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.