Being a woman in Colombia is not easy. In 2020 alone, 630 women were killed because of their gender. Mothers face violence by their family members, young women have difficulties finding paid jobs, and access to education and political institutions is often limited for women.
However, being a woman in Colombia can also be uniquely beautiful. By finding their own value apart from men and through a beautiful journey of self-discovery, women can learn lessons on how to emancipate themselves from a traditionally sexist culture.
This year, in the city of Medellín, three travelers have created Proyecto Florecer; a not-for-profit foundation working to empower women and girls.
By equipping them with important hands-on skills and teaching them to build their own self-esteem, the project achieves much more than simply “help to self-help.” It creates a community in which every member can thrive and fulfill their dreams.
The Foundations of Proyecto Florecer
“I was simply hoping to spend a year abroad teaching — like many foreigners in Colombia,” says Erin, one of the founders of Proyecto Florecer. “But I soon realized that one year wasn’t going to be enough time in Medellín. During my time teaching, I connected emotionally with local girls. I realized there was minimal discussion, education, or resources available to them on leadership and empowerment for young women.”
She continues, “Having benefited from women’s circles and being mentored by women, I started Proyecto Florecer hoping to create a safe space for teenage girls and women in Colombia to discuss issues about relationships, education, opportunities, and careers.”
Proyecto Florecer intends to educate young women in leadership, community service, and self-confidence. However, amidst the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Erin and her two co-founders Mar and Sheridan observed the increasing spread of poverty in Medellín.
In 2020, Colombia recognized a 269% rise in the number of people facing severe food insecurity as compared to 2019. Responding to the immediate urgency the food crisis created, the three women started looking for women volunteers to provide food to the people most in need.
The pandemic caused the group to re-evaluate its mission and how it could best serve the community.
The pandemic and quarantines impacted women more severely than men because women needed to cope with the reality that their children couldn’t go to school. Putting food on the table became even harder, especially for single mothers.
On top of that, about 50% of people in Colombia work in the informal workforce, including anything from cleaning homes to selling avocados in the street. Informal labor provides no safety net when people don’t have access to work.
As women are more often informally employed, the percentage of informally employed women is even higher than that of men.
Therefore, in October of 2020, the founders of Proyecto Florecer decided to focus their efforts on supporting vulnerable women — like single mothers and Venezuelan refugees — emphasizing food security, employability, and community service.
Approaching Two Problems Simultaneously With Community Service
The three founders of Proyecto Florecer did not know the impact they were going to create when starting to share food with the local community. “Since we changed our focus to food security, we have provided close to 15,000 meals to the community and dozens of workshops to the team,” Mar explains.
Within a few months, the soup kitchen grew from a few women volunteers cooking all morning to distribute food to a fully functional non-profit organization managed by the women it was formed to serve, with training and logistical and financial support.
The primary purpose of Proyecto Florecer, which is Spanish for Project Flourish, is to empower vulnerable women in the Medellín community it serves.
In exchange for their time volunteering in the community kitchen, the team receives support in supplemental monthly groceries and ongoing workshops with themes of professional development, personal growth, and health/wellbeing.
The team also gets help from Colombian and international educators, psychologists, and social workers.
Giving Workshops that Truly Empower
The workshops are exciting for the participating women, as they learn how to develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Discussing complex topics vulnerably and learning how to improve open communication enhances their interpersonal relationships.
They also learn essential management and leadership skills through the operation of the community kitchen, which are critical skills that will help them secure stable employment.
Asking Katty, one of the volunteers, what she likes most about Proyecto Florecer, she answers: “I think everyone needs a place like this: A place where you can share your experiences, your fears, and your emotions with the women. You learn that you are not as alone as you thought. Through the Proyecto Florecer, I united myself with others to make the world a little bit better.”
Katty has a remarkable story: being a trans woman in Colombia, she struggled to find employment for a long time.
“Many employers don’t want to hire trans people in Colombia,” she says. “For a long time, I could not contribute to my family’s income, and I felt bad eating food and wasting our resources at home. But, since I started with the Proyecto Florecer, I am finally able to bring food, such as rice, panela, and vegetables to my family, cook for them and feel valuable.”
The NGO’s recipe for success in such a short time was the flexibility to pivot how to deliver necessary services to the community while remaining true to its core mission.
What began as a group of strangers coming together to support women has transformed into a fully operational team.
Some women have stepped forward as leaders, taking turns as “kitchen boss,” and now provide the recipes for the food service. Others have leaned into roles as individual contributors, taking responsibility for specific areas of the project itself.
But, most of all, they’ve used the kitchen to create friendships and a strong community together.
Volunteering as a Traveler
Like at home, volunteering with local organizations while traveling is an excellent opportunity to get more connected to the local communities. However, there is very valid criticism about voluntourism or volunteer tourism; but that shouldn’t stop you from doing the research and helpfully participating in community-based projects.
You simply need to be aware of the possible issues and research the organizations and their projects before agreeing to help. By doing thorough research on your organization, you can ensure the one you choose has a positive reputation for working alongside local communities and considers the most pressing needs.
Proyecto Florecer is always in need of volunteers to continue the work that they are doing.
The pandemic has also demonstrated how much work can be done online, such as grant writing, social media management, marketing, fundraising, and raising awareness.
Those are all things that volunteers can do from home and are all areas where they have ongoing needs.
The three women who founded Proyecto Florecer agree: “We also value our volunteers in Medellín who help to prep food, lead workshops for our team, and help in our community garden,” they say.
“It is also a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchange, learning from our international team of Colombian and Venezuelan volunteers in an underserved neighborhood in Medellín.”