By Endrina Fernandez
At the beginning of my senior year at UF, my friend and I came across Children Beyond Our Borders at Plaza of the Americas (back in 2014). We were both excited to apply and venture to a new country, a new city, a new everything. Shortly after my application I received an email for an interview at Library West; this adventure was becoming more real to me. Later on, I got my acceptance letter and dates for our training. Nothing felt real until I stepped out of the airplane and saw Yosimar holding a "Welcome CBOB Family" banner.
The apartment was luxurious, the pool looked amazing, my group of volunteers was hilarious. I could not complain; I was in paradise. Then we had our first day at the foundation at Granitos de Paz. Holy Crap! Who knew you could fall in love with so many kids in a split second! They see you and their eyes light up, they rush to hug you, and it just feels like unconditional love. Monday through Friday, as a group, we would present our workshops and bond with the kids. Some kids would pull me aside to tell me secrets, some called me "mom", and others just wanted to hug me or be by my side all day. It could get a bit exhausting because kids do have tons of energy, but it was worth it. We became this huge family in less than two weeks.
Our last day consisted of a war, a water balloon war. We split into teams and rushed to fill up as many balloons as we could. Everyone could not stop laughing. This fulfilling experience that made our goodbyes with torn tears and long hugs. Nobody wanted to leave.
As you see, a Bound for Peace Trip becomes more than just a trip, it's a life-changing experience. You learn to appreciate your life a bit more. You learn to smile more. It's a feeling hard to explain but you feel like you made a change in someone's world. I have not met someone who did not enjoy their trip. Now I became the Director of Service Trips, because I may not have the eligibility to attend each trip, but I can assure the traditions continue on with every generation. I can make sure kids know I am there in spirit by face-timing a volunteer and chatting with the kids. I miss them all. And that was just a brief summary of my first Bound for Peace Trip to Cartagena in 2015.
Endrina Fernandez is the Director of the Service Trip Program for CBOB. She received a Bachelor's Degree in Sociology from the University of Florida.
By Daniel Alvarez
“You have to go. It will change your life.” These are the words that were spoken to me by a fellow classmate a few weeks before I applied to volunteer on my first service trip with CBOB in 2011. My classmate, Andrea Ortega (who would eventually become Executive Director of CBOB years later), had just finished telling me how her life was impacted by her first trip with CBOB the previous summer. I was unaware at the time that the service trip that I was going to embark on would actually change my worldview, help me find my passion, and shape the course of my life.
As a student entering my junior year at UF, I had already changed my major once and I was constantly questioning what career path was the right one for me. I knew I wanted to help people in need, but I was not completely sure what was the best path for me to do this. My parents, Colombian immigrants who came to the U.S. in search of a better life, endured many challenges and worked tirelessly to give my two older brothers and I a life of opportunity and the privilege to dream. Thanks to their sacrifices, I had the option of questioning my career choice halfway through college and of exploring what it was I truly wanted to do. I am grateful that when I came to my parents with the idea that I wanted to travel to Colombia with a group of volunteers for two weeks, they supported me and opened the door for me.
I arrived in Cartagena in the summer of 2011 excited for the unknown and with enthusiasm to serve the kids in the community. I felt ready to deliver on the goal of empowering the children to make positive life choices and to inspire them to pursue their dreams. However, I was unaware of the transformative impact that the youth would have on me.
I vividly remember arriving for the first time at Fundacion Granitos de Paz, the nonprofit organization located at the center of Rafael Nuñez, one of Cartagena’s most marginalized neighborhoods where we would be working with the youth. A social worker from the Fundacion provided the group of volunteers with an overview of the multitude of programs and services the organization provides to the children and families of Rafael Nuñez to help them overcome the challenges they face daily. The social worker then led us on a tour of the neighborhood, where my eyes were opened to the immense needs of the community. It did not take long to see the variety of challenges faced by the people of Rafael Nuñez as a result of poverty. There I was with 20+ college students from the United States, hopeful that we could make some sort of lasting impact on the lives of the children of this community over the next two weeks. However, I was realizing quickly that the challenges these children faced were so much larger than what we could realistically help them with. Whereas my thoughts when I landed in Cartagena consisted of “I can’t wait to make a difference in the lives of these kids,” they quickly shifted to “What are the chances that our time here can actually make a difference?” Needless to say, I began the trip with conflicted feelings about the long-term impact we could actually make during our time in Cartagena.
Then I met the kids. The joy in their faces greeting returning volunteers and meeting new ones for the first time was enough to show me that CBOB played a vital role in the lives of these children. Throughout the span of the two weeks that followed, I found out how CBOB has left its mark on the lives of so many kids in the community of Rafael Nuñez for years. Some children shared that they actively reminded themselves to avoid negative influences such as drugs and gangs because of what CBOB volunteers had taught them about these dangerous paths. Others shared how they came to have hope for a future in which they can pursue their goals for a better life through their education. Others even shared that they were determined to learn to speak English for the simple fact that they wanted to be able to communicate with the CBOB volunteers who came to visit them and could not speak Spanish. The most moving part of all was when I heard the general consensus about what this time of the year meant for the children: They had been looking forward to these two weeks with CBOB’s volunteers for the entire year. Despite the relatively short amount of time that the volunteers spend with the children of Rafael Nuñez each year, it was clear that CBOB’s impact lasted well beyond the two-week-long service trips.
During my time on that first service trip with CBOB, I realized that our purpose there was a more profound one than what I could have ever initially known. I came to see that a group of volunteers cannot possibly change the current situation the children lived in. However, each group of volunteers, year after year, had a role in empowering the children to make vital decisions that could change their futures. Perhaps most importantly, by the end of the trip I understood that the bonds that were created with the children of Rafael Nuñez were bonds that forged goals and hope for a better future.
I ended up returning as trip leader on the service trip to Cartagena the following year. I also joined the executive board of CBOB’s UF chapter with the hope of spreading awareness about the service trips to more students, citing to them the same words Andrea had told me a couple years prior. I even returned as a volunteer for a third time a year after graduating from college. It became very clear to me by this point that empowering youth was not just something I wanted to do as an extracurricular activity; it was what I wanted to do with my life.
While I was unsure of what path I wanted to take before I volunteered on my first trip with CBOB, I am grateful that the journey to my calling began with that experience. I graduated with my Masters in Social Work in 2017 and am pursuing licensure in Clinical Social Work. I am currently working for a behavioral health agency in Miami, where I provide therapeutic services to children and families facing a variety of life challenges. I attribute my experiences with CBOB as what mainly influenced me to pursue a career path in which offering hope and empowerment to people in need is one of the primary goals.
Approximately seven years after my first service trip with CBOB, I am honored to serve as a member of the organization’s Board of Directors. My experiences as a volunteer with CBOB shaped the course of my life, and I hope to help the organization continue to impact the lives of the children we serve, while hopefully helping others find their calling through CBOB, too.
Daniel Alvarez is a Behavioral Health Practitioner at Banyan Health Systems in Miami, FL.
By Valentina Betancur
In my personal opinion and from my own individual experience, education has the amazing quality of enlightening those who take it on. It has been a beautiful experience to have learned the things that I have learned in the classroom during my time in college thus far. Yet, one of the most difficult experiences during these past three years was to begin to make the connections between what I learned in the classroom to the harsh reality of what happens back home. I was born in Medellin, Colombia but I was raised in Jacksonville, Florida. The poverty rate there is almost 15%, and yet, when you drive through many of its streets it seems exponentially higher. The city has a pretty stark divide in terms of race and class where Blacks and Hispanics are often the most impoverished throughout the city. The legacies that I would study in class, I would see for myself when I would go back home and visit my friends. I would drive through the city and see for myself the opportunities—or lack thereof—that there are for certain communities. Children being packed into extremely low quality schools because of the neighborhoods that they were born in. This lack of educational opportunity coupled with the onslaught of other problems that the poor often face becomes an obstacle that is too difficult for many to overcome. I have seen the outcome of this combination with two of my closest friends as well as throughout the people of my city and now I understand the institutional problems that reside behind it.
Like I said before, I see education as an opportunity for enlightenment, but I think that it also gives a person power to act on that knowledge. I hope every day that I can continue on to be an advocate for the disenfranchised and their experiences and to use the information that I have learned to help break down some of the barriers that have been put in front of them.
Even though I am the Development Director for CBOB and therefore do not interact with the children that we serve face-to-face as much as other managers, I still feel that it is an opportunity to start breaking down some barriers. After going back to my city several times and understanding the role that education plays in changing lives, it makes me incredibly proud of the work that we do as an organization. The children that we help (both locally and abroad) could easily be one of my friends from back home or one of the people that I drive by on the streets of Jacksonville. Every effort that we make on a daily basis contributes to enhancing the quality of life of another person, until little by little we make real change.
Valentina Betancur is the Development Director for Children Beyond Our Borders. She is entering her fourth year at the University of Florida as a double major in Economics and International Studies with a minor in International Development, and she has been with CBOB for a little over a year, beginning last summer as a fundraising intern.
Choosing a graduate career can be extremely difficult. You’ve survived four years of taking a bunch of classes that didn’t have to do with what you studied. Just when when you finally got to the classes of your interest, you either realize you love it or think “what have I gotten myself into?” I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Packaging Engineering from the University of Florida, today, I am in the PhD program at the University of Central Florida in Public Administration. How did that happen? For one, I worked as a Structural Designer straight out of college for a packaging company and although designing was fun, I hated and dreaded going to work. I loved the nonprofit I volunteered at and I was pretty freaking good at it. I took a leap of faith and applied to the Masters in Nonprofit management at the University of Central Florida. The reason I share some of my background is for you to understand there are plenty of people who are now studying something totally different, my husband got his Masters in Logistics Management and his Bachelors in Criminal Justice. Life is not decided right after college, so much goes into what will be your forever career and although, I might not be in what I thought I would be, I somehow ended where I should be.
A couple of tips on choosing a graduate career:
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. If you are thinking of applying to UCF. I’d love to answer any of your questions. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.