Piso Saludable: Foundations for Success

“What does it mean to you to have a floor?”

I stared blankly.  Floor?  Well, you can’t have a house without a floor.  Linoleum?  Hard wood?  Tile?  What the heck does she mean, what does it mean?

Isabela continued in Spanish.  “I asked the women, what does it mean to you to now have a floor in your home?  Tell me in one word.  And they told me:  Seguridad.  Stabilidad.  Felicidad.”

Security.  Stability.  Happiness.

The last descriptor came from a nine year-old girl after Actuar Por Bolivar gave her family a floor on which she could finally sit and play with her friends.  Before that gift, their house stood on a foundation of compressed dirt.  And every time it rained, a nearby canal (which served as an unofficial garbage dump, to make matters worse) overflowed and flooded their town.  The floorless homes had no foundations to properly seal out the water, and the dirt turned to mud which turned to knee-deep rivers of filthy water.

“Here, the rain comes at night, when everyone is sleeping.  Can you imagine?”

Isabela is a psychologist who works with the people that Actuar Por Bolivar serves.  When I met her for the first time, I didn’t understand why a microfinance organization would need a psychologist on their staff.  I was sipping cafe tinto with a full packet of sugar and enjoying the air conditioning in the office of the director, Rosario.  She pulled out two thick photos albums from a book shelf in her office and dropped them on her desk in front of me.  I flipped through page after page of images of families in makeshift shelters, shirtless and dusty children, and faces devoid of expression.  Rosario and Isabela explained that the people in the photos were desplazados— the displaced, people who lost loved ones and homes during the violence and instability of the 1990s in Colombia.  Many of them are still rebuilding their lives and making peace with the past.

A few weeks later, I joined these women and other volunteers at the organization on a visit to one of the poor barrios where they provide microfinance and educational services.  We visited owners of small businesses and listened to their stories.  One young woman sold candies, cigarettes, snacks, and boli (ice pops) from her front porch.  I bought a lollipop.  Several other women maintained small organic gardens in their backyards and sold their produce to a local hotel.  Yes, organic.  Pesticide-free.  It’s not just at Whole Foods, people.

One of the organic gardens that Actuar Por Bolivar helps to support

“Sale of boli and paleta” (ice pops)

Selling snacks from her front porch

Microfinance is especially helpful to people who live in poor rural areas like these where jobs at factories and companies are hard to come by.  Most of the small businesses owners we met were women, raising families and trying to make a living from their homes.  Organizations like Actuar Por Bolivar provide small loans which allow these women to invest in and grow their businesses, and thus improve their quality of life.

The process isn’t perfect.  Not all of the businesses end up being profitable, and not all micro-loans get repaid.  But Actuar works closely with these families to ensure that they receive all the support that is available to them, whether it be financial advice, childcare (remember Las Olimpiadas?), or education.  The goal is to create opportunity and agency for the residents of one of the poorest cities in Colombia, and they’ve made enormous differences for thousands of families (7,000 so far, in fact).

As part of this mission, they developed the aforementioned program Piso Saludable, translated literally as Healthy Floor, although I like to think of it more as a “Healthy Foundation.”  With a literal and figurative strong foundation, these women are rebuilding their lives and providing better futures for their children.

What does it mean to you to have a floor beneath your feet?  What else do you think makes up a “Healthy Foundation” for any family?  

An organic garden named God’s Blessing

The owner of the garden and volunteers discussing her work

Laughing about arugula

La Cosecho – The Harvest

Welcome to “La Felicidad” — The Happiness

The owner of this garden told us with a smile: “The name of the garden is la felicidad mia“– my own happiness

The most joyful 83 year-old gardener I’ve ever met

The proud owner of this home and a brand new floor

… And the garden she keeps in her backyard to sell vegetables

Isabela and Juan eating boli and discussing the program

Learn more about Actuar Por Bolivar and microfinance with these great resources:





    • Meghan Johnson

      Thanks Edna. I’d never given it much thought before either, until hearing their stories. The floods were the worst part, I think.

  1. pao

    You’re so beautiful! I’m not speaking about your attractive features either. I’m referring to your selflessness and ability to find happiness in the things that you do. Your passion. Your loving personality. And not to mention your adventurous nature. I really enjoyed this post. I know so many without floors. I’ve always been grateful to have one. Having a floor to me means opportunity.

    • Me too, Arthur. It’s not something I ever thought much about, but when the little girl put it in the context of having a place where she could finally invite her friends over to sit and play, I saw it in a different light.

  2. A very interesting post. Because I live in Africa, I’m accustomed to hearing about terrible poverty and lack of resources; I wish more people in South Africa could read about these Columbians who are prepared to DO something to improve their situation, instead of waiting for handouts from the Government; South Africa has a bad culture of ‘entitlement’ and not so much ‘get up & do it’, more’s the pity.

    • That is interesting, Alison. I’m sure you find a whole range of attitudes in both places. This community in Cartagena was lucky to have the support of a very well-funded organization, which gave them the means to apply their industriousness. I wonder if there are similar programs in South Africa?

  3. Thank you so much for this amazing article. People nowadays are soaked by the worldliest matters, and yet we have people like these that live the simplest offers of life. It’s wonderful to reflect on what we have at the moment. Again, thank you for this excellent read!

    • The whole process was eye-opening for me too, Denise. Over the course of the past year, I’ve learned that so many of the little details of life that I take for granted are not so easy to come by for most people in the world. But what I did find in high supply was hope and strength, and I’ll continue to draw on that inspiration for the rest of my life.

  4. Loni Found Herself

    Your stories and photos always blow me away. I don’t know of anything that could be more rewarding for a volunteer.

    • Aren’t they great? I was so amazed by their high spirits and how much they seem to genuinely enjoy the work they do. Not a single complaint, just expressions of gratitude to the organization and God for all of their blessings. Now that is an attitude I need to adopt!

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