As you fly into Rafael Nunez International Airport in Cartagena, Colombia, it’s hard to miss the narrow streets and ramshackle dwellings of the slum located just outside its boundaries. This is one of Cartagena’s poorest areas. Most homes do not have electricity or running water. Unemployment is rampant and people are tightly packed. Chickens and pigs run loose picking through garbage for bits of food. Seasonal rains create cascades of water, trash, and waste that get deposited in the lowest areas of the slum creating a giant Petri dish the Center for Disease Control would be proud to have cultivated.
The Ricalias were hoping to improve their lives, so they moved into the slum. Yes, you read that correctly. The couple had been living a hand to mouth existence in the countryside for several years and felt their only hope for a better life would be in the worst neighborhood in Cartagena. They entered the city as invisible citizens in their country. No birth certificates, driver licenses, or other identification. No income, no jobs, and no prospects. Their comings and goings went unnoticed. Like the passing of Eleanor Rigby, I anticipate no one except the priest would have attended their funerals. To believe their lives would get better in that slum required a level of hope that cannot be measured on my optimism meter.
Unbeknownst to the Ricalias, their unfounded optimism was about to yield results. A foundation working with the city and local businesses had established an office and a community center in the slum. For their part, Cartagena agreed to grade the streets and put in a drainage system to handle the torrents of the rainy seasons. The foundation created a “pay as you go” program that offered services to neighborhood residents who participated in workshops on basic life skills and they were given paint, shingles, and other materials to repair their homes. A pre-school was established and a small tuition fee entitled children to instruction and two healthy meals each day. One of the corporate partners bought six industrial sewing machines and residents were taught how to sew uniforms for the staff of local hotels. Residents were provided with information on how to turn their backyards into gardens and taught how to sell their produce to local grocers and restaurants. 15% of every sale went back to the foundation to cover operating costs and fund future programs. The underpinning of the foundation’s work was to demonstrate that everyone has value and can be a contributor. They offered resources, not handouts.
The foundation and its resources were a godsend for the Ricalias. They, in turn, were great ambassadors for the program. Leaders at foundation expressed their appreciation by presenting the Ricalias with a vacant house near the edge of the community. It was shelter and little else. When the couple told the foundation leaders that one of the things they most wanted was to solemnize their marriage, their hopes were realized. In lieu of wedding presents, foundation workers and residents cleaned, repaired, and repainted the Ricalia’s home and added a new fence for good measure.
In short order, Mrs. Ricalia set about converting her backyard to a series of raised beds for herbs and vegetables. With earnings from the sale of her produce, she constructed a pen and bought three pigs. While most other livestock owners let their pigs run free to find food where they could, Mrs. Ricalia walked to a neighborhood school each day and returned with two buckets of scraps for her hogs.
On the day I visited, Mrs. Ricalia was tending her garden. The plants appeared to be healthy and weed-free. The whole area was very well organized and even the pigsty was clean, which didn’t seem to bother its occupants. After showing my translator and me around the garden, Mrs. Ricalia invited us into her home. I expected to see a place with only essential furnishings and that’s what I found. What I didn’t expect was how clean everything was. Even with the tropical climate and pigpen close by, the home smelled fresh. When I told her how impressed I was with all she and her husband had done with their property and how nice everything looked, Mrs. Ricalia paused and said, “You can’t always control your financial situation, but cleanliness is a choice.” For me, that was a profound observation from someone who has an advanced degree from life’s school of hard knocks.
As I stepped through her front gate and looked back, the Ricalia home, with its freshly painted fence, appeared as a tidy island in a sea of weeds, trash, and run down homes. A place created by hope when all evidence pointed to hopelessness. A tutorial in how to see possibility when all others see is despair and the product of a dogged determinism to hold on to your abundance mentality when your day is filled with shortages.
My travels in the U.S. and abroad have taken me to many beautiful places and put me in contact with fascinating people. Some stories were heart rending and a number were inspiring. Mrs. Ricalia’s story is both and it serves as a frequent reminder that I lead a blessed existence, I need to be mindful before I complain, and if I ever hope to walk on water, I’ll have to get out of the boat.