A Safe Haven for Displaced Children
Mery Genoi Solarte is a young Colombian mother who dreamed of a place where she and her family could forget, at least for a little while, the harsh realities of their daily life. Forced by armed conflict to flee her home, Mery and so many others like her ended up in Popayán, in the state of Cauca, struggling to survive.
With scraps of wood, cardboard, plastic, and other materials, they built small shacks to house up to five or six people.
Mery washed clothes for a living and her husband was a street vendor, but between them they barely made enough to support their four children. Mery especially worried about her family's health and educating her children, along with that of the many other vulnerable youth in this community of internally displaced persons.
Fortunately, Mery and her children now have a safe haven in a unique center called Comprehensive Services Center for the Family (or CAIF per its Spanish acronym).
CAIF Project Director José Cabrera explains: "When a child arrives at CAIF, they are treated like a family member."
CAIF offers health and nutrition programs, education, community organization, and vocational training for pre-school children, youth, pregnant mothers and families in the Popayan region. The center targets members of vulnerable and displaced populations, such as Mery and her family.
CAIF started construction on its center in 2006 and opened its doors in September 2007. PADF, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and support from the Colombian government, provided resources to get CAIF going and expand its capacity to support more internally displaced persons. Within Colombia's borders, there are more than 3 million internally displaced persons.
In the last year, nearly 1,700 children, youth, and parents received free services through CAIF. Approximately 290 children ages 7 to 13 participated in dance and music classes and sports clinics. Another 180 older kids, ranging in age from 15 to 19, received vocational training in auto mechanics, cosmetics, cooking, and child care.
Since many of the children get only one meal a day at home, CAIF offers them a balanced lunch and two snacks daily. In cooperation with local medical schools and the United Nations' World Food Program, mothers and children are taught about healthy dietary habits and good personal hygiene.
"The whole idea is to achieve healthy, happy children," says Maria Cristina Cabanillas, a nurse at CAIF.
Mery is a success story. She received formal training and now works part-time at CAIF.
"Not only are my children receiving free education, food, and health services, I also feel I have more time to be with them," she says. "My life has changed so much thanks to PADF and CAIF."