We present you with the story of Theodora Stankova, who was a volunteer with Nukanti Foundation in Colombia thanks to European Voluntary Service (EVS). Her project “Empowering young Colombians through Leadership and Participation” was for a period of one year – from the beginning of February 2013 to the end of January 2014 – and it was financed through the programme Youth in Action of the European Commission.

riding a horse

Riding a horse – or just posing for the picture 🙂

It all started in 2012 when I went to South America for the first time. My friend and I had only 3 months and a very ambitious agenda starting in Brazil and finishing off in Peru. This time I did not have the chance to visit Colombia, but I fell in love with another South American country, Chile, and for the first time started dreaming about spending more time in South America.

So when I got back home I started thinking of how I could go back to Chile with almost no money. I had been involved with a local NGO, CVS-Bulgaria, for about ten years and I knew that there was a great opportunity for young people to do long-term volunteer projects abroad, not only in Europe but also outside of Europe. This great opportunity was called European Voluntary Service (EVS), part of the Youth in Action Programme funded by the European Commission. I know that EVS was available for young people up to 30 years old, so it was my last chance to do it!! CVS-Bulgaria had never sent volunteers outside of Europe through this program but they decided to support me in this adventure. So now I only had to find a hosting organization in Chile!

happy birthday in Quinchia

A great surprise for my birthday in the headquarters of Nukanti Colombia 🙂

Well, I had no luck in this… But I managed to find an organization in Colombia and I said “Why not? It’s close enough!”. So I wrote to Nukanti Foundation, who were looking for English teachers in the Coffee Region of Colombia, and told them about the EVS opportunity, through which volunteers could have not only their food and accommodation covered, but also up to 90 % of their travel costs. Based on my experience we decided what kind of activities to include in the project and then I only had a few weeks to write the project, with the support of the EVS coordinator at CVS-Bulgaria.

So to cut a long story short project submitted in June and approved in October. Now when the dream was slowly becoming a reality I had to take care of a lot of details – organize my travel, visa and insurance, with the priceless help of Natalie Jivkova, my EVS coordinator. And so at the end of January 2013 I had my visa and ticket to Pereira, a town in Colombia that I had never heard of before. I would spend the next one year in Quinchia, a small village about 3 hours from the capital of the Risaralda department.

last English class with the children in Quinchia

My kids in Quinchia 🙂 Five of the children from the children’s English group who were the most motivated and always came to the classes

The day when I arrived to Quinchia was my birthday and they had a great surprise for me. Everyone from Nukanti had gathered in the office to welcome me with a small cake and a sign saying (or at least trying to say!) “Happy birthday!” in Bulgarian. This day I met Leonardo, the director of Nukanti Colombia, my supervisor throughout the project, and Fernando, my colleague and mentor. I also got to know Orsolya, a Hungarian volunteer who had arrived about one month before me – I think the most important person for me during my stay in Quinchia. During the four months that we worked together we shared our daily lives, both work and leisure. I must say that it was a great

support to have another foreign volunteer with me in the first few months!! When you go to a place where everything is new – new people, new surroundings, new culture – having someone who shares the same fears and expectations, someone to support you and whom you can support, is always of great help.

With Orsolya, or Sol as we call her, we discovered that we had very similar experience and interests, so most of the time it was easy to work together. As envisaged in my EVS project we worked with youth from Quinchia and the surrounding rural areas, who have very limited access to after-school activities. We gave English classes and workshops on topics such as effective communication, team work, conflict resolution, public speaking, project management, etc. We also organized several cultural events in cooperation with the local House of Culture (Casa de la Cultura) in Quinchia. Another main activity was visiting kids and women in Naranjal, one of the nearby villages, and organizing activities with them. We also participated in the conmemoration event for March 8, International Women’s Day, and we organized a celebration of May 9, Europe Day – this was an interactive event with more than 50 participants!

English classes in Quinchia

One of the English groups in Quinchia

At the end of the first six months my supervisor and I had a meeting to discuss the project, the achievements and the problems, and we decided that it may be good for me and for Nukanti if I could go to a different place in Colombia and see if I could implement similar activities there with a different target group. Thanks to my previous experience in NGO work and work with youth and children I was pretty independent in my project activities, and I also felt that I needed a change of the environment. This is why I was offered to work with Nukanti in Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, which struggles with high rates of delinquency due to low education levels, high unemployment rates and marginalization of large, mainly black, populations.

youth workshop in Santa Elena

The youngsters from Santa Elena, a small village an hour away from Quinchia by jeep, really impressed us with their intelligence and willingness to learn – two qualities that are not very common for the local teenagers

So at the beginning of August I had to say goodbye to my friends in Quinchia and start a whole new adventure in Cali. Over there I would be more independent in my work and would work in close cooperation with Niousha Roshani, the Executive Director of Nukanti International. The first weeks in Cali I was together with Niousha, who presented me to different existing and potential new partners, with which I could work in the next few months. This time spent with my new supervisor was extremely useful in order for me to get to know Nukanti International better and gain useful knowledge about the specifics of the work with marginalized youth in urban areas in Colombia.

martenichki in Naranjal

A workshop to make martenitzas with a local indigenous community 🙂

Already in the first few weeks I made important contacts with two NGOs with which I would be working until the end of my project. One of them was Fundacion Paz y Bien with their project Casas Francisco Esperanza, a network of youth centers that operate in the Aguablanca district, one of the most dangerous and marginalized zones of Cali. These centers aim to provide meaningful free-time activities to youth at risk and most importantly support in dealing with the difficult situations they face on a daily basis and guidance in planning their future. My role would be to give English classes to the young people as well as organize other activities such as movie projections, discussions, art and sport activities. I must say that this task was sometimes challenging because of the specifics of the target group – these youth usually have difficulties to focus on one activity for a longer period of time, some of them have learning and behavioural problems, all of them struggle with aggression, violence and family problems on a daily basis. However, at the end of the project I really felt that I connected to the young people and could see a lot of potential in them. Unfortunately, Casa 6, which was the center where I was working, was closed at the beginning of 2014 due to insufficient funding.

One of the English groups in Cali - youth from House 6 in the Aguablanca zone, with primarily black population and very high rates of extreme poverty, unemployment and delinquency

One of the English groups in Cali – youth from House 6 in the Aguablanca zone, with primarily black population and very high rates of extreme poverty, unemployment and delinquency

The other important partner that I found in Cali was ACCR La Red (Asociacion Centro Cultural La Red), which functions as a community and youth center in Siloe, another problematic area of Cali. Over there I was also giving English classes and in cooperation with a local feminist organization, La Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, we organized weekly workshops on gender issues and women’s empowerment. This experience was also very interesting, although it is extremely difficult to talk about gender equality and women’s rights in Colombia in general, and even more difficult in the marginalized urban areas. This is due to the fact that Colombian society is highly patriarchal, and even women tend to objectify themselves and thus give way to the existing machismo. However, I believe that every experience is a valuable lesson to be learned and I now feel that I will be better prepared to organize gender-oriented activities with youth in these areas.


The family of one of the girls from Casa 6. It is the grandmother that takes care of her and her sisters

On September 21, World Peace Day, Nukanti and ACCR La Red took part in the international campaign Peace One Day with a full-day event that included a football game, a workshop to make pinwheels for peace, a zumba class and a concert with presentation of different youth groups from Siloe and Cali’s biggest hip-hop band, Zona Marginal.

Parallel I was working under the supervision of Nukanti?s Executive Director on various administrative tasks for Nukanti International, including preparing and submitting project proposals for Colombia, coordinating team meetings, contacting new partners, etc. At the end of my EVS project I was also responsible for launching Nukanti’s internal mentorship program for children in a vulnerable situation and for recruiting new volunteers to complement the team once I would be gone.

And before I could fully realize it a whole year had gone by, soon it was my birthday again and I had made a second home in Colombia without even wanting it… It was a year full of experiences, sometimes good and sometimes not as good, but always interesting and carrying another lesson to be learned. By the end I was already feeling homesick and wanted to go back home at least for a while, but I knew that I had created a connection for life with this tropical country and that I would always want to go back... at least to visit my friends 🙂 I had learned that you can never know a country profoundly without sharing the life of its people and opening your heart to their daily joys and pains. And that once you do it, you can never break this invisible thread between you and this place.


EU_flag_yia_EN-01This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

 Posted by Mira at 22:16 EVS news

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