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June 25, 2011

Day 4: “Dream Big” – Opportunity Colombia Empowers Young Entrepreneurs, Mothers, Trust Groups & More through Microfinance

By Jeannette Stewart

The following travel post was written by Jeannette Stewart, a member of the Opportunity International Board of Governors living in Maryland. This week, Jeannette is traveling with her son on the Opportunity Family Week Insight Trip to Colombia. Other Colombia travelers have written posts this week too, catch up on all their adventures by reading their posts here.

Teaching Cartagena’s Youth to Dream Big

Clevis Berrio (center, white dress) & women of Puertas Abiertas Foundation.“Dream Big!” hailed Alejandra Sayas as she shared with us her greatest challenges and hopes in her work with the youth of Cartagena. She said, “My biggest challenge has been to encourage kids in a society that does not encourage or allow them to dream.” Alejandra is the leader of Opportunity Colombia’s Youth Entrepreneur Program, an innovative program to reach the high-risk youth of Colombia. Her inspirational message to them is clear: dream big.

The Puertas Abiertas Foundation.We all sat in a circle in a very modest Baptist Church located blocks away from one of the most dangerous slums in Cartagena, as Alejandra told us how she helps some of the nearly 280 kids in the program do just that. We met Rafael, a 22-year-old entrepreneur, who believes that he and his friends “lack the knowledge to grow a business,” and so he said, “we want education.” Opportunity’s Youth Entrepreneur Program is a novel way to bring them that education by teaching them to develop a business plan. This is the next generation of Opportunity International clients. They have seen their parent’s life improve through Opportunity International loans and now they want to progress and work their way out of the poverty that has befallen them. Their parents have left them a legacy of Opportunity: work, faith, hope, and the ability to dream big. Rafael commented that they were distinctive from the other youth in his village and said, “In Colombia they are training the youth to be workers rather than business people, so we [Youth Entrepreneur Program] are different than them.”

One Loan Empowers a Group of Women in Need

Wilmer Pajaro Herrera, entrepreneur and pig farmer in Arjona.In a village 30 minutes away, we met a group of single pregnant women who are also learning to dream big. Before finding Clevis Berrios, an Opportunity Colombia individual loan client, and her seamstress business, these women were left alone to care for their babies. Clevis told us of her own similar circumstances years prior that led her to start a foundation called thePuertas Abiertas Foundation, which cares for and trains single mothers in a trade so that they can earn money for their family. She used her loan to buy sewing machines and now, because of her foundation’s success, is training about 10-20 women to sew, knit, stitch and embroider.

Clevis’s hopes and dreams are to reach even more women by opening satellite locations with multiple sewing machines in order to bring the businesses closer to the women’s homes since transportation and childcare are often a problem among the poor. Clevis’s heart is to further help women to become self-sustaining and independent, just as she was afforded that same opportunity through her Opportunity International loan.

Big Business Dreams Become a Reality

Carmen Jiménez, displaced person, Opportunity roof-and-floor loan client.Not far down the unpaved road in the village of Arjona, Wilmer also had a big dream. He took a leap a faith and invested all he had, along with his first Opportunity loan of $125, to purchase four small pigs. Wilmer has turned the small loan into a successful business raising pigs for local restaurants and markets. He quickly generated enough capital to pay cash for more pigs as he saw a chance to do so. But his dream did not stop there; he ultimately expanded into cheese production which employs three other villagers. Wilmer has even higher dreams of attracting investors to his business so he can continue to grow and generate income for more people in his village who struggle daily with extreme poverty.

A Displaced Woman Has a Roof Over Her Head

Traveler Jeannette Stewart (right) & Opportunity loan officer Astrid (center).Around the corner from Wilmer and his Trust Group we met Carmen Jiménez, from the war-torn region of Bolivar, who was displaced by violence in her country about 13 years ago. She arrived in Cartagena with only the belongings on her back. She and her husband Carlos Sierra have three children and hope that they will have a better life, including the opportunity for an education that was so abruptly taken from Carmen and Carlos. Having been exiled from her homeland for so many years, Carmen has dreamed of having her own home for her family, and with an Opportunity loan through the new roof-and-floor program, the dream of a permanent and safe home is becoming a reality for them.

Today, we met many clients who are successfully being helped through Opportunity International; four of them are highlighted here as well as four inventive programs that Opportunity makes available to these clients. We saw Trust Groups, Individual Loan clients, and the Youth Entrepreneur Program in action. In a way, we see the correlation between an organization that is innovative and dreams big dreams in assisting the poor in new ways, and the people they assist, like Rafael, Clevis, Wilmer and Carmen, who are generating these dreams for themselves through faith, hard work, perseverance, and an Opportunity loan. Just as Alejandra so eloquently said with such conviction, we all need to dream big. This is an ability that Opportunity International is affording so many who are living in extreme poverty and we have the privilege of being a part of their solution. How amazing to watch their dreams materialize and how they are ultimately sharing the legacy of Opportunity with the next generation of dreamers.

Stay tuned to the Opportunity Blog for more updates from the Family Week Trip to Colombia in the coming days ahead.