In the least expected spot of the Colombian Andes, a touristic place for its colonial architecture and picturesque like no other, we didn’t expect to be surprised like we eventually were. In general, the places that attract so many visitors usually show a ‘happy community’ image, without any needs, probably hiding the least attractive side to the foreigner. For what I understand, there is always a “parallel world” that lives by different timetables and paths; it requires a change in habits to be able to casually come across it, if we are open enough to face it.
With the precise info of a lady with a great spirit of service, we went out to search for doña Inesita, a lady whom we were told worked hard for her community in Villa de Leyva, Colombia. We asked about her at the “House of the Grandparent”, but the importance of her help was dismissed. There was something that didn’t add up, considering that we had heard that she had founded that same Home for the old people of the town, moving earth and heaven to build it up. We left the place a bit confused, resolved to find her. We were so lucky that the first person we asked about her was doña Herminda, who took us precisely to her door, while practising on her way the traditional “sumercé” (from the antique Spanish “Su Merced”, kind of “Your Grace”) that is commonly used in the area.
While we were on our way, we were able to reconfirm that we were in the right path, Doña Herminda, with the simplicity of her long black braids with few white hair, paused for breath and admitted that doña Inesita “Is a blessing, an angel fallen from heaven for all of us”. Cobblestones from the XVI century, colonial doors and windows decorated with colorful flowers are the common thread of this town; which at 2,100 meters of height seems not to slow down the pace of our guide, but it agitates our breathing, so with the excuse of another pause we stop to contemplate the door of a house that looks exactly as part of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. Lost, including the same Herminda, we started knocking on different doors until we were confirmed that the door we were looking for was exactly the one that had captured our attention before. Inesita welcomes us as if we were her old time friends, invites us inside her charming house with a “paisa” style, in reference to her birth town, Pereira, in the coffee zone.
Her warmth and simplicity impact us, it is very easy to talk to her, explain her what we are doing, and it’s even easier when she understands our crazy adventure; without hesitation it becomes part of her, sharing with us her experiences. How to understand her? Sometimes we are so human that it is hard for us to understand when someone else is going out of his/her way for another person, that he/she may spend 24 hours a day thinking how to help, how to improve the living conditions, care or make another person feel loved. For her and her 77 years of experience, it is very simple; she remembers that it was her “wonderful parents” who taught her and her 9 siblings how to live a generous and unselfish life. Every day, she would precisely be given 5 cents for the “onces” (“eleven” 11am snack) before she went to school. She clarifies: “From those 5 cents, 3 were spent in an ice cream, a candy and a guava, the other 2 cents we would save them in a family money jar for our visit to the Old people Home on Saturdays”. There, they would read some stories to the old people, being most of them illiterate; their favourites were “Arabian Nights” and some parts from the Bible. She also remembers: “Many times my dad would go in wearing a sweater and would come out without it; he ended up giving it to some old person!” When they got older they moved to Bogotá, and our Inesita knew already that she was going to create a Home for Senior Citizens. When she was 27 years old, her friend priest told her: “Why don’t we create a Home for older adults?”; she was already fulfilling her dream. While he was getting the house, she was collecting blankets, clothes, beds, etc. He brought in almost 30 old people from the streets and this is how the Home began. Thanks to her knowledge of physiotherapy and nursing, she helped them with the rehabilitation and now they can move about by themselves. Most of them didn’t have a family so the Home became their new home and their new life. She admits: “The kids are easy to help; they are more cheerful and alive, whereas the old people don’t get much help”.
Inesita traveled around the world, went to every continent, but always, always, she would visit a Seniors Home in those places. In Bogotá she dedicated 24 years to the Seniors Home in the neighborhood of Egipto, a very humble area close to Candelaria, the historic centre. Frequently she would visit Villa de Leyva and would dream of retiring there, even though the town mayor would inform her that there were no big needs in that town. But she had the ability to observe beyond the ordinary. When some nuns came eager to take over the Seniors Home at Bogotá, she saw her chance to start over in her dream town. She convinced some brothers, some cousins and even her boyfriend at that moment to fall in love with that town and purchase together a property there. She always had only one objective in her mind: build another Seniors Home there. Her boyfriend, who was over 50 years old, would feel depressed with old people, so she refused to get married to him even though they had been dating for 7 years and for the third time in their lives!
It has been over 17 years since she has founded “The House of the Grandparent” at Villa de Leyva. In one month she obtained the fund to start the construction by selling a portion of the property; the town mayor got her the land and she has managed the Seniors Home for 8 years; she would cook them, spend time with them, providing physiotherapy and nursing care to them. They started with 50 old people who would attend to have breakfast and would stay until after lunch. Over time, support for handicapped kids was added, and today there are more old people, 70 or 80 per day, out of the total 250 registered who take turns. It is a day Seniors Home, in which they do different activities, play at the pool table, knitting, work at the vegetable garden, attend speeches, watch movies, see the doctor, etc but they return home after lunch. Inesita has suffered the variation of different government authorities, whom either welcomed her with open arms or turned their back on her. Anyway, she only focused in taking care of the old people, and nobody would take her away from them, after so much sacrifice she had gone through.
It happened during one of the changes of government authorities that she was refused the entrance to the Seniors Home that she had so lovingly created. She was desperate, because “they have taken away from me my dear old people, can you imagine?” she remembers. In that moment Father Jose Arcesio, from the Congregation of Discalced Carmelite, proposed to her: “Why don’t we build something? Let’s create a Foundation” Two days later, they had purchased the land and had started to build under the name of Foundation Sainte Teresa of Ávila. Inesita told him: “The first thing we need is a home for the old people, so they may stay to sleep, because they get sick very often here. It has to be charity, they shouldn’t be paying.” So, the only income Inesita would obtain from the renting of her cottage, she would use it to pay the weekly workers’ salaries. They opened with 25 kids in a very small house, and immediately after they had finished the home for the old people, there were 12 of the lifted out from situations of extreme need. What started out as ‘something’, now is a “City of God”, a heaven for the ones displaced, forgotten, relegated. These old people now live the last days of their lives in a clean, welcoming, beautiful and modern place, which is accessible to their limited movements, surrounded by love and care. This city is full of kids, old people and little angels who come and go helping out, cleaning, cooperating or just keeping company to them. They got an association that donates them the food every day, they take up orphans who live there well taken care of; a joyful Daycare for 30 kids since they are born till the age of 2, and a Kindergarten for 100 kids ages 3 to 5, all of them from very humble families who don’t need to pay for the service. It is a professional and cheerful Kindergarten loaded with dolls and donations from France (we missed the horse race made with denim heads and broom sticks!) They also have two families displaced in the same property, who have their own little houses. They generated lots of jobs and everybody who belongs to the City, are really building a place “of God”, with every activity they perform. There is also a house for spiritual retreats or guests, from which they obtain a small income and another house where 3 Carmelite discalced monks live. There is also a Library, a Museum, a Chapel, a Grotto of the Virgin of Lourdes, and some rooms for the novices of the French congregation who joined the City. Now, they are building the house of “The Good Samaritan”, which has 2 rooms for rehabilitation and physiotherapy to care for the old people who come out of the hospital, making sure they receive the correct medical care to help them get back home. Thinking about her own second old age –as she likes to call it–, Inesita planned adding a room to be able to live there once her sister is no longer with her, so she will rent her own house generating an income that will help the old people.
Everyone who knows Inesita has only kind words to describe her. One volunteer who has chosen the City of God as her home to serve others, told us that once they had been working all morning and when they finished, as a reward for both, she wanted to invite Inesita to eat something good outside. Without hesitation, Inesita told her: “I think it is better if we come to my house to have something to eat and with that money we buy something for the old people at the market”. A tiny example of how she is, how she thinks about others every minute, putting herself aside. Don Antonio also knows her closely, he is the treasurer of the Foundation, a very generous man and another big donor of the City of God; and describes her like a fan of old people, who may search for them everywhere, perfectly knowing where they live in Cañuela, his own town, where he wouldn’t even know; and she gives everything, really everything for them. Elena, the official photographer, tells us: “I met her just when she had the disappointment of being refused entrance to the “House of the Grandparent” and I couldn’t understand how she could be so sad if she was free from taking care of old people!” Then, by getting to know her better, I finally understood that she feels ‘an extraordinary love for the people reaching old age’, it is like a need she has of protecting them from everything. She goes around town and brings them here, she rescues them. Once she took out an old man from a basement, he was being kept like an animal. She fought against the family and brought him here to the City. She is obsessed with the old people. I believe she never got married because she is in love with her dear old people!” (Inesita tells us that she had many boyfriends, including 3 marriage proposals! But none of them really liked her working with the elders; they would even offer her money so she would stop working with old people! Of course, she always refused to leave her dear ones.)
It seems that her day has 8 hundred hours, because she wakes up at 4am to be able to do her “stuff” or domestic tasks, sews, mends, knits, have a ‘tinto’ (pure Colombian coffee, sweet, strong, with lemon) and goes to her daily mass at 7am. She returns home for a second breakfast, this time more nutritive, and walks two kilometers across roads of mud and stone until she reaches the City of God. She is tiny, but has lots of energy. To return, she takes the bus just in time to help out at lunch time at the “House of the Grandparent” (an excuse to see her old people for some hours), since the Municipality is in charge now and has cut down her work there. During the afternoons, she visits other old people in need who are at the San Jose Home, in which she achieved to have 5 beds reserved to assist them at no cost. On her way back, she goes to the Hospital –“Hospitals fa-sci-na-te me!”– considering her gut of nurse which claims that, cooperating in what is needed with the old people. All this is now conditional to the care she provides to her sister Leonor, who has been battling a terminal cancer for many years.
The work of Inesita is now accumulating over 50 years of service to the old people, and it can be seen in different levels, the Sundays when Mass is finished, she sells ‘empanadas’ to collect funds for the City of God. To be able to reach that mass in time, Father Jorge starts cooking at 5am on Sunday and she works with him. Not to mention the hours she spends knitting, sewing and mending clothes; some of them are sold to collect funds and others are mended for the old people, she never gets a rest. But, where does this woman get the strength? She tries to explain herself: “This is something that motivates me a lot, and it is so much the affection that you get in return, the gratitude and so many other things; that’s what keeps on motivating me more and more.” There are two parishes that leave a basket outside, beside the door to collect food; with these provisions, Father Jorge and Inesita fill around 30 bags, ask for a ride and go to distribute them among the old people who live up in the hills, while they converse with them, spend some time with them or confess their sins. There are so many acts of simplicity and humbleness in her life without reaching for recognition, but instead for the satisfaction of getting an additional old person well taken care of and in good company.
We were lucky to meet the City of God in its 10th anniversary. Coincidence? We met Inesita the previous day and saw her getting ready for that special day. It ended up being like an anthill of good, simple, generous and cheerful people everywhere. It looked like a fairy tale. The old people were happy, the kids ran around everywhere, the Sisters with their habits of different colours were coming and going working hard, having just arrived from different places of Colombia, from other Cities of God. The monks were more than 15, while some would tour us around; others would be moving chairs or coordinating meetings. This was the first City of God, they have multiplied and now there are 10 Cities of God created in the last 10 years. The team is completed with Father José Arsecio from the congregation of Carmelites Discalced, creator and manager of the Cities of God, who is now in charge of this big project. It is a huge group of full-size hearts like Inesita’s, who fights for a better present for many Colombians. We left the place with a heart overflowing with joy, seeing so many generous souls who live wholly for others.