Photo Courtesy of Mark Kaseman
I met Marcos in January 2012 in Medellin, Colombia. A friend told me there was an old American guy doing amazing work in the mountains around Medellin. Always on the hunt for great places to volunteer while traveling, I wrote him an email and soon enough I was waiting for Marcos at the Acevedo Metro Station at 10a.m.
Volunteers meet Marcos at the metro station and ride a cable car up to the last stop. For many this would be as far as they'd go, as beyond it only gets poorer and more dangerous. Marcos plows onward though, taking a bus through some rough neighborhoods to reach the village of Regalo del Dios, which means Gift of God.
Marcos, whose real name is Mark Kaseman, first came to Colombia in 2004. His printing business in New York had soured, he was recently divorced, and things weren't going well. He sought greener pastures and found himself in Colombia looking for love and opportunities. Instead of falling for a girl, he fell for Regalo del Dios. Hard.
When Marcos first started his organization, Angeles de Medellin (Angels of Medellin), he faced steep uphill battles. As if his inadequate Spanish skills weren't enough of a challenge, he was in Medellin at the height of its drug war. It was one of the most dangerous places on earth. The gang controlling Regalo del Dios wanted nothing to do with an old gringo making noise about helping children and the displaced families fleeing the countryside by force to the comparably safer city. They told him if he valued his life he'd stay away.
As a direct, ex-military man, he devised a strategy that he thought might just be crazy enough to work: confront the leader of the gang directly on his own turf. Marcos pleaded his case and his love for the children and the families. His pleas and courage were rewarded with the protection of the gang. He now had the equivalent of a license to operate and Marcos was now in business to distribute unconditional acts of love and kindness.
Marcos's vision was to create a community center that empowered the townspeople - specifically its children. He saw the value in creating a safe, happy space for them to do what they so often can't do at home: play, have fun, and be kids. He brought in board games, sporting equipment, and even computers so kids could play educational games while also learning the technology that would otherwise severely limit professional and educational opportunities later in life. Most of all, he sought to break the poverty cycle by empowering these children with love and educational opportunities so their future could be brighter than their present.
And it's working.
This fantastic story has attracted over 1000 volunteers from all over the world to this forgotten village high up in the mountains around Medellin. Games are played, English is taught to adults and kids alike, and this community of displaced refugees has truly found a home in Regalo del Dios.
Marcos helps the extremely poor families with donations, food, clothing, and medicine as his center is the closest thing to social support system. Throughout the years the center has grown and grown, being fully funded by donations and being run by volunteers from far and wide. The center has grown too much, in fact.
Until now Marcos has rented his facility and has been constrained by the terms of his lease. Through an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, he is raising money to buy the building and the one next door to take Angeles de Medellin to the next level - and provide even more services to the underprivileged townspeople. With an extra building and the ability to modify the existing one, new programming can be held, a health/dental clinic can be added, the only library for miles can be started, and more assistance can be given to those with disabilities. In short, Marcos wants to take Angeles de Medellin to the next level.
Marcos is called El Padre de la Montaña (The Father of the Mountain) and is beloved by all. He is just one man, but he reminds us all that it only takes one person to make a world of difference in a community.
In closing, a short video about Marcos and Angeles de Medellin.
Photos coutesy of Adam Pervez