It wasn’t long after he escaped a life of poverty in a Colombian slum that Jorge Silva went back to help.
He started about seven years ago, and the relief work he leads has been surprisingly contagious in this community.
The local engineer and a group from Maple Ridge brought money for school supplies and toys for the kids from his old neighbourhood, in a tugurio (slum) in Medellin, the second-largest city in the South American country. They provided for 300 children, and gave them a meal. The Canadians felt good about it, but it was soon obvious their contribution was discouragingly minor in relation to the need.
They saw homes made out of scrounged materials like pallets, corrugated tin, plywood, even canvass. Here a dirt floor, there a kitchen little more than a two-burner hot plate with a couple of pots, using pieces of cardboard for lids. The slum is on an unstable slope, and when it rains some of these makeshift homes are washed out.
“We had scratched the surface,” said Darrell Johnson, a friend of Silva’s and partner in their charity work. “We thought, ‘What can we do to provide them with real hope.’”
From that sentiment has grown a non-profit organization called Seeds of Love and Hope in South America – Sohalis, which sprung from the initial charity work of the Cornerstone Neighbourhood Baptist Church.
A Sohalis fundraiser last month raised $125,000 in one night.
The money will support the activities of a children’s centre the group has built in Medellin.
In March 2008, led by Silva, the group bought two acres of land on the outskirts of the city for $75,000. Then, using the affordable local labour, combined with the work of volunteers from Cornerstone, they built the 2,400-square-foot children’s centre.
Silva can see the difference it is making in the lives of the approximately 1,000 kids who are growing up in a the tugurio.
The kids who attend are fed. There are 115 children who eat a meal there five days a week, more on weekends, and the centre serves more than 40,000 meals each year.
They also receive school supplies, tutoring, and a place where they can do their homework.
The kids get their teeth fixed, and whatever medical attention they need.
They find friendship and even counselling. Many are physically or sexually abused – three of the 14-year-old girls at the centre are pregnant.
“We find the girls don’t like to go home,” said Silva. “They want to stay with us.”
But due to the bureaucracy of running an orphanage, he explains, the children all have to leave at night.
Silva said that children are either orphans, or de-facto orphans due to the neglect of their caregivers.
He understands where they come from. Silva tells his personal story in snippets – he didn’t own a pair of shoes until the age of 12; all of his childhood friends are dead.
Colombia is a wealthy country, and Medellin is an affluent city of some 3.5 million people with modern amenities, such as reliable, clean transit. But there are no social programs. The poor don’t have access to welfare, those without work don’t get unemployment insurance, and there is no old-age pension program.
“You’re on your own.”
Rather than a social safety net, the country has the drug trade, and poor teenage boys in the slums get caught up in it. In Silva’s experience, most are killed before they reach 20.
He survived an upbringing in these harsh environs by the grace of his mother.
“My mom, she kept us really focussed,” he said. “That makes a difference – when someone is supporting you.”
He studied hard, was a brilliant student, and won a university scholarship. That got him out of the tugurio.
Other kids have no hope for such an opportunity. One boy who attends the centre is 14, but has to provide food for his family. He has a job, and works from 2 a.m. to 9 a.m. Then he has to get to school. He’s failing.
“We know there will be a lot of failures,” Silva said.
“We try to teach them and give them tools, so they can move up in life.”
Silva and Johnson are more focused on the successes.
“We have four kids going to university now,” said Silva, as if it were his own kids going off to a brighter future.
Johnson said their success is proof of the difference that the centre and Sohalis are making.
“We consider that a tremendous success, if they can graduate with a degree,” he said. “They could have never done that.”
There are other high points, such as raising $12,000 for an eight-year-old boy from the centre to have surgery on a deformed foot.
There is another boy whose legs are deformed. The rumour in the tugurio is that his mother had tried to abort him, and during pregnancy wore a tight rope around her stomach. He also needs tens of thousands for surgery. The work is all done in Colombia.
“We have good medicine – if you can afford it.”
The formula for success is that people from Maple Ridge go to the slum. They work there, and help. There are photos of them building the centre, cooking meals over a fire, a hairdresser cutting hair, and many with the kids. They form relationships with the people they are helping.
“We have made it very personal,” Silva said. “This is something that’s really grassroots.”
There are 115 people who sponsor children, paying $50 per month. When the children can use a computer at the centre, they get a chance to communicate with their sponsors on Facebook, seeing pictures and sending pictures with Google Translate.
Silva said he visited the centre five times last year, and each time he brought a group of supporters – on one trip there were 32 people.
“We don’t want your money, we’d rather have your heart,” he said.
The plan now is a 7,500-square-foot building on the same site, offering more services. There’s a model in Silva’s home office, and artist’s concepts on the wall. They have a building permit, and construction will begin soon.
To date, the group has raised $800,000 for the poor of Medellin.
“It was always in my heart to do something,” Silva said.
“I have found great people here, who have the desire to do the same.”