As five decades of brutal war come to an end in Colombia, families have begun to heal from the violence and crime that ravaged their communities. And now, with the support of sponsors, many have begun to create a happier, more hopeful future for their children.
Yalena peeks out the side of her princess castle — a sheer, pink-and-white cylindrical-shaped tent with a miniature kitchen set and a family of stuffed animals to keep her company. Monica, her mom, grabs her foot, making her giggle and scoot back to safety.
Monica is 22. Yalena is 4. They live alone in a one-bedroom row house in Darien — a small, lakeside village tucked into a low-lying valley between the looming, dense-jungle mountains of southwestern Colombia. In the late 80s and 90s, Darien was one of the most dangerous places in Colombia.
Once a sleepy agricultural village and popular vacation spot for the country’s wealthy elite, Darien quickly became a war zone as Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel bought up many of the million-dollar homes overlooking the lake and began luring recruits from the impoverished local community — offering them more money than they had ever seen to work as hitmen and spies.
Today, Darien is once again a peaceful place where women and children stroll the cobblestone streets under sun umbrellas and grade-school kids roam free on bikes. The violence of the 80s and 90s is past, but definitely not forgotten. No one seems to want to say Pablo Escobar’s name — like it’s bad luck if they do, or might somehow summon him from the grave.
Monica’s home is small, but perfectly designed for a 4-year-old princess, with princess bedding and a princess castle and a purple polka-dot princess guitar that Yalena is now learning how to play. Monica has built her home, and her life, around her daughter. She loves everything about her. “Even the tantrums,” she says. And she wants her to have everything she never had.
But two years ago, she had nothing to give. Literally, nothing.
When Holt’s local partner first met Monica, she and Yalena were living in a single room with nothing but a mattress for the two of them. Monica and her husband had recently separated, and he offered no support. Sometimes, her ex-husband’s mother — Yalena’s grandmother — would sneak her some milk and sugarcane for Yalena.
But many nights, they went without food.
Monica has glowing hazel-brown eyes and wavy reddish-brown hair that she wears long with a deep side part. On this hot and humid day in Darien she has on skinny jeans, a tank top and sandals that show deep divets in her red-polished toenails — a genetic condition that makes it look like she has an extra toe on each foot. Growing up, her parents couldn’t afford anything but sandals for Monica, and kids at school bullied her because of her toes. Now, she doesn’t care, she says. She laughs when people comment.
Although lighthearted and playful with her daughter, Monica seems much older than her 22 years. She’s serious and direct and shows no emotion about her past. The program coordinator for our local partner, a psychologist named Germán Vasco, says that’s common for people who’ve been through trauma. She has internalized her feelings.
When Monica was in the 8th grade, her dad decided it was time for her to quit school. Although public school is free in Colombia, he stopped paying for her supplies and uniforms. “According to him, it wasn’t a worthwhile expense,” she says flatly. He forced her to start working at a shop he owned in Darien.
At 17, Monica left home. She got married to a man she met in her father’s shop and by 19, she was pregnant. When her marriage broke up shortly after Yalena was born, she supported her daughter by herself on the 28,000 pesos, or about $9, she earned each day working in a nearby sugarcane plantation. Often, at the end of the day, she would be covered in pesticides. But before picking her daughter up from the daycare center across town, she would go home to wash the pesticides off the surface of her skin.
Monica calls the pesticides “poison.”
“I didn’t want to pick my daughter up with poison all over me,” she says.
When Holt’s local partner knocked on her door, looking for children and families who needed help, she hesitated. She felt unsure of herself and how the program could help her. But “they told me that whenever I was ready, I could go fill out the paperwork and there was always an open door for me,” she says.
When she got up the courage to open the door, and step inside, a whole new world opened up to Monica. A world she would ultimately create for herself and her daughter, with the support of Holt’s local partner — and the kindness and generosity of sponsors.
The Kidnapped Generation
Two years ago, Holt began looking to return to a country, and a continent, where we had not had a presence since the 1980s. The year before, in 2016, the local government signed a peace treaty with the largest guerrilla group in Colombia, the FARC, bringing an official end to more than five decades of an ideological civil war between the Colombian government, communist militants and paramilitary groups — groups that as the war went on became increasingly engaged in, and funded by, drug trafficking.
As the war came to an end, life in many ways went back to normal in Colombia. Families displaced by the fighting began to return home and Colombia became a safe place to travel again. But for the families who lived through the war — a war in which four times as many civilians as fighters died— normal is a relative term. Everyone has a scar. Everyone has a story.
Ana Maria Fernandez, Holt’s Colombia program director, was living in Bogotá in the late 80s and 90s when the drug cartels, guerrilla fighters and local government fought for control of the city. In 1991, she left the country for a time — escaping the bombings that occurred every few days. When she returned in 1996, she remained captive in her own city. She never drove beyond city limits for fear of being stopped and killed or kidnapped for ransom — what she calls “normal kidnappings.”
“We were called ‘the kidnapped generation’ because we weren’t able to leave the cities,” she says today.
Although the cities experienced violence and bombings, the worst of the fighting took place in the mountains and jungles — in rural communities where families would be caught in the fire between the extreme right and the extreme left. Although many people tried to stay neutral, the guerrillas reigned terror on their communities — driving many of them to leave their homes and livelihoods, to leave everything, behind.
“In rural areas, they would just grab your child,” Ana Maria says of the guerrilla groups. “Weeks later, that 15-year-old boy was killing people.”
Many families fled because they loved their children too much to risk them becoming child soldiers. “If families saw their 13 or 14-year-old girl or boy being recruited, they would just leave whatever they had,” says Ana Maria. “Nothing was more important than having their children.”
For Ana Maria, this sentiment is personal. When she witnessed her brother get kidnapped from the same car where she sat with her young daughter, she thanked God that they didn’t take her daughter. And that, miraculously, her brother was able to escape the same day.
Between 1985-2012, more than five million civilians fled to Bogotá and other cities — creating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced people. But in the end, it didn’t matter where they came from or where they lived — in the city, in the country. In a war in which one out of every three people who died was a child, every family of Ana Maria’s generation was left scarred by the violence.
“Everyone has a story,” she says. “Everyone either knew someone who was kidnapped or killed.”
Two years ago, when Holt began exploring how we might help children and families in Colombia, we acted in response to a request from the Colombian government. They needed help finding loving families for children who had lost or become permanently separated from their birth families, and hoped we would re-establish an adoption program in Colombia.
Immediately, we responded to this need — and once established with local partners, began seeking families for children. Many of them are older. Many of them are part of large sibling groups. And although many of them are too young to have directly experienced the worst of the war, many of their parents had gotten caught up in the violence and crime that so many people of that era resorted to just to survive. It became a way of life, and it hardened many of them — creating a cycle of neglect and abuse in families.
The trauma children waiting for families in Colombia have endured is, in many cases, unspeakable. But Ana Maria hasn’t given up hope for them.
Before becoming Holt’s Colombia program director, Ana Maria worked independently with several adoption agencies. An attorney by profession, she has over the past 20 years helped complete the legal process for hundreds of Colombian children to join permanent, loving families through adoption. She has seen what can happen when a child has a family.
“When a child has a family,” she says, “nothing replaces that look in their eyes. It’s like, ‘Wow, I know they’re going to be fine.’”
At Holt, this belief underscores everything we do. We believe children thrive in families, and that every child — no matter how traumatized, no matter their age or history or special needs — deserves to grow up loved and adored by parents of their own. But we also believe that whenever possible, children deserve to grow up in their birth families. Some children can’t, and for these children, we actively seek adoptive families.
But as in every country where we work, we’ve discovered that so many parents in Colombia just need a little help to care for their children. The kind of help that comes from the generosity and compassion of others. The kind of help that comes from sponsors.
A Different Way Forward
When Monica decided to open the door at Bambi, Holt’s local partner in Darien, she found on the other side a whole team of people ready to help her provide a better life for her daughter. She saw the bright, colorful daycare center where other moms and dads left their children while they worked during the day, and began getting up before dawn to drop Yalena off in the morning.
But as Monica quickly learned, free daycare was just one of the many support services that Bambi offered for struggling parents like her. “Many arrive [at Bambi] because they know they will care for their children for free,” Germán says of the parents who join the program. “They go looking for a place for their children, but when we explain everything they can do, they are like, ‘Seriously?!!’”
As the staff psychologist, Germán counsels and supports the families to help build their confidence and help them cope with the trauma they’ve endured. Some parents come to Bambi feeling hopeless, believing there’s no way in this world for them, he says. Many grew up surrounded by the violence and crime that the drug cartels brought to Darien during the war. Like Monica, many dropped out of school early and now have little opportunity to break free of poverty. They work as day laborers in the plantations without benefits like sick leave. If they bring their child to work, they will be fired, Germán says. And even if they have family in town, everyone has to work to survive.
“That leaves no one to be home with the children,” he says.
Some people long for the days when the cartels brought easy money to Darien, but Germán says that organizations like Bambi have had a huge influence on shifting attitudes in the community. “We’ve shown them that they can do it a different way,” he says. “You may not be a millionaire, but you can do it a different way.”
At Bambi, Germán coordinates the PROMEFA program — a vocational training program that empowers parents with the skills they need to earn a better income. Through PROMEFA, Germán shows parents a different way to overcome poverty than crime and drugs.
But first, they have to work on themselves.
“When they go to PROMEFA, the world opens up to them,” he explains. “Basically, our goal is to work with them — give them training so they can receive an income. But the basis is personal work. If they’re not healed, they can’t do anything.”
When Monica first came to Bambi, she had very little self-worth. She valued her daughter’s life, but not her own. “When I was young, I didn’t have support from my mom or my dad,” she says. “Nothing really mattered.”
Before moving to Darien to live with her dad at 14, Monica grew up in Agua Blanca — one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the southwestern city of Cali.
“It was horrible,” she says. “There were shootings, robberies, drugs.”
Her mom worked two jobs to provide for Monica and her two younger siblings. She would leave at 5 in the morning, and then come home briefly in the evening before heading to her second job at a fast food restaurant. Some days, Monica didn’t even see her mom. Coming of age in Agua Blanca, Monica soon fell in with the wrong crowd.
Her mom hoped sending her to Darien would get her back on track. Periodically, she even sent money for school supplies. But when Monica’s father forced her to drop out of school, any hope Monica had for her future started to fade away. Like most of the women in the Bambi program, Monica was still a teenager when she got pregnant with Yalena.
Colombia has a particularly high rate of teen pregnancy — one of the highest in Latin America, affecting one in every five girls between the ages of 15 and 19. Early marriage is a contributing factor, as is a cultural value placed on motherhood that leads young girls to find self-worth through pregnancy. Lisseth Romero, the director of the PROMEFA program in Bogotá, attributes the prevalence of teen pregnancy in part to a cultural taboo around sex education. But also, an overall absence of parental guidance.
“Parents often abandon their children all day,” she says. “They’re not available to care for them.”
In the communities where Bambi works — and where sponsors support children — many of the parents in the program also grew up in families caught up in crime and drugs. There’s 20-year-old Sandra, whose parents were drug addicts and who got into drugs in her early teens, too. She’s clean now, and has two young boys who attend Bambi’s daycare program in Bogotá while she works to graduate high school. Other parents in the program grew up in families displaced by the war only to find themselves in the city without any way to provide for their children.
Many, like Monica’s mom, struggled with poverty and tried their best, often working two jobs to make ends meet. But inevitably, as Lisseth observes, they had no time left over to be there for their children — to guide and support them, comfort and protect them.
As is the case everywhere, poverty, crime, drug use and teen pregnancy follow a cyclical pattern in families in Colombia. But with the support of sponsors and Holt’s local partners, some families are starting to break that cycle. They are learning to leave the past behind — in their lives and in their country — and create a happier, more hopeful future for their children.
When asked how she wants her daughter’s life to be different from her own, Monica says, “I want her to have everything that I was never able to have. Not a life of riches, but a good life economically.”
It’s also important to Monica that she spend more time with Yalena than she had with her mother growing up. “I think I was the way I was and I didn’t value life because with my mom, we were hardly ever together,” she says. “Then with my dad, we have a very bad relationship.”
Monica is now working to achieve her goals — to give Yalena the life she never had. Through the PROMEFA program, she learned how to sew and crochet, attended entrepreneurship classes and developed a business plan. She received a sewing machine to help her start her business, and now earns significantly more money working as a part-time tailor. She no longer works in the plantations, and found a job cleaning houses while she works to grow her client base. Ultimately, she wants to have her own business and work out of her home so that she can spend more time with her daughter.
Germán says Monica is the “best example” of the impact of the program, and of sponsorship.
“All she has is because she was able to start working and bought everything herself,” he says, surveying her front room — at the center of which sits Yalena’s princess castle. Monica shows us a picture of Yalena’s baptism dress, which she made her, as well as a tablecloth that she crocheted herself.
Monica says she has seen a dramatic change in Yalena since she started attending the daycare program at Bambi. “The difference is huge,” she says. “She learned to share with the other kids. She learned how to be around other people. And she has learned a lot through the music, dance and art classes. That’s what she likes the most.”
Monica especially loves the nurturing care that Yalena receives at daycare. “I love the way that they care for the kids, dedicate time for them,” she says. “The love that they give our kids while we are working helps all of us to move forward.”
Since starting the program, Monica has started taking high school equivalency classes in the evenings around her work schedule. She brings Yalena to class, who sits beside her pretending to take notes like her mom. Monica’s greatest wish is to walk alongside her daughter at graduation, with Yalena in a miniature matching cap and gown.
“My life has changed 100 percent,” she says. “For me to give me daughter a better future has been the greatest … I have learned to value life and to enjoy it. To keep moving forward for me and for me daughter. Especially, for my daughter.”
But without the support of sponsors and donors, and Holt’s local staff and partners, Monica knows that the door would have been closed — not just to her, but all the moms and children whose lives have changed because of the program.
“With all my heart and speaking for all of the moms who have received help, I would like to give a very heartfelt thanks, and may God bless you today and forever,” she says to sponsors, speaking through the camera. “Because there aren’t people like you in other places. You help us open doors that allow us to support our families. With all my heart, I give you thanks.”
With all my heart, I give you thanks.”Monica
As we leave, Monica stands in the doorway of her home, holding Yalena in her arms. The sun has begun to set over Darien, lighting up the sky in a dusty pink and gold. Monica’s neighbors sit on their porches or arrive home on motorbike while their children ride up the hill on their bicycles — carefree and safe even as the day wanes. As she surveys the scene, Monica’s eyes have a look of peace in them. And as Yalena nestles into her mom’s arms, safe and loved, she gets that look in her eyes that children get when they have a family. And we know they’re going to be fine.
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