In the late 1980s, when I was 13 years old and in Bogotá during summer break from my school in Toronto, I volunteered at La Fundacion Solidaridad Por Colombia. Its founder, Doña Nydia Quintero de Balcázar, welcomed me.
I spent the summer discovering Colombia through the letters that arrived at “Solidaridad,” pleading for help from Doña Nydia.
A woman, somewhere in the outskirts of Fontibon, wrote to ask Doña Nydia for help to buy a wheelchair. The woman’s words touched me; perhaps I saw the effort made in the barely legible writing and the hope the letter raised in the writer. I visited the woman and her family. They lived in a one-room house with a dust floor. Planks patched it up here and there. Her son carried her outside to the yard. There was an outhouse. Pink and orange geraniums blooming from rusted tin cans made the place a home.
I don’t remember what we talked about or what they told me. But I am now grateful that 13-year-old me had a chance to visit with the old woman and her son.
Another afternoon, I found Doña Nydia, barefoot and in all fours, making lists and packaging boxes.
“Soon, there will be the yearly floods. We need to prepare for them,” she said. We sorted through mountains of blankets, non-perishables, medicine, school supplies, toilet paper, and cleaning products.
From day one, Doña Nydia explained her organization was non-political — although she, herself, was a politically public persona. From 1978 to 1982, she was Colombia’s First Lady when she was married to Julio César Turbay Ayala.
Years later, Doña Nydia’s lessons still in my mind, I wondered how and why her foundation, “Solidaridad,” had taken on the role of the State in some of Colombia’s remote areas.
The following summer, I returned to Doña Nydia. I’d like to think she saw that in the year that passed, I had matured. Perhaps I looked “adult” in my “business” suit — despite the new metal braces in my teeth.
Doña Nydia gave me letters from her asking for donations, and I went from office to office, personally dropping them off. Most of the people I visited were my parents’ friends. They asked me what I was learning from Doña Nydia.
It is clear now that from this warm, loving woman, I learned to have empathy above all.
Years later, when I was in Bogotá during a break from college, I came to see Doña Nydia. She was with a young man and his toddler-aged daughter. He and Doña Nydia interacted in a very familiar way, and they expressed deep affection towards each other.
“That is because he is my son,” Doña Nydia told me. She explained he was orphaned during a flood when she was First Lady, and so she brought him back to Bogotá with her.
Last week, a posting for International Women’s Day asked, Who is your hero?
Doña Nydia Quintero de Balcázar tops my list.