Maureen Orth – From the 60s to Today: It’s Always Cool to Serve

My decision to join the Peace Corps at age 20, right off the Berkeley campus, and to go to a place I had never heard of — Medellin, Colombia, gave me the best education I ever got.

In those pre-cocaine days, Medellin was merely known as the “City of Eternal Spring”. One Sunday a dramatic posse of five men on horseback dressed in black gaucho hats and traditional wool ruanas galloped up to my door in the barrio. They were leading an extra horse for me. We rode straight up into the mountains for about three miles to meet an isolated community of campesinos in a small community called Aguas Frias. The people were desperate for a school.

Orth 1960s blog header

Several Sundays later we began with a community work day and formed a human chain to throw rocks down the mountainside to clear the land. A year later there was a brick building that on dedication day bore a crude hand-lettered sign that was a happy surprise to me: Escuela Marina Orth. We had two classrooms and 35 students.

There were many years that I could not visit Medellin (at one point the notorious narco Pablo Escobar was actually hiding out right down the road from the school) but the people there I never forgot. In my first visit back in many years, in 1995, a second story had been added to the school and the community showered me not only with lilies and birds of paradise and lemons from their gardens, but with a five-hour homage of songs, poetry, dances, a serenade, a lunch, and a mass!

They did it again in 2004 when then- Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno stopped by the ceremony. The next day I was summoned into the new Secretary of Education’s office. “Marina,” the Secretary told me, “these kids cannot hope to compete in the 21st century without knowing technology and English. Will you please help us make your school the first public bi-lingual school?”

I had no idea how I would achieve this request for help, but I was an investigative reporter, after all. And the biggest lesson I had learned in the Peace Corps was that God does not discriminate when He hands out brains, guts, or the ability to have fun. It’s only the opportunities that are restricted. I immediately began the process of establishing a non-profit foundation, the Marina Orth Foundation, in 2005. In 2007, we also established a Colombian non-profit, Fundación Marina Orth, so funds could be sent foundation-to-foundation.

When we started, the teachers did not even know how to use email. But through public private partnerships, Intel and Chevron gave me my first donations of computers and Seagate Technology gave restored models; later General Mills and Proctor and Gamble, HP and Coca-Cola also helped, and thanks to Motorola, my old Peace Corps site became the first WIFI village in Colombia and the first to have families on Facebook!

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