Hillary Merwin
Hillary Merwin
Colombia 2013
Hola! My travels are taking me to Bogotá, Colombia where I will be spending six months volunteering with a community development organization called Fundación Comunidad Viva by tutoring children in after-school programs, planning community events, leading camps and much more. Join me on this adventure! Read More About Hillary →


This week I got a deeper look into what Fundación Comunidad Viva is all about–from the inside!

Bright and early at 7am, the staff gathered around a delicious Colombian breakfast of huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions) and coffee (of course, this is Colombia). I felt privileged enough to be one of them and to be able to give my input into what the foundation’s work would look like this year.

Leading the meeting, Jorge told us that he wanted Comunidad Viva to focus in on three main areas. While the foundation has a wide range of programs, we’ve realized that three of them are extremely effective and we want to center our work around those.

1. Supervacas

This is the series of vacation bible schools the foundation puts on to reach out to children in the community, and consequently their parents, too! Comunidad Viva currently holds a Supervacas in the town of Pacho and two neighborhoods in Bogotá. Last June, we had a Supervacas in Pacho and are planning another for late November, as well as another one in Bogotá in October (both of which I will be one of the main people in charge!). These weeklong events are an amazing way to get to know the kids and families in the community. Each week consists of amazing crafts (the last Supervacas, we built a cardboard car!), lessons, music, and lots and lots of dancing.



2. Programa de Ayuda Extraescoler (PAE)

This is the after school tutoring program that will start up again this Tuesday! PAE will be one of my main responsibilities, not just as a tutor but as an overseer of the program, too (looking for ways to improve it, researching new materials, planning field trips, managing volunteers etc.). Kids come to the program every Tuesday and Thursday from 3-5 and meet with volunteers to get help with their homework. We also do lessons, readings, and take the kids on a field trip in the beginning of the session and–for those who’ve received enough tokens based on attendance, behavior, etc.–another trip at the end of the program.

Jorge asked if I would help plan the first trip. Even though I was nervous to call the museum and set up the trip, my Spanish proved to be good enough and I successfully planned a time for the kids to go to the museum! I’m excited for the program to start next week and to get to know some more kids in the Prado neighborhood.


3. La Cueva

This word, meaning “the cave” is the name of the orphanage that the foundation started for orphans who turn 18 and are essentially kicked out of the state-run system and have no where to go. Jorge and Ginny’s old apartment in the Prado neighborhood is now used as a transitional home for 4 guys who are working and studying hard to get through college. Some of them have even received scholarships to study and are thriving in this independent living situation. It’s been a blessing getting to know some of these guys and while Jorge is the main overseer of this particular program, it’s exciting getting to see it grow as we continue to invite new faces into the house.



In addition to planning, this week also consisted of some grunt work to prepare the church to host the tutoring program next week. Rooms were cleaned, offices were organized. My particular project was to wrap up some of the mattresses from our Pacho trip to prepare them for storage. I’d say I did a pretty good job.




The week was full of other planning meetings as well as brainstorming sessions for planning the new church/nonprofit in the downtown area. Looking forward to getting more things rolling next week!

Moving on

This week we finished up our service to the Alturo family. And what an amazing way to end this experience.

After battling an infection during the recovery process, Laura is finally able to return home. The tumor was benign and has been completely removed and the doctors are optimistic that with continued therapy, she will make a full recovery.

We spent everyday at the house this week, preparing for Laura’s return. Some hard core cleaning went down and of course, lots of cooking. We could sense a noticeable lightness when talking to Laura’s parents, who couldn’t hide this new hope of returning to their normal lives with a healthy daughter.

It looks like there’s a possibility I will get to continue visiting this neighborhood as Jorge wants me to take over and expand the Ciudad Corazón program with the children! It’s possible that I will get to meet with them once a week and plan activities and lessons, etc. I’m definitely excited about this possibility!

We are also planning on a construction project for this family, remodeling some rooms in their apartment, etc. (it would be a much needed renovation!).

This next week we will be preparing for the tutoring program to begin at the end of July–promoting it, getting volunteers, etc. It will be a nice change of pace and I’m looking forward to getting to work with the kids as they are preparing to start the new school year! I’m hoping my Spanish skills will hold up when trying to help them with their homework. I’ve already sensed a noticeable difference in my speaking skills and am excited that my Spanish is improving so quickly!

More updates to come soon with pictures!



A week of service

This week, we continued our work serving the Alturo family while their daughter recovers from surgery.

Here’s what a typical day looks like:

10am-12pm: Maria Paula and I cook both lunch and dinner. Usually something like chicken breast, baked potatoes, a salad, plantains, etc.


Maria Paula, an expert chef!

Smelling good!

Packing up the food!

Getting the food ready to transport

12pm-12:30pm: The long trek to the Transmilenio station. Because our apartment is up in the mountains, think lots and LOTS of stairs.

The trip down is easier than the one coming back!

The trip down is easier than the one coming back!

12:30pm-1pm: Ride the Transmilenio (bags full of food and all) to the family’s house. While I’m so thankful for this cheap source of transportation, it’s not always the most comfortable ride, to say the least. This might give you an idea:

It's a tad crowded at times

It’s a tad crowded at times

1pm-5pm: Serve lunch and watch the children while the parents spend time at the hospital with their daughter.

Liz, their other little girl

Liz, their other daughter. Love this little one!

5pm-5:30: Ride the Transmilenio back home and relax for a bit before heading to the grocery store to prepare to do it all again!

This Friday was an especially fun day. We found out that Janneth, the mother, holds a mini Ciudad Corazón every Friday in her living room. Ciudad Corazón is a program Fundación Comunidad Viva developed as a way for people in dangerous or broken neighborhoods to get to know each other and form a more solid community. Ciudad Corazón is usually a series of block parties put on by the foundation with music, food, singing, dancing, etc., then someone from the neighborhood takes it over and continues the meetings!

In Janneth’s case, she saw a need in her neighborhood amongst the children and took the initiative to start inviting them over to her apartment every Friday afternoon for a time of sharing, arts and crafts, storytelling, and even snacks!

While Janneth was at the hospital, Maria Paula and I waited to see if any kids would show up to the house. Sure enough, 5 little ones came knocking at the door and we spent the next 2 hours improvising our own Ciudad Corazón. I of course forgot to bring my camera but I can tell you there was a lot of singing and dancing to Youtube videos and crafts galore!

It was so fun getting to know the kids in this neighborhood (now that we are spending so much time here) and getting to hear their stories and everything that’s going on in their lives. All of them are close friends with Laura, too so we spent some time sharing how we all felt about her being in the hospital and our hopes for a speedy recovery!

These times have been so rewarding, getting to know the family and serving them in this way. Their little girl, Laura, had a successful surgery to remove the tumor but is now in a process of a lengthy recovery as her family awaits to hear if she needs another surgery.

We have another week and a half of serving the family after which I will move into a different role within the foundation. I am so thankful for this opportunity and excited to see what next month brings!

An unexpected turn

This week took an unexpected turn...in the best way possible. While this week we had yet another Supervacas vacation bible school in the neighborhood of Prado, I only participated in the first two days.

On Monday we received word that a family close to the foundation found out their 6-year-old daughter had a brain tumor and the emergency surgery was scheduled for the next day. At the heart of the work of Fundación Comunidad Viva is simply responding to the needs of its community. For this, Jorge–head of the foundation–asked me if I would take charge of caring for the family during this tumultuous time. Myself and another girl from the foundation were to be in charge of cooking daily meals, grocery shopping, cleaning the house, and taking care of the other two children in the family, allowing the parents to spend time at the hospital and be with their daughter during the surgery and recovery period.

It’s no small task cooking daily meals for a family of 4, especially when you have to cart all the food on the public bus system (the Transmilenio) halfway across town everyday. I can tell you I’m still not sure how all dozen eggs arrived at the house in tact.

Yet I couldn’t think of a better way to spend these next two weeks. The family is so appreciative to see the same faces everyday and know that their children don’t have to keep getting used to different babysitters. I’m also having so much fun with the kids and thinking of different crafts to keep them busy! Another bonus, my Spanish is definitely getting better because the family doesn’t speak English. David, the oldest child, found a Spanish-to-English dictionary and we use it just in case we get stuck 🙂

I feel blessed to work for the foundation in this way and get to help a specific family for these next few weeks. It’s a rare thing to be able to develop and deepen relationships while working for a nonprofit but I’m learning that that’s exactly what building community is all about.

Making planes out of recycled bottles for another week of Supervacas!

Lots of planes!

Lots of planes!

David (the oldest child in the family) had fun making this craft

David had fun making this craft


So much fun that he wore his new badge the whole week!

One week in Pacho

This past week has been crazy to say the least! Through Fundación Comunidad Viva, we took a team to Pacho for five days of outreach. Pacho is a small town about a 2 hour drive from Bogotá up into the Andes Mountains. This is our third year in Pacho and we are really seeing how the community is changing and coming closer together. What started as a week of vacation bible school for the kids has expanded to a crafting outreach for local mothers, an opportunity to serve through construction projects, and a new addition this year, a video workshop for the teens.


The week was an incredible success. Here’s just a brief glimpse and some of the things that happened.


After our team of about 20 from Bogotá (which grew later in the week as we called in even more reinforcements!) arrived in Pacho on Sunday, we immediately got to work spreading the word about Supervacas (the name of our vacation bible school). Our method? Piling 12 people in a car and driving down one of the main roads, blasting music and handing out fliers to children and families we passed on the street. Later that night we visited the basketball court near the center of town and talked to some of the teens about the video workshop. Even later that evening many of the volunteers stayed up until 2 a.m. cutting pieces of wood for the compost box craft the next day.


The kids began arriving a little before 9 and just like that, Supervacas was in full swing with 70 children singing and dancing to the live  music. They had a blast creating their compost boxes and learning about recycling (the week’s theme joined the idea of recycling with the story of Job). We spent the afternoon with the mothers who sewed together felt handbags while about 20 teenagers came to the first video workshop! Each group of teens had to come up with their own idea for a 2-minute silent film and then go out and create it with hand-held cameras! All the while, a few of us helped out with a construction project–renovating the kitchen of one of the families in the area.


Today’s craft had the kids covering soda bottle airplanes with glue and paste. Newspaper covered the floor and everyone was very sticky by the end of the day but it was an absolute blast. In the afternoon, the women made intricate necklaces while the teenagers began writing and filming clips for two minute silent videos! It was so fun to see them around the school and town making the videos.

Los aviones reciclados!

Time for the mothers
































Wednesday was a very special day. Usually Supervacas is all about the little ones but tonight was about the teens. We planned a big fogata (bonfire) for the teenagers of Pacho. The word spread on Facebook and at about 7 p.m., the schoolyard was full of people roasting marshmallows around the roaring fire, mingling and meeting new friends, and dancing to the awesome live music from our very talented musicians! The celebration went until 11 and by the end of it, everyone was completely exhausted from salsa dancing (and maybe some fist-pumping American dancing, too 😉 ). It was great to offer an alternative kind of party and it seemed like everyone had a great time!



Another great day of Supervacas. The kids painted their airplanes and in the afternoon, the women enjoyed a kind of spa day–learning how to take care of their nails, and getting facials and massages!

Painting some planes

























We had 110 kids on the last day of Supervacas. We definitely saved the best craft for last. Some of the guys formed the structure of a car out of recycled metal (no easy task!) and cut cardboard to cover the outside of the “vehicle.” The kids painted their pieces to resemble the spots of a car and when all was said and done, we had ourselves and real life Vacamobile (“vaca” in Spanish means cow)!

Now I’m back in Bogotá and so excited for everything this church and nonprofit are doing! More updates to come soon!


The finished product!

Aftermath of the water war

Why Colombia?

It’s official, I’ve landed in Colombia and I couldn’t be more excited!

Many people have asked me why I chose this country and the city of Bogotá out of anywhere else in the world. The answer is simple.

The people.

Two years ago I came here on a mission trip and worked in a small town up in the Andes Mountains called Pacho. We put on a vacation bible school for the kids and held afternoon English classes and craft workshops for the children and their mothers. The team that came from Bogotá worked selflessly to meet the needs of the community of Pacho and served tirelessly for the entire week. I learned so much from their incredible hospitality and servanthood. I knew that if I ever came back, I would want to serve like they did and make an impact on this awesome community.

So I am back and ready to head off to Pacho on Sunday. Jorge and Ginny Enciso run a nonprofit called Fundación Comunidad Viva and through this organization, we will make the 2 hour trek to this town and spend a week with the Pacho community. This time around we are not only offering a camp for the young children but also workshops for the teenagers as well as the mothers.

I’m so thrilled for the opportunity to return to this town and see some familiar faces. There are few things more rewarding than returning to a community and seeing how they have grown and changed from the seeds you planted years ago.

So more updates are definitely coming! We may not have wireless access in Pacho so get ready for a big update when we return in a week!

Here are a few pictures I took of Pacho two years ago:


Playing games at the school



A view of the Andes wherever you turn


Exploring the town


It’s a beautiful drive up the mountains!