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50 for 50: Origin Stories - Latin America

By Opportunity International

In 1971, Opportunity International made its first loan to Colombian entrepreneur Carlos Moreno.

Since that fateful first relationship, we have continued to provide access to loans, high-quality education, and financial training to thousands of entrepreneurs like Carlos. For 50 years, we have worked in Latin America, meeting families’ needs and building a community of support for our clients.

We recently connected with Leddy “Mitzi” Machado Ariza, a long-time Opportunity Colombia staff member and current EduQuality Coordinator. Mitzi has been part of Opportunity’s operations in Colombia for nearly 30 years, and we are so excited to hear her recollections of our work.

Before we look back at Opportunity Colombia’s work, can you introduce yourself?

I'm Mitzi Machado, and I live in Barranquilla, Colombia. In my free time, I like listening to music, going for walks with friends, sharing time with my family—especially my 4 nieces!—and thinking of ideas and projects that would help the people around me, especially Opportunity International’s clients. I’m hardworking and creative and, most of all, fortunate to have Jesus in my life.

When and how did you learn about Opportunity International?

I first learned about Opportunity International over 30 years ago when I lived in Santa Marta, where Opportunity’s nonprofit partner in Colombia, AGAPE, had an office.

My dad was a pastor and worked with a missionary named Ross Clemenger. Ross would often assist with projects in the community and, eventually, he founded AGAPE.

Ross Clemenger helped Opportunity make its first loan to client Carlos Moreno in Colombia, and the Canadian native was the first executive director and the founder of AGAPE, our microfinance partner in Colombia. Ross’s commitment to eradicating poverty in Latin America continued over the years, and he was instrumental in helping Opportunity Colombia secure a bank license. Ross passed away in 2012, but his legacy lives on in the lives of so many entrepreneurs and partners in Colombia.

Mitzi’s father (left) with Ross Clemenger (second from right) and other AGAPE team members.
Mitzi’s father (left) with Ross Clemenger (second from right) and other AGAPE team members.

In the 1990s, I began working at AGAPE as a credit and portfolio assistant before eventually working for Opportunity International’s Trust Group program.

Why did you decide to join Opportunity?

I felt called to work with Opportunity International because I believed it was an answered prayer. I had constantly prayed for a job or opportunity that would allow me to serve God full-time. Then, this job offer came along—even my parents thought I was too young—but I knew it was the answer I’d been looking for. I have never doubted that it was God who brought me to Opportunity.

Mitzi spending time with an Opportunity International client during a Trust Group meeting.
Mitzi spending time with an Opportunity International client during a Trust Group meeting.

For me, the special thing about Opportunity International has always been the Christian vision behind our work: the consistent motivation to serve those in need as Jesus did without discrimination—with the love and compassion I witness every day. 

When you first got involved, what was Opportunity Colombia like?

When I started almost 30 years ago, I think there were about seven or eight of us on the staff serving close to 300 individual clients and 300 group members. We offered individual loans, trust groups, and training.

Ross Clemenger and Mitzi Machado.
Ross Clemenger and Mitzi Machado.

AGAPE was well-known among Christians in Colombia, particularly within the several cities where its founder, missionary Ross Clemenger, had worked—and we worked closely with the Opportunity International Chicago and Canada offices.

 Over the years, with Opportunity International’s continued support, we were able to continue expanding!

What were some of the biggest challenges facing Colombians at that time?

The main challenges in the early days were credit access and support. People were often indebted to moneylenders, and the community dealt with a variety of external challenges, including gangs. Many people, women especially, struggled to support both their families and businesses, often facing displacement as a result.

Opportunity Colombia met (and continues to meet!) those challenges with practical and creative solutions for those struggling the most.

Opportunity Colombia has undergone so many changes, including leaders and strategies. We’ve worked with autonomous NGOs and even owned our own financial entity. Currently, we’re developing an increasingly social vision that will define a new model of intervention in the country. Throughout every stage of growth, Opportunity Colombia has always remained focused on working with the people who need it most.

Can you tell us about any special moments you have witnessed?

I’ve witnessed so many! But there are a few big ones that come to mind...

We consolidated our work as an NGO that serves thousands of Colombian people with products designed for them. With our own regulated entity in the country, we can better serve the people who most need our services.

I participated in the Latin American regional conference with more than 100 credit counselors. This was an incredible opportunity to share experiences and resources, and I learned so much.

Mitzi presenting at the regional conference.
Mitzi presenting at the regional conference.

Over the years, I have been able to attend several women's leadership meetings within neighborhoods and connect with women who have transformed their lives and their communities.

Mitzi with the Girasoles Trust Group outside Cartegena, Colombia.
Mitzi with the Girasoles Trust Group outside Cartegena, Colombia.

And I had the honor of welcoming John F. Kennedy Jr. to Barranquilla, where he learned about our work empowering communities to improve their conditions! 

Mitzi (right) with JFK Jr. (center).
Mitzi (right) with JFK Jr. (center).

What are your big dreams for the future of Opportunity Colombia?

I dream that we continue to grow with a solid, biblical foundation. Ross Clemenger once told me: “The problem is not growth; it is growth without transformation.”

I hope that we have both financial and non-financial programs and products designed to support the most vulnerable, along with a motivated staff equipped with the innovative, simple tools people need to realize their life plans. I dream of children receiving quality education, women realizing empowerment, men gaining leadership and job opportunities, and young people breaking cycles of crime to become professionals.

Mitzi leading the Shalom project.
Mitzi leading the Shalom project.

I hope that Opportunity Colombia will bring shalom to this wounded, violent society, while remaining creative, joyful, and passionate about what it does. 

Mitzi is also a lawyer and has earned her Master’s in Business Administration from Universidad del Norte de Barranquilla, Colombia. In addition to her work with Opportunity, she has also consulted for Tearfund, The University of Maryland’s Center for Institutional Reform in the Information Sector (IRIS), Habitat for Humanity, and several other microfinance organizations. She is currently the EduQuality Coordinator for Colombia, overseeing the localization of the program for the Colombian context and our team of two Education Specialists.

Each week for the next 50 weeks, we will share a piece of Opportunity's history—major or minor, sobering or inspiring. We have gotten to where we are today by facing some of the world's greatest challenges, with you by our side. Please join us in celebrating the many significant moments that have built the foundation on which we will embark on our most audacious vision yet: ending extreme poverty.

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