The September issue of Stroll Spring Valley features Maureen and students from Escuela Marina Orth on the cover. Find out how it all began from Maureen’s Peace Corps days in Medellin: https://www.strollmag.com/locations/spring-valley-dc/articles/-5f6638/
Please come to the fiesta!
When Maureen Orth, best-selling author, special correspondent at Vanity Fair magazine, and resident of Spring Valley, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, at 21, she was desperate to travel abroad.
Seeking adventure, and heeding President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve, she applied to join the Peace Corps and asked to be sent to Latin America — an area of the world she had always felt drawn to culturally. Assigned to be sent to live in a poor barrio on the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia (coincidentally, the first country Kennedy himself visited upon becoming president), Orth prepared for her time there by training at the Columbia University School of Social Work, studying Spanish and practicing the language in Spanish Harlem.
Medellin later became notorious as the hideout of violent narco-trafficker Pablo Escobar, but during the time Orth lived there in the ’60s, it was known as “the city of eternal spring.” “The paisas, the nickname for citizens of Medellin,” says Orth, “are famous for being the moneymakers of the country.”
One day some months into her time in Medellin, a dramatic posse of men from the mountains above, knocked on her door and asked her help to build a school. Orth accompanied them up the steep trails on a horse to survey the area, and agreed to help — one of the most important “yeses” in her life, she says, aside from accepting the proposal to marry her late husband, journalist Tim Russert, and subsequently giving birth to their son, Luke.
Using bricks and mortar supplied by the Federation of Coffee Growers, Orth helped the local community organize, first by leading them to throw rocks down the mountain and on weekend workdays coming together to build the school themselves. A year later, the first public two-room school in the Aguas Frias community was ready to open, serving 35 rural students. Orth was taken by surprise when they named the Escuela Marina Orth in her honor. (Note: Maureen’s first name was changed to Marina for the school and the foundation, as it was easier to pronounce in Spanish).
Because of the drug-trade dangers that began in the early ’80s, however, Orth was unable to visit Colombia for many years. She even learned that Pablo Escobar had been hiding out down the road from her school. But she did return in 1995, where she was honored with a five-hour homage including singing, dancing and even a Catholic Mass — an event Orth describes as unexpected and overwhelmingly touching.
By this time, her career in journalism had advanced (Orth was one of the first female writers at Newsweek magazine, before embarking on an illustrious career in investigative journalism). Nevertheless, she says that her return to Medellin made it clear that the Peace Corps and Colombia had been transformational. “I learned that God does not discriminate when he gives out talent – whether intelligence, wit or beauty. The only thing that is missing is opportunity.”
In 2004, when Orth returned again, Medellin’s Secretary of Education asked her to help turn her school into the first public bi-lingual school in Colombia, with an emphasis on technology so that underserved students could compete in a 21st-century global economy.
Although Orth had no idea how to begin, she once again said yes. Today in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in the world, the Marina Orth Foundation has worked with over 17,000 students and teachers in 31 urban and rural public schools.
Each of the 22 public schools the foundation works in today via public/private partnerships focuses on technology and robotics but also emphasizes discipline, social and emotional learning, and teamwork. Volunteers from around the world help teach students English and locally, students from St. Albans School and Washington International School also tutor in English virtually. Companies like Intel, Chevron, Motorola were early equipment donors. Microsoft backed tech camps for dropouts.
The schools operate on a very tight budget, but the impact is huge. Students from Marina Orth Foundation schools have won gold medals in robotics competitions against teams from Japan, China, the U.S. and Mexico, and a team of two girls and a boy from one of the poorest areas of Colombia recently won first prize in an international competition to create a robot that picks up solid waste from dirty rivers. Currently, 35 foundation scholarship holders are studying at some of the most prestigious universities in Colombia and several have already graduated as engineers, lawyers and teachers.
Needless to say, Orth is proud of those achievements. In recognition of her efforts, in April she was made a Colombian citizen by the Colombian Ambassador to the United States at a special dinner at the Colombian embassy. Next up is the annual fundraising fiesta she hosts for the Marina Orth Foundation, which features a live music, aquardiente mojitos and a Colombian artisan market of bags and jewelry. The Fiesta is scheduled for Sept. 18. To receive an invitation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Orth is keen to encourage both democracy and investment and development in Colombia, a country which she points out has long been a U.S. ally. “If you look at the biggest corporations in the world,” she says, “only 10 percent of their investment goes towards Latin America, which is crazy. We are in the same time zone, and we share a lot of the same values. There needs to be a shift in emphasis — not to deny others, but to look at new opportunities.”
Orth is also quick to note how much she benefitted from her days in the Peace Corps, saying her service made her a better journalist. “I learned so much about empathy,” she says. “You need to get people to trust you, to talk to you, and so you have to be the kind of person who allows themselves to feel what the other person is feeling, and where they are coming from. You have to listen carefully, especially when there is a language barrier, and you have to make an effort to be understood, which is always a good thing.
“But the biggest lesson I learned was persistence,” she continues. “You can’t give up, because when Colombians say, ‘Yes,’ they sometimes mean no, and no sometimes means yes. In fact, ‘es complicado‘ (meaning ‘it’s complicated’) is so common and mostly means something is never going to get done, but if you accept that, nothing will get done.”
More broadly, Orth believes the Peace Corps helps Americans better understand the world and provides important connections. Today there are over 700 Peace Corps alumnae from Colombia still involved in programs that aid Colombia, which she notes is the second most biodiverse nation in the world.
Even though Colombia has gone through deep, systemic problems in the time since Orth’s time there, she adds, Colombians remain some of the happiest people on the planet, and as such, have much to teach the U.S. as we go through our own troubled times. In turn, she hopes the U.S. can continue to share important lessons about the value of human rights and the benefits of nurturing and supporting a society in which a child can come from poverty and with the right tools, discipline and education, can achieve their dreams. “I decided this would be my mission in life — to provide opportunities for these beautiful children. It was always my mission and still is.”
For more information about the Marina Orth foundation, or to make a donation, please visit www.fundaorth.org.
|Come for live music, great drinks, Colombian food and shop at our Colombian artisan market.
Sunday, September 18, 2022
5:00 – 7:00 pm
If you want to attend, please email: email@example.com
Casa Marina Orth
4907 Rockwood Parkway, NW
Washington, D.C. 20016