“My name is Gilbert,” he said in an impressive English. “I’m on a bag of coffee.” His face beamed as he said the last sentence and I reached out my hand to shake his.
“Well, pleased to meet you Gilbert, “ I replied, honoured to be in this kid’s presence. “Your English is amazing,” I told him.
“Thank you,” he replied before re-joining his place in the queue for dinner.
As more and more children approached me and told me their names, I felt a warm glow. I could feel how much this place meant to them and I sensed that I was somewhere very special.
Gilbert is just one of the kids at the Emiliani Project in Colombia, and as he told me, he does have his face on a bag of coffee (the dark roast), along with two other children here who appear on the charity’s coffee.
But his smiling face hides a sad story. After being abandoned by his father when he was born, at the age of seven, Gilbert was also abandoned by his mother and later brought here by his uncle.
But Gilbert’s story is not an uncommon one.
Being found on the streets, teen pregnancy by gang members or circumstances too shocking to even include here are some of the reasons why this place they call home is so important.
According to UN sources, between 30,000 to 40,000 children are human trafficked from Colombia each year. With many of these being forced into prostitution it comes as no surprise that the number of girls here far outweigh the boys.
A history of internal conflict has left millions of Colombians displaced and a huge amount of children who are left to fend on their own. Jordan Reece, the co-founder explains that these young children find refuge in street gangs. They are drugged, prostituted and forced to commit violent crimes. If they survive they are prone to childhood pregnancy.
Hunger is expanding faster in Colombia than even the poorest parts of Africa. In Colombia 12% of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition and a child dies here every five minutes violently.
The Emiliani Project is a non-profit charitable organisation committed to the support and education of abandoned children and orphans.
Hogar Bohio de Maria is home to 170 of these children and is a gorgeous finca which was generously donated to the project. With the demand for places so high, an additional home called Hogar de Cristo is being built in the Caldas region which will provide refuge to another 160 children, and aims to be completed in 2017.
For now, Hogar Bohio de Maria situated in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city provides the refuge these children need.
The children here come from all over Colombia with the majority from Medellin. The home operates on a step program. Children are given responsibility depending on which step they are on such as cleaning or caring for the smaller children and babies. Step 4 is the highest step where they are given their own room and cellphone and time out from the home. Nineteen of the children are currently at this stage.
Their process through the steps doesn’t depend on their age, instead on their level of maturity. The children enter a probation period and a psychologist works with each child to see how well they integrate. School grades also play a big part in their steps progress.
Most do integrate here happily but there are the very rare cases that a child has been too traumatised to ever be able to live normally again.
The ones that do stay here, sometimes stay on until they are 22 or 23 years old, continuing to work here and help out. The home teaches them basic trades such as sewing and cooking, with an on-site bakery providing food for the home as well as a chance to educate the kids too.
As they become old enough, some attend university and continue to live in the home, with aspirations of being a lawyer or a police officer or having a life in the United States of America.
Items such as personal computers, shoes and even exercise bikes have been generously donated to the home, and the children don’t go without. As well as a mini cinema, pool, and football pitch, the children get bused to church every Sunday and attend school during the week.
Volunteers also play their part here and medical students offer their services in the on-site dentistry.
As I was being shown around the project, Jordan, tells me the story of a retired fireman who came to the project with his wife. They loved the home so much that they stayed for two weeks cooking and serving meals to the kids as volunteers.
Although some of the positions here are voluntary, the key positions such as admin and the Formadoras, who look after each dormitory are part of the regular staff. Men are only employed here for any maintenance and a girl is assigned to each room to look after the children at different ages.
Each dormitory has its own bunk beds and bathrooms, and a cubby hole labelled with their name where they can store personal items. Teddy bears and other cuddly toys sit on the matching bedspreads of the very young kids who smile at me as I get introduced to their room.
It’s a Sunday afternoon and the children have all returned from church. The weekends here are visit days for the children’s family members to come and spend time with them, but half of these children have no family to visit them. Being able to be baptised here and choose their godparents is so important to the children. Jordan tells me the story of his goddaughter and how she no longer lives here after being taken out of the home again by her birth mother who has already abandoned her twice.
“What happens if she leaves her again?” I ask.
He shrugs and explains that because she is now in a different part of Colombia, he honestly doesn’t know. He stays in touch and monitors her progress just as he does with many of the other children who no longer live there.
“Do you have kids?” asks one of the girls.
I shake my head to answer no.
“You do now,” she says, taking my hand in hers as we continue to walk around the finca with Pacho, my fifteen year old guide.
I see children bouncing on trampolines, splashing in the pool, and pretending to be in a fashion show, walking along the catwalk proudly. One takes on the role of my photographer and runs around snapping photos of everything including the kids as they pose sweetly for their picture, wanting to be included.
I forget where I am for a moment, surrounded by children with boundless energy and happiness. I forget that these children have stories that many of us would shudder at. That these children have been through times which would crumble the strongest of us adults, and I realise how resilient these children really are, and how having love and a home, that many of us take for granted can make such a difference.
I play football with them, I sit with them for dinner and I hold the tiny puppies that they proudly place in my arms to show me. I feel part of something. Part of a huge family. I have barely been here for hours yet I feel I belong.
As we sit and talk, Jordan receives a text message. It is his goddaughter and just as I had predicted, the girl’s mother had left her again. As I watched his expression drop and the worry in his eyes, it reiterates how important this place really is.
Jordan Reece is right, all they need is love.
How You Can Help The Emiliani Project
The Emiliani Project wants to help children worldwide and I love this project. You don’t have to follow in my footsteps, jump on a plane and come all the way to Colombia to be able to help. But if you do, the Emiliani Project has volunteer projects which you can apply to.
A Bag of Coffee
If you prefer to sit in your arm chair and drink coffee, what better way to contribute than by ordering their home-made coffee. All 100% of the proceeds goes straight to the kids.
The Emiliani Project’s mission is to “give a child an opportunity to dream,” so help make Gilbert’s dream come true and buy a pack of coffee with his face on. Please.