The Value of Opportunity

I want to talk about the value of opportunity in a sense no way related to any type of microeconomic theory. In fact, I want to talk about how invaluable opportunity is, because if I stripped my life down to one without opportunity, things would be very, very different.

March marked my second trip with World of Children Award, this time to South America. Last year, I was honoured to see Catalina Escobar, the driving force behind the creation of the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation, known colloquially as JuanFe, receive the 2015 World of Children Health Award. A day spent observing their work taught me exactly how precious opportunity is. 

We start in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Cartagena, Colombia. The first thing that strikes me is that we need two police escorts to enter this particular barrio in broad daylight. Almost automatically I want to resist and politely tell them we’ll be just fine. It turns out that this neighbourhood exists in such a state of desperation that there’s no negotiating. We get escorts.


One of Cartagena’s poorest barrios

I soon forget we’re being escorted because I’m struck by just how many generations it is possible to so creatively squeeze into a two-room hut made from mismatched pieces of corrugated iron. Sometimes two generations are producing children at the same time. We meet teenage mothers ranging from fourteen to eighteen who point out their young proudly from a crowd of kids.


Four generations, one hut, two rooms.

It is awful, but with my career-driven, you’ll-never-make-me-a-housewife mindset I can’t for the life of me fathom why a woman of eighteen, living in such extreme poverty, is eight months pregnant with her third child. My thoughts go straight to sexual assault, or at the very least duress, and while we do meet young mothers who have been in such agonising situations, Daniel, our guide for the morning, offers another profound explanation:

“These girls have nothing. Sometimes they figure if they have a baby; they’ll have something.”


Eighteen and eight months along with baby three

Later, Eunice, a JuanFe social worker, is ripping apart baby formula packaging in front of me. JuanFe runs a child sponsorship program for particularly vulnerable children: things like diapers, formula and free medical care are provided until the age of five. Eunice notices my confusion:

“We take it out of the packaging so the family don’t sell it.”


Severely malnourished but managing a smile before a sleep.

Say what? I have an emaciated one-year-old that could pass for a newborn squirming in my arms. I am immediately furious. When six more hungry children emerge from outside, however, my anger dissipates. The aching reality is that selling a can of baby formula may feed all the children meager portions for the week.

It is in this realm of ostensible hopelessness that JuanFe Foundation creates such invaluable opportunities.


Catalina Escobar, who we affectionately call Cata, founded JuanFe in 2001 with the aim to improve the quality of life for teenage mothers and their children. In six years Catalina’s work reduced infant mortality in Cartagena by 81.2%. This is no small feat.


Cata and her girls. Utter love.

From the moment we arrive at the Foundation itself, Cata’s vibrancy is infectious and her passion is inspiring, although she paints a devastating picture:

“If you really want to be miserable in Colombia, you have to be a girl and you have to be poor”.

She gives us a tour. In the richly decorated nursery there are fifty-odd delicious babies rolling around happily. They grab my hair with chubby fingers, crawl over my lap, drool on my leg and generally send me into a baby-induced state of complete euphoria. It’s only after I’m wrenched away that I give thought to how important it is for teen mothers without an alternate support system to not be left behind. Affordable daycare may be a distant dream for many middle-class families in Australia, but here it is the difference between turning up to class or not. JuanFe provides this free of charge.


Daycare A.K.A Heaven

The technical skills taught reflect local industry demands. In a sparkling clean food lab we visit a hospitality class in progress. Three girls serve me up a plate of presentation-perfect vegetarian ratatouille, beaming with pride. Although I’m aware of six iPhones and one Canon EOS 70D pointed at me, I scoff it down ungracefully because it is that delicious.


Hospitality training.

Down the hall we visit classes covering hotel management, life skills and sexual health. A toddler is wriggling on a mat while another is being breastfed in the back of the room. These girls seem like natural mothers, or rather, mothers unafraid of the enormous task in front of them. It might be because they’re safe, or happy, or hopeful. They are staring at a way out, a way to break the cycle. This is the value of opportunity.


Health class’ little entertainer

A kind of catharsis occurs when we enter the beauty salon. A young girl tearfully recounts her story; devastatingly her baby didn’t make it and the hardest thing, she says, is watching the other girls nurse their children everyday. She could take the easy way out, the way that doesn’t constantly remind her of what she’s lost, but opportunity doesn’t come around so easily and at the tender age of fifteen she realizes that this one needs to be grasped with both hands. I finally shed a tear, not for her loss but for her strength.

Growing up I was taught that hard work would hold me in good stead for my future, and for a long time I thought this was universal. But hard work and success are only synonymous when they’re grounded in opportunity. JuanFe recognises this and offers girls the opportunity to tread a path different to what society has assigned them.


A class on hotel management, one of Cartagena’s biggest industries.

Completion of the program sees teen mothers placed in jobs or internships. There is opportunity for higher education, university even. Most importantly, what Catalina has created charges teen mothers as changemakers themselves – after all, they are learning from the best. JuanFe turns them into leaders and role models. They are to teach their families, their friends and their neighbours about responsible reproduction, nutrition and hygiene. They are to help break the cycle of teen motherhood and extreme poverty. That is the value of opportunity in a place where girls too often believe they are undeserving of anything more than the circumstances which they were born into.

A day with JuanFe taught me that opportunity is what what it takes to create heroines, and when you’re as passionate and unrelenting as Catalina, you can do this, hundreds of girls at a time.


Cartagena, Colombia: History in Urban Art

Art does not reproduce what we see, it makes us see. – Paul Klee –

I’m sure South America is a street artist’s Mecca. If there are laws against using the drab side of a building as your own personal easel, they’re neither explicit nor strictly enforced.

If you love urban art, as I do, travelling in South America is like a giant Easter egg hunt -you know there’s some chocolatey goodness hidden away and the excitement is in finding it. Maradona is etched colourfully into a wall in La Boca, Buenos Aires, and murals inspired by opposition to Pinochetian politics decorate Santiago’s stormwater drains. Cartagena, Colombia, however, was a completely unexpected gem. 

In Cartagena, a higher cosmic power has gifted the inhabitants a giant blank canvas and they’ve risen to the occasion just magnificently. Some walls have no space left to graffiti, and so art has spilled over to the sidewalks, wooden windows and even telegraph poles. 

Not having read up on my history of this particularly fine-looking town (my teen self once confused Cartagena with Carthage – my parents almost couldn’t handle the shame), I was at first pleasantly surprised, and then intrigued, and then captivated.

Art in Cartagena has stories; happy stories and awful stories, but either way, better than the ‘I got high and rolled painted marbles across a canvas that’s now hanging in the Museum of Contemporary Art ‘ stories. As it turns out Cartagena was the most important slave port of the Spanish Americas, a fact that one could loosely gather from eyeing the streets. 

There’s a certain irony in the fact that such a dark, dark period of history is depicted in so much colour, but then, everywhere I go in Cartagena, the descendants of slaves have woven their culture into art. The African dance that I catch in the main square features moves borne from being in chains. It, like the city and its people, has a character of resilience. Slavery may have broken bodies but it didn’t stop bright blues popping up next to hot pinks next to blinding yellows. Cartagena street art is pride on display. 

In other parts of Latin America such history seems like an inconvenient truth – stories of systematic attempts by governments to ‘whiten’ the region do nothing to deter me from this view.  There may still be striking socio-economic disparity in Colombia, but in Cartagena at least, diversity is celebrated, if only in art.

As is the case with all cities I fall for, my time here was much too short. I hear rumours of lesser known barrios outside the walled city and beyond Getsamani, where metres upon metres of murals continue. For now, four days in Cartagena was like a really good tasting plate; one that you devour before you order one of everything as a main.