Friday, November 11, 2011

Colombia 101

I just returned from Colombia and had a fantastic time at the 2nd Annual World Youth Summit on Volunteering. There were people from all over the world in attendance, wanting to know the best practices pertaining to volunteering. Experts in policy, social media, global poverty, and many more came to enlighten over 800 people about ways they could better increase volunteer efforts in their country. Now, we all know my life is not made entirely of chance, so go with me on this phenomenal networking journey.

Day 1:

The flight in was pretty good. While at the airport in Kansas City, I had lunch with a lady who was also waiting for a flight. After talking, we realize our meeting was not by chance. Her sister is a founding partner of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and was the former Executive Director of the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation. Sadly, I wrote her contact info on a napkin and it got thrown away by accident. Darn! Hopefully, she didn’t lose my info and decides to contact me.

From KS, I head to Dallas, and then from Dallas, I stop in Miami. In these airports, I meet people from Haiti, Egypt, and Nigeria. With each person, I ask about their culture and what an everyday tourist should know before visiting their home. While each person has interesting and unique answers, there was one common theme: visitors should come open-minded and willing to learn.. Don’t assume that you (western influence) need to save them or teach them anything. I thought this was brilliant food for thought…

After leaving Miami, I am finally in Barranquilla, Colombia!

Colombia is breath taking. The humidity took me back to the days of Costa Rica with long walks, gorgeous landscape, and indiscernible scenery. I was finally reunited with fresh produce, friendly people, and phenomenal dancing.


Day 2:

Not realizing what time the bus would pick me up from the hotel, I awake to realize that the bus had come at 7:00 am! In a panic, I rush down to the lobby and ask someone to grab a taxi for me. I am standing at the desk in the lobby when another man shares the same sentiment about needing a taxi to the Summit. We agree to split a taxi and head to the university. On the ride there, we pass a horse and buggy carrying fresh avocados. We were so close, I actually stuck my hand out and touched the buggy. Yes, I know, not safe, but I was just so tempted. Anyway, during the drive, we discuss our backgrounds and Michael shares with me that he is the winner of the Your Big Year competition. Your Big Year is a contest in which a person must travel the world for one year, and participate in community service projects for disadvantaged areas. They winner must visit 25 countries in this one-year time span.

Phenomenal. I hope to research this competition and apply.

Colombia definitely has Costa Rica beat in terms of extreme driving. If you think your car can fit, go for it. If you don't think it can’t fit, go for it anyway. There are no lines on the street, so you just cruise where you can and slam on the brakes when needed. I often wonder if that's what people feel when I drive in the States, but I think they over exaggerate.

Day 3

I head to the university and sit at a table for lunch. I was starting to get nervous about my presentation. It was only two days away and I wanted to meet the person who would be presenting with me. My presentation would be following the State Secretary of Sports and Youth of Minas Gerais for Brazil, so I had big shoes to fill. By chance, the lady sitting next to me happened to be the State Secretary! We discussed our presentations, did a quick run through, and decided to check out Colombia.

A Summit volunteer escorted us out of the school and grabbed a cab for us. Getting me in a tiny car is tough, but is especially complicated when the other passenger uses a wheelchair and the car is a pinto. Rosiana and I almost tore that taxi into scrap metal between her wheelchair being tied to the roof and my 6’ 2” frame squeezing into the back seat. Luckily, people in Colombia have no trouble getting “hands on” in terms of helping others, so Daniel shoved me in the back of this cab. Now, I don’t know if I was giving specific enough instructions, but for some reason, when I would say, “Push!”, he would lift my leg up. So by the end of this, I was in the car with my left foot touching the ceiling of the cab. Scared that I would kick the taxi driver in the back of the neck, we somehow ended my back seat acrobatics and situated me in a safe position.

We headed to the local art market and paid our taxi driver to stay with us as our personal shopper and assistant. We then ended that night at a new seafood place in town where I enjoyed fresh calamari and a few glasses of fresh squeezed blackberry juice. Scrumptious.

Day 4

From all the walking yesterday, I was pretty immobile and had to stay inside the hotel. I still, even after 24 years, have yet figured out my limit in terms of endurance. Well, maybe I have and just choose to ignore it. I don’t want to miss out on anything, so I just keep pushing even if it means a day in bed later. Yeah, that doesn't make sense. ßThings Shawn need to work on!

Day 5

Today is my presentation!

I had a difficult time deciding how I was going to approach my presentation, but it came together perfectly the day before after speaking with people and learning their understanding of a disability. The presentation was educational, fun, thought provoking, and received great feedback.

One of the most surprising things that happened was the amount of buzz my presence caused. The day of my presentation, I decided to meet in the main gala hall where all the participants were sitting while listening to the keynote speaker. I came through the back door and sit at a table behind the crowd. Then a custodial worker comes up and asked to take a picture with me. I laugh and take the picture and refocus on the speaker. Seconds later, a couple comes up and asks for my picture as well. Not sure what's going on, I take a picture and try to listen to the speaker. This goes on for a few more minutes, until I notice there is a line of 20+ people standing around my table asking for pictures, my email, and an autograph. Once lunch was served, staff asked people to hold off on things for at least 20 minutes so I could eat. Once finished, the line grew even larger. By the end of the day, I had taken at least 150 pictures with people who I now consider my international friends.

Unsure of the commotion, I start telling people where I am from and where I work, attend school, etc. I wanted to make sure they didn’t think I was someone important that they might have confused me for, but they hadn’t. Now my friends and I joke that I am a triple threat – big, black, and disabled – and with that combination, I am always going to draw attention. But this time, I wasn’t the biggest person there, nor the only black person, or person with a disability.

However, it is through those moments that I realized why I was there. Yes, people wanted pictures with me, but the pictures weren’t about me per se. The commotion was about what I represented to them.

Potential. Growth. Hope.

Seeing someone with a disability traveling internationally, without assistance, gave them hope in what others with disabilities in their country could do. It encouraged them to grow a community of support and advocacy for each other, showed them the potential of what could be accomplished on the individual, community, and political levels with the right support systems.

I hope to continue this journey of empowerment and education for those who need it the most. One step to do that will be through my recent appointment to the Statewide Independent Living Council. This month, Governor Brownback appointed me to this position and I am honored to serve as a Representative of my fellow Kansans with disabilities.

Our next adventure awaits in Washington, D.C.! Tomorrow I head to the district as part of a week long social media training. The training focuses on establishing online campaign for disadvantaged populations. Check it out here: NOI Training.

Until then,


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