First off, I should provide you with some background on the Genesis Foundation and their “First Learning Steps (FLS)” Program (Primeros Pasos in Spanish). It is a cutting edge approach that addresses the extreme inequalities and inadequate resources that deprive children of quality educational opportunities in the regions affected most by the ongoing conflict and the deeply entrenched social, political and institutional barriers.
In Colombia, 10% of the population is under the age of five, and around 56% of this group lives beneath the poverty line. Additionally, almost 2 million of poor and rural children in Colombia do not have access to any type of pre-school or other early care services, and staff at the programs that do exist often have poor training and experience.
To overcome these challenges, the Genesis Foundation partnered with the Colombian government to implement a holistic strategy that focuses on three major components:
- Creating a learning environment that focuses on the children’s cognitive, physical and social development; promotes and monitors their health and nutrition; supports parents and families in the care of their children; and empowers the staff and caregivers on child development and early education.
- Encouraging local management and social mobilization in favor of early childhood learning, ensuring parents, local communities, and national private and government agencies are actively participating and investing in the development and well-being of their children from the earliest stages.
- Implementation of a Quality Management System that monitors quality through evaluation tools to ensure successful program delivery that allows for the model to be replicable, guaranteeing quality.
This approach was put into action in the town of Cienega and what the Genesis Foundation has done to transform the education system there over the past 3 years has been phenomenal. Prior to the Genesis Foundation’s involvement, there was no pre-school system or early care programming in place at all. Parents simply did not have the resources or knowledge needed to nurture their children’s social, literacy and cognitive skills, putting these little ones at an extreme disadvantage from the very beginning. There were also accounts of child abuse and neglect in the region that needed to be addressed.
The minute I stepped through the door of this new preschool, El Poblado, I truly felt something magical at work. This tiny little town, ranked one of the poorest in the region, boasted a treasure that would be the envy of any preschool in the U.S. Tiny classrooms, surrounding a large open-air playground, were full of children playing, learning, laughing, singing and dancing. Children were broken into small groups, ages 2-5, with one group digging in the dirt, learning about the various plants and critters all around; another group, dressed in costumes, playing instruments and learning the local dance; and a third group, focused on putting together puzzles and creating their own masterpieces.
The space was clean and orderly, yet filled with bright, fun colors and pictures of the children, as well as art made by the children, posted on the walls. Although the heat was stifling, the little ones did not seem to notice. They climbed over brightly colored structures (built by local community members) and examined the medicinal plants and herbs that they helped plant themselves. It was truly incredible to see how well they all got along and how engaged they were in their various activities. I was particularly struck by the fact that the women leading the groups seemed to be having just as much fun as the children, so focused on them that they hardly noticed I was there.
We were served a modest, delicious lunch and I learned more about El Poblado and the ways in which the Genesis Foundation has transformed this little town. In addition to the teachers caring for the children, there was also a trained nutritionist and psychologist on staff. The teachers went through ongoing development trainings and parents were offered various workshops and activities to enhance parenting skills and encourage active engagement in their children’s education. If there were any signs of emotional or physical abuse, the psychologist and another staff member would personally visit the family and take whatever steps necessary to ensure the situation was monitored and any abuse was stopped.
As I prepared to catch my taxi to the airport, I got to see the parents trickling in to pick up their kids. You could see the children’s excitement as they ran to tell their mom or dad about their day or show them what they had created. I hopped in my taxi and realized that I was smiling ear to ear, so very proud to support an organization that is giving these children the ultimate gifts-love and a love for learning.