The following travel post was written by Margaret Gardner, a member of the Opportunity International Board of Governors living in Washington, D.C. Margaret is currently traveling on the Opportunity Family Week Insight Trip to Colombia with her husband David and their children. Her daughter Katherine wrote a blog post from Day 1 of the trip, which you can read here.
The second day of our Colombia Insight Trip we visited the Opportunity offices in Bogotá. There we met the dedicated staff that supports the outreach and ministry of Opportunity, as well as clients whose lives have been transformed through their work. After all, while Opportunity International is a nonprofit organization focused on creating economically secure business entrepreneurs, it also offers transformation through professional and personal training. In describing the work of the Bogotá office, Opportunity Colombia’s Chief Transformation Officer Jim Frantz said, “At the heart of what we do is reaching the poorest of poor.” Opportunity’s Trust Groups make the small loans possible for those without capital, but there are challenges to the Trust Group model. “Individual loans are safer and more lucrative,” Jim added, “But if that’s all we do we are just another bank.” Trust Groups offer more than just loans; they build upon a strong community. In a country like Colombia which has been torn apart by violence and civil strife, reestablishing community is tremendously important. Individuals, uprooted from rural villages where their families lived for generations, find themselves in large urban areas with no support system and few resources. In addition to needed funds, Opportunity Trust Groups give them a chance to meet weekly with a group of responsible and honest friends to receive training in financial management, social responsibility, and spiritual growth.
The first Trust Group we met today included a tomato seller, an egg crate recycler, several street vendors, and a take-out restaurant owner. Each originally from another part of Colombia, this disparate group of displaced people had found hope and community through their Trust Group. The second group we met included several former prostitutes. A smiling, middle-aged woman in pink named Maria Elena Villa Orozco explained to us how Opportunity had brought her hope and a new life. She arrived in Bogotá from a rural district at the age of 15 with a newborn baby boy in tow. She hoped that the father’s family here would help support her and the child. She discovered instead that the man’s sister and mother worked as prostitutes. Her only course was to join them “on the streets.” There she developed a drug and alcohol addiction. But when her son was murdered at the age of 13 she was determined to get out. A Catholic foundation helped with her rehabilitation, and when she asked about finding a new way to earn a living, they connected her with Opportunity International. “I had seen vendors selling snacks and coffee in the streets and I wanted to try that.” But she could not get a loan from a bank. Through an Opportunity Trust Group she received the money she needed to buy supplies. “It raised my self-esteem,” she said. “Before people would point at me. Some stores would not let me in, but now they do.” She has now participated in several loan cycles. “Opportunity has allowed me to grow my business, but also as a person,” she told us. “God blesses one through good work. I am happy now.”
Stay tuned to the Opportunity Blog for more updates from the Family Week Trip to Colombia in the coming days ahead.