Ferley didn’t think he’d ever get to go to school. His thin frame is shrunken by congenital rickets, making him look closer to six than to his eleven years. His mother Clarisa said, “I was afraid that if I let him go to school, the other kids would call him names and make fun of him, and that he would be a burden on the teachers.” Clarisa Rentería and her five children are refugees who fled the violence of Colombia’s civil conflict, eventually settling in Quibdó, a western Colombian city. She explains, “I arrived here in 1999. It was heartbreaking to lose it all and be left with nothing.” The family struggled to survive and could not afford a wheelchair for Ferley. Without a wheelchair, Ferley could not get around the rocky streets.
However, Ferley didn’t want to stay confined to the house. He begged to go to school and longingly studied his siblings’ homework. Pies Descalzos visited Ferley’s house and talked to his mother, convincing her that her son would be well taken care of. When Clarisa saw the desire and determination in her son’s eyes, she agreed. Pies Descalzos bought Ferley a wheelchair and he enrolled in the Pies Descalzos School.
Four years later, Ferley is a happy, popular student who always has a smile on his face. He and his best friend Bryan are inseparable and they dream of continuing their studies. “I like to go to school because I learn a lot and because I like to share with my friends.” Ferley loves math, social science, reading and dreams of becoming a professional singer of Vallenato, a Colombian folk music style.
Ferley with Shakira
To teacher Absalón Asprilla Gómez, Ferley is a special student. “When I face something difficult, I don’t complain, instead, I think about his situation. He is one of the best students in the school, with a permanent smile, despite it all. For me, this is very meaningful. It has helped me grow a lot as a person.”
Pies Descalzos hasn’t just changed Ferley’s life; it has changed his whole family. Clarisa earns extra money for her family by preparing breakfast and lunch for the Pies Descalzos Foundation school as part of the “If I eat better, I will learn more” program. “We prepare lunch for the students and we help with the breakfast, so that they have food and they can study with full stomachs,” says Clarisa proudly. The meals they prepare are supervised by a nutritionist and made possible through Pies Descalzos and the Instituto Colombian Bienestar Familiar. This program helps make sure that the malnutrition that affected Ferley doesn’t affect other children.
The Barefoot Foundation helps hundreds of families like Clarisa and Ferley’s. The Pies Descalzos schools are open to everyone and serve as a center for community development. Parents, neighbors and grandparents learn sewing, artisan skills and literacy while teens engage in micro-businesses, sports leagues, and leadership development activities. This neighborhood is changing and growing thanks to the community, and the Barefoot Foundation and the Pies Descalzos Foundation.
The Story of El Minuto de Dios School, Altos de Cazucá
Elementary school teacher Consuelo Pachón barely recognizes her school, El Minuto de Dios, anymore. She teaches in Soacha an area south of Bogotá that was once a booming mining town. Today, its hills have been stripped of their natural resources, the mines left behind environmental damage and the jobs disappeared. The vacuum left by the mines has been filled with desperately poor people and internal refugees from Colombia’s civil conflict. Thousands flood in each year with nothing but their lives. Fifty-three percent are younger than 14 years old and many children have missed years of school while fleeing.
Before Pies Descalzos Foundation, El Minuto de Dios was in shambles. “At the start it was very hard. The school room walls were made of spare wood, the same kind they use to make fruit crates. The stairs were carved out of mud and, whenever it rained, the children slipped and fell. There weren’t bathrooms, just a latrine. “But now, the conditions have changed tremendously” she commented, raising her eyes to the ceiling in thanks.
The Pies Descalzos Foundation rebuilt the school; they installed sturdy buildings, libraries, computer rooms and safe bathrooms. Pies Descalzos, in alliance with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the government, and Secretary of Education of Soacha, the Minuto de Dios University and the Educational Alliance, support two schools in Altos de Cazucá. In each, they provide nutritious meals, extra programs for troubled kids, recreational and leadership programs, while supporting parent cooperative that help families leave poverty. The community and the children have a safe, supported place to develop. As Ana, one of the school’s parents said “they now have the possibility to imagine a tomorrow filled with human and professional possibilities in this society.”
Jhonathan wants to clean up Altos de Cazucá. The 17 year old environmental biology major at Jorge Tadeo Lozano University knows only too well the pollution that plagues this poor area south of Bogotá. He moved to Altos de Cazucá as a baby with his mother and siblings. The family struggled to eke out a living, but his mother wanted more for her children so she enrolled them in the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Institute, one of the Pies Descalzos schools.
“The Foundation radically changed my life,” says Jhonathan. “It taught me to relate to other people and that material things aren’t the only things that count. It helped me realize what my life’s project should be.” With Pies Descalzos’ support, Jhonathan scored among the highest students in the country on the high school exit exams. He and other top Pies Descalzos students received university scholarships from Pies Descalzos to pursue their dreams.
“The University is an enormous responsibility, not only for myself and my family, but to help the rest of my community,” says Jhonathan. He and another student, Maicol, are using their education to create a recycling business that will provide much needed jobs and help clean up the local environment. Jhonathan also returns to his old neighborhood to tutor kids in school and help them imagine their true potential. “We use games to make learning fun and to expand their interest in school” says Jhonathan.
He loves learning and is eager to continue studying. He would like to pursue a master’s degree in systems engineering and learn French and Portuguese. But, no matter how far he goes, he will never forget the Pies Descalzos Foundation, the Barefoot Foundation and the lessons they taught him about service and believing in his own potential.