Being a Community Economic Development Volunteer is an abstract positions with a range of services varying on a case-to-case basis for the American men and women serving in the Peace Corps, currently in over 60 countries. My primary duty is to promote financial literacy, entrepreneurship and savings culture in San Jacinto, Colombia. This region was heavily affected by armed civil conflict plaguing Colombia for over 50 years, which resulted in a large population of displaced citizens (those who were forced to leave their home but remained in their country). I frequently travel to isolated subdivisions of my town hoping to connect with members who are interested in receiving my business advice, which leads to sound financial decision-making in both their businesses and at home.
Through my fieldwork, many Colombians showcase a dream board at the heart of their the homes. Usually created by the woman of the house, it serves as a reminder of their dreams and gives them hope for a better future. Maria Judith Vazquez, 49, was forced to relocate after witnessing several crimes against humanity in her hometown of El Carmen de Bolívar. She now resides in Arena, one of the subdivisions I found myself recruiting motivated men and women to work towards make their dream boards a reality.
As Mary Judith gave me a tour of her home, she revealed her passion for sewing and fashion. Her preferred canvass was denim and she showed me her cluster of 3 sewing machines she has bought over the years. She admitted to taking out a loan for $7,000,000 COP (est. $2,500 USD) from a national bank to start her own business but had utilized the money to build the house, which she now resides in. Her business, “Mayos, Peluqeria” (which translates to hair salon) has since been expired and she struggles to make monthly payments towards settling her debt. Magazine cut outs of children’s clothing adorn her dream board and serve as insipration to work towards owning a storefront to sell her handcrafted creations. When I asked for her permission to snap a photograph she agreed, but not before consulting her husband.
Jose Gregorio Acosta Valdez, 75, approached me and I introduced myself. I proved my agriculture knowhow by raddling off some of the crops I’m familiar with – I’ve created quite the reputation for myself as the cute American girl who likes to help out with labor-intensive farm work. Maria insisted that he show me his crops and pitch his business ideas to me. I graciously accepted the offer. He showed me his impressive assortment of crops: corn, avocados, ñame root, cacao and mangos. He was the first farmer I met with more than 2 types of crops growing at a single time.
As we walk through the fields, I noticed a cacao tree so abundant in fruit, used to manufacture chocolate, that it is unable to stand up straight. I explain to him about the insatiable demand for cacao in the U.S. and the Cacao for Peace project several Peace Corps Volunteers’ in-country aid. I also mentioned the recent announcement allowing Colombia to export Hass avocados to the US but like many local farmers their business plans overlook the option to expand globally. He is a farmer and he loves what he does; grow food. His main interest is in owning a plot of land big enough to support his wife and his own dreams.
When visiting these hard to reach subdivisions, I offer assistance forming community savings groups and basic financial training to all who are interested. As a year of my service has passed, I like to believe I’ve developed a keen sense of seeking out individuals who are dedicated to their craft and will have the necessary discipline to fulfill their business goals with my business consulting. So, on the days that I’m blessed enough to connect to the ‘Marias’ and ‘Joses’ of Colombia, I remember what inspired me to join Peace Corps and continue to go to great heights to support Colombia’s hard to reach and displaced populations.