It seems paradoxical that uncertainty is one of life’s certainties. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our beliefs and attitudes in a very short time. While many of us are scared about our health and getting our life back to normal, I’ve realized that in my home country, Colombia, people are more terrified to die from hunger than from the virus.
Last week, I went with my parents to buy groceries at the supermarket in Bogotá. There were families walking down the streets, holding their children, while mothers screamed in anguish, “Please! Buy us a meal. Have mercy on us. We have nothing!” The hopelessness I saw in their teary eyes was a poignant reminder of the reality my country is living. Much of the population lives in poverty, and this only compounds the effects of COVID-19.
My experiences served as an impetus for me to take action. For this reason, the Colombian community at Penn and other schools wanted to give back to our country and respond to this issue by joining COL5VID, a coalition of Colombian students and young professionals seeking to serve vulnerable communities in our home country by providing aid in the forms of food and essential supplies.
Most recently, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, Colombian President Ivan Duque announced in March a mandatory quarantine that forced Colombian citizens to stay at home for two months. This has forced small businesses to close and employers to reduce wages. Today, several Colombians live under the minimum wage, which is about $230 USD a month. Those who have informal employment, around 48% of the workers in Colombia, now lack a source of income.
The government has worked diligently to provide small subsidies to workers in the country, but in the long-run, these families will no longer be able to support their household. Juan Carlos Saldarriaga, the mayor of Soacha, a small municipality in the country’s capital of Bogotá, affirmed that “the fear is that more people may starve to death than die from the coronavirus” — a fear that is growing around the country.
This uncertainty and fear that is increasingly growing among the Colombian population is what motivated me to join the COL5VID initiative, and work towards its goal of creating a bank for both monetary and in-kind resources. COL5VID’s strategy is two-fold, seeking aid nationally and internationally. In Colombia, we collect food, clothes, books, hygiene kits, electronic equipment, and other essential supplies, as well as monetary donations for groceries for distribution.
The organization has served as a facilitator between donors and foundations that help us distribute the resources by sending their representatives to the different vulnerable communities across the national territory with the aid we collected.
At the international level, we receive monetary aid that is allocated as food coupons through an alliance with Grupo Argos — a Colombian holding company with large investments in the cement and energy industries — and Give to Colombia — platform for sending resources to Colombian communities.
Natalia Acero (SEAS 21’), who is also taking part in the initiative, says “the amazing thing about COL5VID is that it targets one of the main causes of COVID-19 deaths in Colombia: malnutrition. By delivering groceries to families that can’t afford them at the moment, COL5VID has found a way to work on one of the main sources of autoimmune deficiencies around the country.”
I am humbled to see that people have taken action, and with their hard work and kindness, this organization has had a remarkable impact on our native country. Students from different universities in the United States became ambassadors of their institutions, sharing COL5VID’s mission with their peers. Among the Colombians at Penn, we have taken action to promote the initiative around campus, and together, many other Penn students from different countries have decided to participate in this initiative, helping us be the second university with the highest donations.
With every $6 USD donation we received, we were able to help feed a single four-person family for approximately one week. "Our Penn’s community passion for giving and willingness to help each other regardless of the conditions has been directly reflected in the importance its contribution has had in projects such as COL5VID,” says Acero.
As of today, COL5VID has received and distributed 2 tons of in-kind donations and collected around $46,413.18 USD from more than 850 donors from five different countries. We have been able to distribute 2,000 monthly groceries in eight different departments of the country, helping 10,000 Colombians with food security and basic needs during these challenging times, and we hope to help much more by reaching out to more people and keep working together.
Last week, we received a video from Fundacion Nutrinfantil, one of the non-profit organizations allied with us to deliver donations to Mosquera, a vulnerable municipality of the capital, where they show the delivery of 1.5 tons of in-kind donation. A mother appeared in the video receiving these donations. Her joy and gratitude made me appreciate this project even more, because it made me realize that COL5VID has the potential of bringing hope to families in my country who don’t have access to basic needs and just pray to live another day.
For Colombians at Penn, this project represents one of the few times that we have been able to adequately organize and be part of a network of students that gives life to and strengthens philanthropy initiatives in our country in the midst of this crisis. Valentina Losada (CAS 21’) also believes that “this movement is revolutionary not only in the way Colombian foundations are having access to resources to help communities in need, but it’s also starting a wave of bringing philanthropy from the exterior that can have a lot of potential in the country.”
Through this experience, I've realized that we hold a responsibility to think about the critical issues faced in our home countries, and to find ways to confront them, even while at Penn. I'm fortunate to have seen this grow through the network of students from several institutions because every action, no matter how small it is, doesn’t go without its effects on the people around you. I am also grateful for being Colombian and having seen the difficult history of my country throughout the years. This reality helps me remember that the lives of most Colombians are very different from my own, especially in the times we are living in right now.
HECTOR CURE is a rising junior from Bogotá, Colombia studying Neuroscience and minoring in Healthcare Management, Psychology, and Chemistry. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.