BEHIND THE CITY'S WALLS IN CARTAGENA
History of Cartagena
Before Cartagena became a major Colombian tourist destination, it was one of the most important slave trade ports in all of the Americas. While it flourished in the trading of goods, weapons, and slaves, it also gave reason for other countries to attack and try to take hold of this booming city. Therefore, the Spanish invested large amounts of money into building one of the most protected forts in all of South America.
After the Spanish ruled and colonized, Cartagena was relatively forgotten about for over 100 years until a long-term restoration project on the city’s walls and fort began in the 1950s. This resulted in the well known charming city that can be seen restored in all its glory - or so that it may seem from inside the walls.
To many, Cartagena is known now as one of Latin America’s top destinations. People come in from all over the world to enjoy old city charm, cobblestoned streets, horse-drawn carriages, and laid back Caribbean vibes. Not only has it become a hotspot for tourists alone, it’s also became the place to invest millions of dollars into the housing/apartment market. Truthfully though, Cartagena has a hidden reality not many people know about.
Outside of the old city, there is a part of Cartagena that is living in downright poverty. Unlike the people that are living in the wealthy city center, most of the residents of these outside neighborhoods are black. Drug trafficking still occurs, children are malnourished, and preventable diseases are common. Over six-hundred thousand of Cartagena's million people are poor (Forero, 2009). Adil Melendez, a human rights lawyer and activist who works in the neighborhood states, "The poverty is immense. And then there is a small pocket of very rich people who maintain a life of extreme opulence." (Forero, 2009).
Forero, Juan. “In Colombia, newfound wealth masks poverty.” Washington Post. February 2009.
Finding Volunteer Opportunities in Cartagena
Knowing we would only be in Cartagena for a short while and wouldn't have time to volunteer, we still wanted to figure out ways we could connect with members of the community that are working to solve these major issues that face this city. This is where Christina Kuntz of Domino Volunteers comes gracefully into our story. I reached out to Christina via email before arriving to Cartagena to learn more about her organization and the ways she is inspiring and creating access for the community in Cartagena. She was so kind and responded right away, offered to find us a place to stay, and was willing to figure out a time and place near where we were staying to meet up as soon as we arrived. I was already impressed and we hadn't even met her yet!
After exploring for most of our first day in Cartagena, we met Christina at her favorite local coffee shop, Cafe del Mural. During our hour long chat, she revealed to us that she moved to Cartagena six years ago to pursue volunteering opportunities teaching English with the Peace Corps (a two-year commitment). Within the first couple of months, Christina found herself called to projects that held a higher priority due to the pressing needs facing the community.
Her first project was creating a girl’s leadership program, which involved mentoring thirty girls from sixteen to eighteen-years-old on topics such as pregnancy prevention and sexual health education. In addition to working with the young girls, another project that Christina spear-headed was called “When I Grow Up." Noticing that much of the reason students weren't attending university was due to lack of study skills/test taking skills regarding entrance exams, she designed a program that would train and prepare students for standardized tests. She was able to acquire funding and pay for seventy percent of each student’s entrance exam. This was only the beginning of the work that Christina would invest in over the next couple of years.
About Domino Volunteers
After volunteering in Cartagena for over two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Christina met her husband and eventually formed an organization called Domino Volunteers that links interested volunteers with numerous outreach opportunities across the city. Christina and her husband have worked endlessly to create an extensive network of organizations and foundations that are working towards improving the conditions of the current state in Cartagena. Just to name a few, some of the projects they have their volunteers involved with include teaching English, taking care of the elderly, facilitating “Green” projects, designing extracurricular programs for children, and establishing ecosystem conservation projects.
When we talked to Christina, she informed us that she would be leaving the next day with her husband to Isla Fuerte off of Cartagena. There, they would present their most recent proposal to solve some of the issues they see occurring related to ocean conservation + at the same, their project would be creating jobs for locals in the dive industry. There are some incredible reefs off the islands near Cartagena. However, due to overfishing + dynamite fishing, there is very little marine life left on the reef. Christina and her husband have proposed a project that would solve some of these problems by certifying local fishermen (the same ones that are using dynamite fishing techniques + hurting the reef system) to become dive masters and coral reef monitors. This project would provide jobs for the local community, as well as work towards preserving this beautiful reef system. Christina filled us in that the project went off without a hitch! They now have fifteen young adults that will participating in helping with the project. They are now waiting for the donors to respond and help fund this project. If you’d like to learn more about diving in the area, Domino Volunteers can also connect you to their dive operation and project. If you’d like to donate or learn more about the success of the project, make sure to stay tuned to Domino Volunteers and all of their social media outlets!
How to Get Involved with Volunteering
One thing that I absolutely love about this organization is that when you get in contact with Domino Volunteers, they have you fill out a form of your preferences (i.e., how long you plan to volunteer, your interests, past volunteer experiences). After this, Christina is able to search through her network of organizations and place you in the best possible volunteer opportunity suited to your interests and skill set. They prefer that most people stay at least a month but they can place you in particular projects if you are planning to stay less than that. Another great aspect of this program is that you are placed with a local host family where you are able to practice your Spanish, integrate with local culture, and feel secure and safe.
If you are interested in volunteering while in Cartagena, feel free to email Christina @firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to check out their Facebook, website, and Instagram for all their latest news + updates on current project.