Volunteer Story Shoena Payne
Though the overall security situation in Colombia has improved considerably in recent years, the threat of terrorism is still high in many parts of the country."
Reading the official line on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website the day before leaving made me anxious. Too late. My leave, flights and accommodation were all booked - no going back now. And anyway, why should something like the risk of being mugged, or even kidnapped by guerrillas, stop me from fulfilling a long held dream to volunteer with kids in Colombia?
Usually a confident traveller, my nerves really kicked in when I arrived at Medellín airport, alone and at night. The fact that heavily armed police lined the road into the city hardly helped.
However, walking around the city the following day, my fears quickly evaporated, and I stopped clutching my bag after about two minutes. The locals were disarmingly open and friendly, and keen to explain that the vast majority of Colombians are law abiding and respectable. Strangers in the street, unused to seeing many Europeans, asked what my friends and family thought about me coming to Colombia, and what their impression of Colombia was. They're painfully aware of their bad press.
Now comfortable and familiar with my surroundings, I started work at the day centres. Colombian pupils go to school either in the morning or in the afternoon, leaving disadvantaged children vulnerable for half the day with no one to care for them. Living with their families in cramped, run down accommodation, these children are also exposed to the temptations and dangers of the city streets. Local university students wanted to address this issue, and set up two day centres.
The day centres, located in the heart of the city and high up the mountainside, provide a safe haven and are run by dedicated and caring co-ordinators who organise activities and teach kids about respect, hygiene and the value of education. They are supported by volunteer psychologists, nurses and social workers, as well as supermarkets, which provide enough food to ensure that each child has at least one square meal a day.
With the day centres closed for holidays, I spent Easter week at an orphanage, which has been set up by a local lady. Usually packed to the brim with 70 youngsters, the majority had returned home to their families (there are few actual orphans, rather children whose parents are unable, or unwilling, to look after them). We looked after the 15 or so who remained, taking them on day trips and running themed sessions and workshops.
Overseas volunteers play an important role in widening the kids' horizons, raising their awareness of the world beyond the Andes by giving them an insight into different cultures, customs and traditions. As well as teaching English and organising sports and crafts, we explained how we celebrate Easter in Europe, and organised egg painting and an egg hunt, much to the amusement of the locals.
Colombia was one of the most incredible countries I have visited. Beautiful colonial cities, colourful buses, fruit stalls everywhere you look and impressive countryside make for a varied and fascinating experience. But it was the people who made the most impact.
And hopefully my tales of Loch Ness Monsters, horned, hairy cows and skirt wearing men still linger...and those Ceilidh dances haven't quite been forgotten!