When Edwin Amaya first came to Oklahoma in 1997, he didn't speak any English. He had just graduated from high school in his native Bogotá, Colombia, and was traveling with a friend.
"My best friend's uncle was doing a master's in petroleum engineering at (the University of Oklahoma), and we wanted to take a little break after high school. "¦ It was supposed to be for just a few months, but 13 years later, I'm still here."
Amaya studied English for a year then entered OU to pursue a bachelor's degree in architecture. He joined The Benham Companies, and later returned to OU to earn his master's in construction.
"When I came to Oklahoma, I came by myself, I really didn't have an exchange program or a scholarship," Amaya said. "International students have to pay three times or even more than in-state. After I graduated, I wanted to give back to the university."
With matching funds from Benham, he created a scholarship for international students. But after a few years, he realized that money could go further in Colombia.
"I realized, yes, I was helping one person, and it was great," he said, "but with the money I was putting into helping that one person, I could actually take those funds and do something bigger for children in Colombia."
In 2008, Amaya founded the Smile Colombia Foundation, which was registered in late 2009 as a nonprofit in both Colombia and the U.S.
"It's not because we've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, because we haven't," he said. "It's because the money we've raised, it's little, but it goes a long way."
Focused on education
Smile Colombia's main goal is to support education, but that includes a wide range of programs that Amaya said ultimately create a productive environment for learning, including parenting seminars, after-school activities and health initiatives.
"Basically, once you take care of the education part, the possibility of success is greater than when children don't have access to education," he said.
Kristen Torkelson, secretary of the Smile Colombia board of directors, said each aspect of the foundation's programs affects the other.
"The thing about basic needs of people, especially in the lower economic situations, it's education, food, health care, those are always the most important," she said. "I think they just all go together."
Hopefully, the support the children receive when they're young will make an impact on them as they grow, Amaya said.
"The fact that I'm helping children there, they're realizing they're being helped when they're little," he said. "Maybe that leaves something in their mind that they can help when they grow up."
Torkelson agreed: "It plants a seed."
And Smile Colombia is planting fields of seeds. At just a few years old, the foundation has worked hard to fundraise here in Oklahoma and turn that around to projects in Colombia. With the help of a foundation component in Colombia, the board's community selection committee chooses projects through an application process.
"We have a component in Colombia on the ground, so they can check the circumstances and they can check on the children " check on the communities we're helping," Amaya said.
There were two projects completed in June and July, and two more are planned for December and January. One of those will bring a group of volunteers who have raised their own money to Bucaramanga, a town about 200 miles northeast of the capital city of Bogotá.
The volunteers have connected with the mayor's office in the town and will deliver school supplies and groceries to 100 children.
"There's a bigger picture here, which is not just helping children, but those cities and the mayors are actually knowing that Oklahoma is taking part," Amaya said. "That's a great thing. When they see that people are helping from outside, they're probably more inclined to help themselves more."
The second project coming up will take volunteers deep into the Amazon " a spot so unreachable that Amaya said the volunteers will have to travel part of the way by boat. A portion of the funds were raised with the help of Ellen Kraft, a Smile Colombia board member and teacher at Truman Elementary in Norman.
Kraft teaches about 40 kids in the elementary, all of them English language learners. Kraft and her students started their own fundraiser, called Coins for Colombia, that involved the whole elementary school in a search for spare change.
"I just wanted them to have a leadership role in the school because a lot of times they're marginalized because they don't speak English," she said.
With an assembly to kick it all off, the kids made bags for each teacher and shared with their fellow students their top 10 spots to hunt for loose change.
"It was really cute because they came up with the funniest ideas," Kraft said.
The kids also came up with questions to ask students over the loud speaker at the end of each day of the fundraiser. The winning class won string bracelets woven with the colors of the Colombian flag that were made in that country.
"The idea was to give the classes that won these bracelets, but everybody was so excited, and everybody was so involved, that we gave everybody at the school one," Kraft said.
At the end of the five-day fundraiser, the kids of Truman had raised $691 dollars.
Besides the main board, Smile Colombia also has an assistant board, comprised mostly of students and young professionals. Many of those students come from OU's large Colombian student association.
"They're very active," Torkelson said of the association. "Them seeing Edwin start this group ... they get the idea, and they want to go back to their hometown and help the kids there."
One of those students who got involved is Kristen Hansen, a volunteer with Smile Colombia and president of the assistant board.
"Edwin's charisma and his passion for helping the kids in his country really got me motivated to get involved," she said.
Hansen is a senior at OU studying International and Area Studies with a concentration on Latin America. Although she had visited Colombia a number of times, her summer trip to the country was her first time as a volunteer.
"It was amazing," she said. "It was my favorite trip to Colombia by far because we just did so much good for those kids."
Hansen spent a month in the country and worked with 200 kids in the town of Ibague, about four hours from Bogotá.
"We did a leadership summer camp for them," she said. "It was a really good experience."
It's the volunteering and fundraising of individuals that make Smile Colombia run.
"A lot of this is private donations," Torkelson said. "The fact that we can raise this much money on private donations alone is pretty phenomenal."
So far, the foundation has helped 533 children. But Amaya said probably the greater achievement is seeing how the foundation's work has inspired others.
"A group of people can make a small effort, and the ripple effect is huge. Sometimes you don't even know what that ripple effect is."
A variety of events are planned to raise money for Smile Colombia, including a Zumba-thon, belly dancing seminar and a Latin fiesta night.
The next fundraiser is Night in the Amazon, a costume party scheduled for Sept. 24. The event will run from 7 p.m. to midnight at PhotoArt Studio, 1738 N.W. 16th in the Plaza District. Hors d'oeuvres will be provided by 1492 New World Latin Cuisine, and tickets are $20 in advance.
For more information, visit www.smilecolombia.org. "Jenny Coon Peterson