Panama City Alternative Spring Break Trip 2012

by Michael Lapadot ’12

During Spring Break 2012 at the Claremont Colleges, seventeen students from the Rotaract of the Claremont Colleges traveled to Panama City, Panama to engage in meaningful community service in the Casco Viejo barrio. The goals of the trip were ambitious. We wanted to provide generous donations to the local NGOs we would be working with, make a lasting impact in the community through manual labor, and establish strong relationships between Casco Viejo and the Claremont Colleges and Claremont community. Long before we departed LAX in the early hours of March 9, we set about accomplishing these goals, and in the end, the results were extraordinary.
Packed with our sunscreen and donation money, we took off for Panama on March 9, 2012 and began our service on March 12. We worked in the Escuela Santa Familia, a building which not too long ago had been the center of gang activity. It was bought by ARCO Properties, a company headed by Patrizia Pinzon, a local businesswoman and social activist dedicated to the restoration and empowerment of the community. Under the guidance of Patrizia the building had been converted into a fledgling community center for children and single mothers. Our task was to expand this community center and help refurbish a theater to be used for children practice performing arts, for women to empower themselves through real-life scenario skits, and for the community to have its first public space to screen movies. When we arrived, we saw that the condition of the space which was to be converted to a theater was in disrepute. The walls showed evidence of past urban decline. Many gang symbols and motifs of political repression covered them. The floor was broken and smashed, and the area was not conducive to any group activity at all. With no hesitation, we began our work.

We tore up the floor piece by piece like miners, using pick axes to remove the floor and later a jackhammer for the most stubborn sections of the old floor. After removing the old foundation and transporting all of the remnants downstairs, we carried the ingredients for cement upstairs. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of material we hauled upstairs. Then we incessantly mixed together layers upon layers of concrete to build a new foundation. By mid-afternoon on the final day, the foundation was complete. With this new foundation and after having meticulously cleaned the entire building, the community center finally seemed to reflect the quality of the community organizations which were housed there.

The main organization lodged at the Escuela Santa Familia is La Fundaci?n Calicanto, which oversees the CAPTA and Enlaces programs. Enlaces is a program which provides education and development programs for at-risk youth. There, children learn to manage responsibility and succeed. CAPTA aids and empowers women, most of them poor, single, and/or abused. This organization gives women job training and teaches women to live responsibly and take control of their lives. Patrizia Pinzon, who as head of ARCO Properties is determined to revitalize Casco Viejo by restoring old buildings, is also a member of AVACA, the local neighborhood association of Casco Viejo. It is AVACA which encourages NGOs such as La Fundaci?n Calicanto to work in Casco and help develop and serve the community. Her encouragement, support, and oversight are what help these NGOs have an impact. As a contact she was great for our club and through her vision, we were able to complete project that will directly benefit La Fundaci?n Calicanto and most importantly benefit the lives of the women and children it serves.

Having provided a physical impact to the community, we also provided a financial one with our donations. Over $800 was donated to La Fundaci?n Calicanto and its Enlaces program. The rest of our donation money was donated to the organization known as FUNDADER. This organization is a local government initiative which helps people learn English. While we were working at the Escuela Santa Familia, we also sent volunteers went to FUNDADER, in the rural area of Arraijan, Panama and taught English classes to young men and women. Both organizations were thrilled with our donations. Before departing Panama, we also made sure to establish strong connections with La Fundaci?n Calicanto to open the door for Claremont College students to intern abroad there. In addition, we were able to attend meeting of the Rotary Club of Southern Panama. We were fortunate to meet another Rotaract club there. We exchanged contact information with the goal of coordinating a project in the future, one in which the Rotary networks of Panama and Claremont, CA can work on together.

Never had we thought we could do so much in a week, but in the end our goals came to fruition. Until next year, we thank everyone for their wonderful and generous support, and for making this trip a possibility.