VAC Mini-grant Recipients

For those of you that don’t know, the VAC Mini-Grant program is intended to support volunteers’ community initiatives by providing a streamlined source of small cash grants. However modest, PCVs have come to rely on the $50,000 COP (equal to approximately $17 USD) grants as a consistent and reliable crowd-funded financial resource. Since January 2016, VAC’s fundraising efforts have enabled us to distribute 20 mini-grants totaling $1,000,000 COP. Below you will find the most recent projects that were supported by the Mini-Grant program.

Kids’ Photography Exhibition

Maya Cross, CII-8 Practical English for Success

I will be using the money from the minigrant to fund the opening celebration of a photography exhibition in the library of Manatí. In April, with the help of Carrie Shoultz and Outside the Lens, we held the first photography workshop in Manatí. A total of 12 students attended the workshop. The goal of the workshop was to use photography to empower kids through artistic expression. These kids’ creativity, self-expression, and critical thinking skills are severely stifled in typical classes do to a lack of resources and/or the use authoritarian teaching styles (you copy exactly what I write, kid). We wanted to give these kids their voice back and allow them to create something that truly belongs to them.

In the first part of the workshop, the kids learned about camera basics and elements of design. We worked with students on developing their personal expression skills by teaching them how to become art critics. In the second half of the workshop the students worked on the project Pieces of Me. This project uses photography as a way for kids to express what makes them special and unique. They photographed certain parts of their bodies and used poetry to explain the importance of these body parts to him or her. For example, the importance of hands to be able to hug family members or legs for dancing and playing sports.

I sought the minigrant funds to hold a celebration for the opening of the exhibition of the photos in the library. We would like to have an intimate and classy event that will be attended principally by the students that attended the workshop and their family members. We hope that by including family members in the exhibition opening we can open the door to discussions in the family about the importance of creativity and self-expression. The money will specifically be used for the printing of the photos on nice photo paper, snacks, and materials needed to create a proper “gallery opening” feeling in the library. We are very proud of the maturity and creativity that these kids showed in the photos they took. We hope that they will feel that same pride when showing off their photos to family members. We want them to look at the photos and think, “Wow! I can’t believe I took that amazing photo, I am artistic and creative!”


Fight for Peace Community Leadership and Boxing Club

Peter Andringa, CII-8 Practical English for Success

 The aim of the project is to form a team of young community members (ages 15-23) that will meet weekly to “train” together. The objective is to become community members who are stronger both mentally and physically. As a team, we will work to achieve 3 main objectives:
  1. 1. to develop an inner strength that enables us to be confident, responsible, and successful individuals as well as valuable members of our community
  2. 2. to learn strategies for resolving conflicts peacefully–both on the interpersonal everyday level and those arising in the community
  3. 3. to learn and develop the discipline necessary to be a boxer and to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I sought a minigrant to help supply us with purchasing jump-ropes. Jumping rope is a fantastic and cheap way to get exercise, and also a central part of training for boxing. I will surely be seeking more mini-grants in the future for this same project and eventually a larger grant as well. The projects requires athletic equipment, and a couple of mini-grants will help us get started.

La Olla Milagrosa

Andrew Koch, CII-9 Community Economic Development

Yasmila is the founder and director of Fundación La Olla Milagrosa (‘Miraculous Pot Foundation’), a local NGO, which she manages despite being a 46 year old single mother and successful entrepreneur. She created her foundation in 2015 and built an event space in an impoverished neighborhood in Fundacion in which she which hosts events for children, cooks meals on Sundays, and leads prayer services. Yasmila readily admitted that she had no real non-profit management background and that her NGO was not developing sustainable change through its activities. However, she wanted to do something to amplify the Olla and take it to the next level.

TCP Global is a micro-finance program which provides small sums of money to locally based and led NGOs which are to be distributed to small businesses as low-interest loans. TCP is led by Helene, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who served in Barranquilla, Colombia from 1968-1970, and the majority of TCP’s board members are former Peace Corps Volunteers. I facilitated contact between TCP and Yasmila resulting in an agreement between the two on April 6, 2017 which will lead to a $1,500 (USD) micro-loan pool. This pool will create 10-15 loans of $100,000-$500,000 Colombian Pesos (i.e. $30 – $160 USD) at rates of 3% monthly starting in July. As a requisite for obtaining a loan, the business owner must complete the Olla’s business training program that I helped develop which covers topics ranging from entrepreneurial attitudes to SWOT analyses to marketing to accounting to budgeting.

A different aspect of my work is with SENA (a local community college) and its program for 10th and 11th graders. The program is the equivalent of an American high school student taking community college courses while finishing high school at the same time. As SENA has a large focus on employment and practical experience, each student is required to do a lengthy internship. I work with a group of twelve 11th graders in SENA’s technical accounting degree within the high school Tercera Mixta. I learned that it is highly difficult for students to find and complete meaningful practicum projects, and as a result only three students graduated from Tercera Mixta with the SENA degree in 2016. This is significant because there is a lack of universities in this region and for many of these lower-to-middle income young adults, the only opportunity for any sort of higher education is through this program. After many meetings with the students, teachers, and principals, I helped them obtain internships with the Olla Milagrosa as business advisers.

From May 10 to 24, 2017, the Olla Milagrosa conducted ten training sessions for small business owners who primarily sell food products in Fundacion’s bustling open-air market. The SENA students attended all the sessions, and then helped the business owners to write and to present their business plans during the graduation ceremony on May 31. The business plans consisted of Mission/Vision statements, histories of the business, competitive analysis, target markets, marketing strategies, administrative plans, and budgets. A large part of my job as the primary teacher of the classes was convincing the participants not to be intimidated by the esoteric business terms; they are savvy business owners who already have implemented a majority of these strategies. The ceremony on May 31 is definitively the highlight of my Peace Corps experience thus far. Ten small business owners (nine women and one man) presented business plans and graduated from the course with their 11th grade accounting student partners.

None of these entrepreneurs have bank accounts and all have past experience with pagadiarios (loan sharks charging 20% monthly interest). These businesses are in the process of applying for a micro-credit from the Olla as the Olla waits for the $1,500 to clear the numerous anti-money laundering hurdles involved in sending money from the U.S. to Colombia. The goal is to distribute the loans on July 1 with the students continuing to advise the small businesses, especially on accounting principles. More and larger business administration classes are in the pipeline for July with grander plans of forming new businesses in the impoverished neighborhood that Yasmila has her locale using the earnings from the micro-loans.

The partnership of the Olla Milagrosa, Peace Corps, TCP Global, SENA, and the Tercera Mixta high school is just beginning.

VAC grant money helped pay for printing copies of the class textbook (available here) for all participants, name tags, and drinks/snacks during the training sessions with the majority of the payment coming from the Olla.

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