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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In The Field With World of Children

This trip marks a kind of full circle with World of Children – from witnessing the impact of free orthopedic care to victims of landmines in South-East Asia, to running the New York marathon and raising funds for vulnerable children, to coming back to Asia – Cambodia, to be exact – with the founders of this wonderful organization to meet just a few of the individuals it honours. Yesterday I was blessed to see the work of Krousar Thmey (‘New Family’ in Khmer), and meet its incredible founder Benoît Duchâteau-Arminjon, the 2012 recipient of World of Children’s Humanitarian Award.

Read more about Krousay Thmer here. 

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One of my favourite picture books as a child was simply titled ‘Heroines’. It detailed the lives of some of the most influential women in history, the likes of Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart and Helen Keller. Clearly always a fan of a good biography or twelve, I read it over and over. I hate to think what kind of shape it must be in now.

It was a particular illustration from this book that stuck with me as I grew up – the one of Helen Keller’s breakthrough by the well, the elation on her animated face when she realized that her teacher was spelling out ‘water’ on her hand. It was the moment that the creation of a language opened a door for a girl who would have otherwise spent her life as a symbol of marginalization in 19th century America. Instead Helen Keller, blind and deaf, learned to communicate, to be self-sufficient and to express herself.

I have now not only seen the illustration I so often gazed upon as a child come to life right in front of me, but I have learned the extent of what a single human being must overcome when they choose to stand by some of the most marginalized children in Cambodian society.

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For starters, how to you even begin to educate deaf children in a country without sign language? You could put it down to being an impossible task, given the complexity of the Khmer language and the lack of resources in a Third World country, but if you’re Benoît, you create a new language.

You don’t simply transpose a foreign form of sign language into Cambodian society either, and nor do you limit the new language only to the schools which you have built. Instead, you take American Sign Language and use it as a foundation, tailoring it to the needs of Khmer. Then, you get NGOs on board, you form an advisory committee, and you start the process of UNESCO recognition, opening windows of opportunity to thousands of deaf people in Cambodia.

That is enough work for a hundred organisations.

To anyone else this task would seem too astronomical, but somehow Benoît has thought it and achieved it. He makes no secret of the difficulties he has encountered – communication breakdowns, cultural mindsets – but he ends by thumbing through a picture dictionary of Cambodian sign language that his organization has created. He places it next to a stack of children’s workbooks.

It is remarkable to see hope manifested so simply.

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The challenges that Krousar Thmey faces could seem endless. In a country like Cambodia, where proper medical care is a distant dream for many families, and children with disabilities are largely overlooked, how do you make sure that your classes aren’t rendered futile by faulty hearing aids?

If you’re Krousar Thmey you realise that you cannot rely on a struggling medical system and so you set up a room where you can repair hearing aids and another where they can be tested. This may not be the image that is conjured up when one thinks of providing education to underprivileged children, but, unselfish as they are, Krousar Thmey plays both doctor and teacher to make sure no child is left behind.

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When it comes to the blind in Cambodia, the situation is heartbreaking. Benoît has encountered families that refuse to admit there is a blind child in their house, scared of being stigmatised. There are others that simply will not send their blind child to school, believing it is futile. Cambodia is a chaotic place when you have all your senses, it is pitiless when you are blind.

Educating blind children in Cambodia requires an exercise in careful translation and so, if you’re Krousar Thmey, you do just that. Books that follow the national curriculum are produced in braille, some of the teachers are graduates of schools for blind themselves. The older students read and write with tongue-between-their-teeth determination, knowing that they are no longer confined by their circumstances. The preschoolers play with complete abandon, knowing that they are safe. Simple as it is, witnessing this was amazing.

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And so then how do you ensure that these children will not rely on Krousar Thmey their whole lives; how do you facilitate independence and acceptance? Like Benoît, you have a wider vision. Slowly, you integrate children with a disability into mainstream schooling, you lay the foundations for government support and you stand up against injustice. You make sure that your capable children become capable adults.

Before adulthood, however, necessarily comes childhood, and it is wonderful to watch kids be kids. Krousar Thmey is giving children the tools to take on the world, and World of Children are supporting an incredible amount of organisations just like this one. For me, I’m just blessed to be here watching my childhood stories come to life. So thank you Krousar Thmey for your invaluable contribution to this world, thank you World of Children for having me, and thank you to all of my family and friends for your support.

Learn more about World of Children Award here!