container, and tacked in. Then holes are punched into the plastic (for drainage), and the container is filled with soil and drenched until water comes out the holes in the bottom. Seeds are then planted and watered.  The group planted coriander, cilantro, arugula and kale.  The resulting products are ultimately sold to area restaurants. 
Finally, after an exhausting but rewarding week the group traveled back home.  Thank you to all the people who participated in this effort, either by traveling, hosting, translating or keeping the home fires burning while they were away.  Rotary is a team sport, and none of our work would happen without the collaboration and support of our family, friends and fellow Rotarians.
Interested in learning more about these international service trips?  Dick Manelis would be happy to visit your club and explain how it works and how any club can support these trip?  All club funds support the project worked on for the local club.  Participants pay their own way.  To arrange a presentation, or receive information about futur trips, email Dick by clicking HERE
For  photos, and a video, of the trip please see below.
Painting at a school, Day 1
Steve D'Agostino & Friends
Emilee painting
Chris helping to paint
A plaque at the Casa de Nino children's hospital.
Jenny giving a toy to her new friend.
Brittany visiting patients and handing out toys.
Courtyard of Casa de Nino
Sharon digging deep to help others.
Steve with his sledgehammer!
Children thanking Susan for "making their school pretty"
Building raised beds
The team after building the raised beds.
Time to head home...