Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Featured Kivan: Christina from HR Travels to Colombia

Christina Tierney is Kiva's Human Resources Manager. She's been with the organization since 2007 and recently had the opportunity to visit one of Kiva's Field Partners in Colombia, Fundacion Mario Santo Domingo. We've asked Christina to share her experiences with us here.

Where did you go, for how long and why?

I chose to travel to Colombia because I was curious how a country that was just emerging from years of chaos and oppression could benefit from microfinance. I stayed in Colombia for 2 weeks – one week for work and then one week for vacation. I first flew into Cartagena and spent one night there getting my bearings and practicing Spanish as often as I could. The following day, I hopped on a bus and traveled two hours northeast of Cartagena to a city called Barranquilla. Barranquilla is a large industrial port city that is famous for its annual Carnival festival. Here, our first Colombian partner, Fundacion Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD), has a branch.

I spent the next five days working at FMSD with Rob Packer, a two-time Kiva Fellow, and Liney Pena, an FMSD employee assigned to work specifically with Kiva loans.

Each day, the three of us visited numerous borrowers around Barranquilla to see how their businesses have grown and changed since receiving their loans. Each borrower welcomed us into their homes or places of business and shared their stories, the challenges they have faced, the successes they have celebrated, and their visions for the future.

By the end of the week, I felt so welcomed by the people of Colombia, that my visit felt more like a homecoming. My husband and I spent the following week travelling around Cartagena and the Caribbean coast, soaking up as much of the culture and history of the region as we could by speaking with anyone we could find.

What were your impressions of the people you met and places you saw?

The Colombian people are very passionate and lively – anyone who has been to Carnival in Barranquilla can attest to this! They are also incredibly open and welcoming, and I noticed immediately that they love to share stories and talk for hours. For this, we were able to gather a lot of information from each of the borrowers to share with the Kiva lenders.

What was your favorite part of the trip?

On the third day of my visit with FMSD I met a borrower named Elizabeth Maria Amaris Rodriguez.

Elizabeth is deaf and has difficulty speaking out loud. She and her family never learned sign language, but they taught themselves how to communicate with a combination of hand signals and lip reading. Because of the difficulties Elizabeth had communicating with others, she only completed her education through the 2nd grade. Instead of attending school, Elizabeth began spending her time painting and sewing.

Elizabeth’s family believed in her artistic skills and was able to send her to a local art class. With the skills that she acquired in these classes, she began selling her products and quickly realized that there was a market for her products. So, she decided to ask for a loan from FMSD so that she could buy paint and supplies to grow her business.

When we arrived at Elizabeth’s house in Galapa, we explained that I had come from the United States to meet her and learn more about her business. She was so surprised to hear that anyone would be interested in her business that she became very emotional. She was visibly moved that there were people she didn’t even know that cared about her and that wanted to see her business succeed. Elizabeth had a hard time writing down her message to Kiva lenders, but I felt very lucky to have been there in person to see how grateful she was for everyone’s support. I received a truly heartfelt hug and a big thank you from this inspiring women whose life we have touched.

To me, this was the defining moment of my trip to Colombia. That Kiva connects people – a woman from Galapa and a woman from San Francisco – on a level of mutual respect is what brings me to work every day. I keep the picture of Elizabeth pinned to my desk as a reminder of the powerful connections that Kiva is helping to create and the ways in which we are improving lives, hers and mine.

What did you like the least about your trip?

Having to leave! I had so many wonderful experiences and met so many amzing people that I was very sad to have to say goodbye. I look forward to returning to Colombia someday soon, but in the meantime I plan to watch the progress of FMSD and the borrowers that they post on Kiva. I feel much more connected to Colombia, to our partner FMSD, and to the many entrepreneurs that they work with. And most importantly, I feel much more connected and committed to Kiva’s mission than ever before!

What would you recommend to others who may want to travel there?

Go! Colombia is a beautiful country with a lot of potential for growth and advancement in the coming years. In Colombia, you quickly get the sense that small businesses and big ideas reign. It’s evidenced in the popularity of street businesses, the initiatives to promote coffee and flower exports, and the support of developing sustainable communities. The Colombian people are hardworking, passionate, and dedicated to improving their communities. They are very proud of their country and culture, and are eager to share it with visitors!

- Christina Tierney, Kiva's Human Resources Manager, on her recent trip to Colombia.

Thanks so much Christina for sharing your stories with us!