This blog post, written by Bronson Herman was originally published in the blog Summer of RCAH, a Tumblr account from Bronson’s faculty where he is a senior. Thank you (tío) Bronson for sharing your experiences at Cambio Creativo!
For the summer I accepted an internship position as a project coordinator and teaching assistant with a small NGO, Cambio Creativo, in Coco Solo (Colón, Panamá). When my internship is completed in Panamá I will be making a return trip to the communities in Costa Rica that I lived with last summer during my study abroad program. Currently I live in the town of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast in an apartment with a Portuguese music school teacher and a Costa Rican archaeologist that live below me. With Cambio Creativo my role is to develop activities and projects for the afterschool program. Cambio Creativo serves as a location that stimulates cross cultural learning, critical thinking and self-determination through the arts. Additionally I will be collaborating with Blake Scott, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin and volunteer coordinator of Cambio Creativo, to create an ESL-based business course for the teenagers. Other tasks include coordinating fundraiser activities, scheduling visiting artist workshops and producing media for greater exposure. As the second intern to ever participate in this developing program, focused on youth education, I was guided by their very first intern Jacquelin Tancredi.
A UMASS grad in Architecture and Design, Jacquelin also has extensive experience in NGOs in Latin America and countless adventures all around the world. While with Cambio Creativo she juggled several other projects including one in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, while also preparing for her next move to México City. On many occasions Jacquelin would claim she was not a teacher, but from the amount of knowledge I gained from her in our own interactions and the impact she had on the students we worked with, I would definitely have to disagree.
There were many elements that attracted me toward Cambio Creativo. Just reading the description on their website I saw common themes and values of the RCAH: “Cambio Creativo facilitates a space for cross-cultural education. We help each other find alternatives for social and economic development. Our programs are led by volunteers, teachers, artists and community members.” A little slice of the RCAH in Central America while working with a developing NGO and practicing my Spanish was a dream come true. Before arriving to Panamá the only thing I really knew about Coco Solo was that it was the location of the United States military base where my grandfather Wilbur Schall had been stationed. After the conclusion of WWII Wilbur lived in the very barracks that many of the students in Cambio Creativo call home today. My aunt has several letters from my grandfather chronicling the unbearable heat of the location in which after taking a shower you were already drenched in sweat. Many of the American soldiers donated some of their t-shirts to the shirtless indigenous women working the fields in the surrounding area. I never met my grandfather as he passed away before my birth, but this trip seemed like a way of retracing his footsteps. From his letters he basically described this exotic location as an unforgiving place with the climate and amount of insects he encountered. During my time here with Cambio Creativo I plan to share my family history with the youth of Coco Solo illustrating the fact I am not as much of an outsider as they may think.
The province of Colón in Panamá is neglected by the government creating problems with crime, violence and despair. But after visiting this region and meeting the people there, I learned there is also a great deal of faith that is contagious. My initial exposure to Coco Solo was via images on the web of dilapidated army barracks filled with rubble where the locals live without water, limited electricity and very poor sanitation conditions. A YouTube video titled Panamá’s Coco Solo: A Short Documentary, which offers a tour of this neighborhood by pastor Michael Brown, the honorary mayor of the town and board of director for Cambio Creativo, was what finally made me feel that Cambio Creativo was the right place for me. False promises by the Panamanian government and financial shortcomings caused these temporary housing units to become permanent homes. Adjacent to the Cambio Creativo community center and the homes of these citizens are two container terminals located on the northwest side of the Panamá Canal. These terminals are Colón Container Terminal and Manzanillo International Terminal which is the busiest container port in all of Latin America. Many taxi drivers do not know where Coco Solo is or choose to ignore it while others refuse to visit in fear of being robbed. Telling local Panamanians that you work in Coco Solo can elicit a wide range of reactions. From my own experience the majority have been of appreciation and curiosity. First pulling up to Coco Solo I was deeply affected seeing what these people have to endure on a daily basis just to survive.
A lot of my own personal concerns evaporated when I took my first step into Cambio Creativo’s community center where there is a library, a computer lab, and a classroom space. Children came flying down the stairs to swarm Jacquelin with hugs as some giggled and cheered through their gummy smiles. At this moment all I could do was smile. Cambio Creativo’s main purpose is to offer a safe space for the children of Coco Solo to dream, imagine and express themselves through many different mediums of art and education. These kids may not have a lot of material possessions, but they possess something with greater value that cannot be measured. Finished creative projects reveal that these children are intelligent, spirited and creative students who just need an outlet and support. Attention, respect and opportunity are what these kids need. Within my fifth trip to Cambio Creativo there were several students already referring to me as tío (uncle) Bronson. By far my favorite moments are when they critique Jacquelin and me for our accents while speaking Spanish. Many times it feels as though you have a flock of teachers inside the classroom giving directions. Through Cambio Creativo they have come to value their own abilities to learn and teach. Venturing to Coco Solo can be quite frustrating and exhausting while taking the packed public bus in the humid Panamanian climate, but seeing the smiling faces of the children at Cambio Creativo is a reinvigoration of life and energy. Most importantly for the community it is an important message of hope.