Stephany Yong's Blog

Bringing Formal Education to Colombia's Poor: An Interview with the Emmaus Road Foundation

A country stricken by poverty and war, Colombia not only struggles with one of the poorest economies in the world but also a faltering education system. However, Natanael Lizarazo wants to change that. Having started the Emmaus Road Foundation almost 20 years ago, Natanael is the founder and vice president of the board of directors who strives to bring education and leadership to the poorest communities in Colombia. Since Natanael lives in the United States today, the on-going job in the organization is to be an interpreter for the people in Colombia and a fundraising presence for American donors. I was able to chat with Natanael about the Emmaus Road Foundation and their goals as they partner with Givology.

What are some of the goals and achievements of your organization?
The primary mission is to provide formal education to not only children but also youth and at times adults. We invest in formal education and believe in that. It is a passport to a better and dignified life. It is a very cool part of our work in Colombia. Also our mission is also to develop people with leadership abilities and skills so they will be able to impact their own environments, their family, within the church, and beyond in society. Also, those in Colombia have been living in a civil war for 50 years. For us to form people with peace making skills, respect of diversity and conflict aversion—that’s also a part of the leadership development. And especially in the last 10 years, we are also a bridge so that people in the United States can come to Colombia and educate themselves about the possibilities of the country, especially the poorer people.

What are the greatest challenges facing Colombian society?
The challenges for the folks in Colombia are of a country that still has much internal conflict which also impacts families and students The most significant challenge they face is the financial component. They are very poor people, so for them to even attend school is a struggle. It is a simple yet complicated issue of even having transportation.

How do you see the impact of your work?
Having started the Emmaus Road Foundation in 1991, we have worked with people until they have graduated from universities and helped support them and now these students are making contributions to family, church, and society. We have had the first medical doctors, engineers, and people in communications. We have had people continue and finish with us. Another great impact that provides a more human face to a relationship.

The second significant impact in the last 10 years is that we have been instrumental in bringing people directly to Colombia and see for themselves our mission and to reenergize to be ambassadors. Colombia has a very bad media image in the States. People think of drugs, violence—but Colombia is much more than that. I am very pleased with the people who have been helped in Colombia in formal education and leadership development. That is very critical. Someone can graduate from a university, but if you do not awaken the larger leadership potential, the impact is going to be much more narrow. Formal education and leadership development are very important.

What are some of the challenges that the Emmaus Road Foundation faces?
For a small organization for non profits, this challenge of communication is an on-going challenge. We are in the process of even having a friendly and interactive web page and not only in one language but bilingual as you need to communicate to people in Colombia and people in the States who do not speak Spanish. The Emmaus Road Foundation is trying the very best we can with keeping communication ongoing and flowing. We are blessed to have a bilingual person there who works to make it happen on the board of directors. Stella is in Colombia and helps significantly. I am blessed to have her as I am away from Colombia.

As you work on a lot of fundraising goals in the United States, what potential do you see in microphilanthropy for other nonprofit causes like Emmaus?
I live in a country where people have too much. In the US people have too much and very little that we can contribute. That is even the story of Givology—such a powerful message and story of having small gifts. Those gifts can be leveraged to impact a child and a family. I see the potential in the US to do amazing things and of course, that is why it is important to connect face to face and send people to Colombia. People who go onto visit Colombia come back and realize, “I want to sponsor another child.”

What has inspired you to continue your work in Colombia for the past 20 years?
I myself come from a very poor family in Colombia. I am the only one in a family of three brothers and one sister, I was the only one to go beyond one or two years of elementary education. The passport to a dignified life has been education. I myself am a deep believer in the potential of education and for life to be different.

I have a student who will hopefully graduate in a month. He is a father with five children. He does not have a place to live. He was going to the university but could not pay the fees to the university. However, he wanted to complete his degree and knocked on the door of our organization. He has not only been able to connect to his hopes and dream at the university but also purchase a better home for his family. And now he is so looking forward to having an official degree from a recognized degree at a Colombian university. He realized that dream will be enough for his family to push his children to go to school and go to the university. This is something that will inspire anybody—that gift and that drive. It is always an inspiration.

Students in Southern Bogota.

A student from Caracoli in southern Bogota proudly presents his masterpieces. The Emmaus Road Foundation actively supports art projects in education.

Natanael teaching at a Leadership Development Seminar with university students.

Parents from Caracoli proudly display their work at a recent leadership development seminar. The work of the Emmaus Road Foundation is holistic in nature and involves the entire family unit.


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