Training for the New York City Marathon while volunteering in a foreign country might seem extreme, but for Ridgefield resident Carrie Smuckler every mile on the hotel treadmill was a necessary step towards helping the children in need in Cartagena, Colombia.
Smuckler, who traveled to Cartagena in October to bring supplies to schools and youth organizations that are supported by the Kids First Foundation, completed the marathon in early November.
“I was at the end of my marathon training when I was there,” she recalled, “and I didn’t want to lose any of my stamina or do anything negative to affect my conditioning so I found a treadmill at our hotel and woke up early that week to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.”
For Smuckler, the journey didn’t end when she crossed the finish line in Manhattan and donated the $3,000 she raised to Kids First.
A month later, she found herself wanting to reconnect with the kids she had visited while in Colombia. That’s when she got in contact with Spanish teacher Lourdes Eckstein at East Ridge Middle School and shared her idea to create holiday cards for the 300-plus children at Fundacion REI, an organization that helps disabled and underprivileged youth in Cartagena.
“I was literally floored when I went to go pick up the cards last week,” said Smuckler on Dec. 26. “I had no idea the department would be able to pull off something so big in such a short window of time. I was impressed by how seriously the kids took the project — they took pride in their design work, their newly acquired vocabulary, and in their handwriting; it was so sweet.”
Smuckler shipped the cards to REI last week so they could arrive in time for Three Kings’ Day — Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019.
“In Latin American countries, Three Kings’ Day is as big a deal as Christmas so the goal was always to get the cards done before our Christmas break here so they could be shipped and arrive in advance of Jan. 6,” Smuckler explained.
For the project, she created a spreadsheet with the names of 325 children who are part of REI in Colombia.
“Every single kid on that list got a personalized card from a Ridgefield student,” she said. “It was so cool to see the final product and to send the cards, with some holiday candy and some other goodies, to the kids down there…
“It really has come full circle,” she said, “from bringing the supplies in October to running the marathon and donating the money to sending off the cards last week.”
Smuckler works for Cultural Care Au Pair, based out of Cambridge, Mass. The company places au pairs with American families, and Smuckler works locally as a local childcare consultant.
She had visited Cultural Care Au Pair’s office in Bogota, Colombia. previously but October was the first time she had been to Cartagena — a port city founded in the 1500s.
“It’s such a beautiful city — it’s right on the water and the weather is incredible,” Smuckler said, “and it’s a walled city so it has both a Latin and European feel…
“No matter where we ate, the food was so good,” she added. “My two favorite dishes were the fried plantain pancakes and coconut rice.”
Despite attracting a lot of the country’s wealthiest citizens, Cartagena is also home to a lot of poverty.
“There is great disparity between the rich and poor” Smuckler said. “The inequality feels unfair…
“Some of these kids have very little— their living conditions are less than ideal.”
Smuckler and the other volunteers from Cultural Care Au Pair — all of whom paid their way to Colombia and all the accommodations while they visited — brought a variety of items, including musical instruments, baseball bats and helmets, arts and crafts supplies, backpacks, and a boom box
“We painted fences and murals with them, played games and watched them play soccer, made Halloween crafts and tie-dyed shirts, and baked cookies,” Smuckler said.
“We brought them an electric keyboard and it was barely out of the box before they were incorporating it into the musical performances they had planned for us.”
Smuckler said one of the biggest challenge facing the youth in Cartagena is a lack of resources.
“The days are shorter for kindergarteners because there’s little money for teachers and supplies — crayons, paper, pencils, you name it,” she said. “There’s so much volunteerism but that doesn’t help the fact that most basic things are missing in the classrooms — stuff that we all probably have lying in our garage…
“One principal at a preschool we attended was brought to tears when we dropped off some supplies,” Smuckler recalled.
While visiting the country, she observed that in addition to missing supplies there was a huge assortment of need in Cartagena.
“There is need everywhere- in our own country and abroad- and it’s hard to choose where to focus efforts.”
But Smuckler has a special connection to Colombia because of the au pairs from this country that her family has hosted in the past and she knew the efforts would be appreciated.
Smuckler said it helped that she was able to speak the same language as the children she was helping.
“Kids First is all over the globe but I wanted to volunteer in a Latin American country and I got a lot out of speaking to the children,” she said. “We talked about their favorite TV shows and sports teams. They asked a lot of questions about life in America. They have a vision of the United States but it comes mostly from the Internet and TV.”
While Colombians have a lot of pride in their country and in their families, Smuckler said there’s a lot of interest in American culture.
“It was fun to compare and contrast,” she said.
One of Smuckler’s favorite memories from the trip was visiting the island of Tierra Bomba where she and the 11 other volunteers spent the day volunteering with Fundacion Dones de Misericordia. The island has a baseball team and they allowed us to play with them.
“They’re really, really good but they just don’t have adequate resources — they have no running water on the island, no electricity.”
The women from Cultural Care brought baseball gloves, helmets, and bats.
“It makes you want to give them more,” she said. “…It really showed me that you don’t need money to create spirit and desire. They gave us as much as we gave them.”
Leaning on Ridgefield
Smuckler said her experience fund raising and collecting donations in Ridgefield has reminded her that there’s a lot of good will in town.
“There are a lot of people here who want to give more and more,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to experience it first hand … We have so much here to share and sometimes we don’t even know with whom we can share.”
Before her trip in October, Smuckler asked students and parents at Veterans Park — where her daughter goes to school — to donate goods to her trip. They ended up filling several suitcases with coloring books, notepads, story books, pencils, and stuffed animals.
“I ended up bringing a lot of stuff with me from Veterans Park families,” she said.
That was followed up by her efforts in December at East Ridge, where both of her sons attend and take Spanish class with Eckstein.
“The schools have been very embracing of our efforts,” Smuckler said. “We were never told ‘no’ by anyone.”
The entire three-month experience — the trip, the race, the cards — reinforced a lesson Smuckler has been emphasizing to her children since they were young.
“I’ve always wanted my kids to be bilingual and to speak Spanish fluently,” she said. “It’s always been a big priority in our house, and these last couple of months have really reaffirmed how important it is to connect with people from other cultures and backgrounds and make sure that my kids get that exposure … We want to teach them tolerance and different viewpoints and that the world’s bigger than Fairfield County…
“The people of Colombia are just so warm — they take joy in the small things, like food and welcoming people into their home,” she added. “It’s refreshing to see and humbling to be part of it. They dance with each other and love their family members. There’s a lot we can learn from this beautiful country and everybody should be able to experience it.”