It used to be one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in Medellin but Comuna 13 is now becoming one of the city’s biggest successes. Walking around this colourful area with its funky street art, it is hard to believe that this was once the most violent neighbourhood in Colombia’s second city.
Comuna 13 now attracts tourists with its 385-metre escalator, a giant regeneration project which provided a well-needed transport system for the residents of the comuna. But it’s not just a new transport system which is transforming this area.
Milena Palacio runs a volunteer project which gives residents the opportunity to learn a new skill – English. A self-taught English speaker with a background as a chemical engineer, she came to Medellin a few ago after leaving her hometown of Manizales. In 2013 Milena visited the comuna and was asked by staff members working at the escalators if she would teach them English. They never called for classes but it sparked the idea in her mind, and wanting to include a social element within a project she was working on with a friend, she approached the manager of the escalators who agreed to the volunteering programme.
Their teaching began in July 2015 primarily focusing on the people who worked there, before the residents began to take an interest, and the door became open to everyone.
After Milena’s co-founder left due to other commitments, volunteers stepped in to replace her, including a previous Spanish student. Local schools also provide volunteers and classes are taking on a creative vibe with students producing their own videos. Students learn English by focusing on conversation building and pronunciation using different activities and games.
Not only is their English improving but Milena also believes that their confidence is getting a boost too, and says that they are no longer shy. The class also acts as a cultural exchange with students learning about other countries in the world from the volunteers who represent countries different to theirs such as the United States, Australia, Canada and the UK. Giving the students a broader understanding of the world outside of Comuna 13.
I visited the project as a children’s class had been recently introduced. Although not initially part of the volunteering project, the class enables younger children to learn another skill and also provides a learning space for single parents to come and bring their children along with them.
As we exchanged English words for Spanish, I found that I too was learning from the class. Children aged from 2 to 12 drew pictures of their home, labelling each room and items within them as they repeated after Georgia, an amazing teacher with a vibrancy that flowed over to the children.
Listening to the kids sing “Head, shoulders, knees and toes,” I could sense their enthusiasm and a strong sense of being part of something which mattered.
The singing didn’t seem to bother the adult class which was being held upstairs. The additional class held on a Wednesday afternoon was the idea of Rigel Pereira, a volunteer from Canada who had been running the class for 4 months with Fiona Skoglund, a volunteer from Australia and more recently Casey Breeden, an English teacher from the UK.
The students here are dedicated students, some come straight from school to attend their free English class, some have finished high school and are awaiting university, and others are single mothers who have two, three or as many as four kids. These women do whatever they can in the comuna to make money to support their families. Some by selling arepas (a traditional Colombian food), and others by painting nails. Anything that they can do to get by.
But it’s not just children, teenagers and single mothers wanting to attend. Its importance is reflected in the story of a sixty-year-old woman who lost her husband and son in the violence. Being able to come here and forget things even if only for a short time can make all the difference in someone’s life.
Creating something so important fills Milena with a feeling she says she finds difficult to describe.
“Every day I feel more connected with this city, with the people.”
The volunteering programme fills a void for teenagers in the comuna, and from this new classes are evolving such as a free salsa class in English. Milena hopes to encourage more volunteers to the project to teach additional classes such as working online, to maximise their working potential within a city where opportunities can be limited.
“We help the students do what they want and show them the way.”
Showing them the way allows the residents to do something different in their lives and is one of the reasons that this once dangerous neighbourhood is now one of Medellin’s biggest success stories.