Threads - "Now you have not just friends, you have family here."

A talk with Valorie Block, Vern Sawatzky and Darlene Hiebert about MCC learning tours

building with people walking past it

Manitoba Colombia — Apr 2024

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Audio file

Kyle Rudge (00:02):

It begins with a single thread woven through other thread, and then another, and another until we have a single piece of fabric, that fabric is stretched, cut and stitched together with another, just like it. This process is repeated over and over and over until we have a beautiful tapestry that all began with a single thread. Welcome to MCC Threads, where we look closely at how our stories in Manitoba weave together with the stories of MCC and its partners around the world. Knowing what Mennonite Central Committee does is one thing, but seeing what they do and what their local partners do around the world is an entirely different experience.

Valorie Block (01:03):

Hi, I'm Valorie Block, and I work at MCC Manitoba, and I lead the team that is responsible for connecting with supporters and engaging with the people who wanna learn more about MCC.

Kyle Rudge (01:17):

A few weeks back I swung by the offices of MCC Manitoba to connect with Val and a couple of other special guests.

Vern Sawatzky (01:24):

Hi, I'm Vern Sawatzky. I live in Kenora, Ontario, and I work in healthcare.

Darlene Hiebert (01:30):

Hi, I'm Darlene Hebert. I'm married to Vern, and I work with Vern, and we were lucky enough to go to Columbia in October 2023.

Kyle Rudge (01:45):

Vern and Darlene have been supporters of the work of MCC for quite a while. Their roots run deep.

Darlene Hiebert (01:50):

My mother worked for MCC for 26 years in Material Resources. She was a volunteer initially. And in 1999, my mom with MCC went to Ukraine and she was able to see the projects in Ukraine through her job at MCC and when she came back, she said, I have to present to a lot of people, can you help me? So I, I heard her story over and over. We got all her pictures on a storyboard, and I helped her write her speech that she presented multiple times, and got a really good idea of how learning tours work.

Kyle Rudge (02:34):

Learning tours happen on a yearly basis, and serve as a way of witnessing first hand the work of MCC and its partners do around the world. Vern, Darlene and Val were off specifically to Columbia for their learning tour. Why Columbia?

Valorie Block (02:49):

MCC, you know, always tries to organize tours annually that are going to help supporters get more of a glimpse and a firsthand look at, at MCCs work.

Kyle Rudge (03:04):

But why Columbia?

Valorie Block (03:05):

Columbia is really focused on peace building, is really the core of most of the projects that take place in Columbia. That was the theme of this tour, was to get a chance to talk to the people who are participating in their programs and, and are the beneficiaries of the work being done. And also, you know, the partners and the people putting the vision into action.

Kyle Rudge (03:31):

Columbia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It is the third largest exporter of coffee, if that matters to you. It is approximately 1.1 million square kilometers and estimates a 2024 population of about 52.6 million people.

Vern Sawatzky (03:47):

It's a country of amazing geography. The biodiversity is second to none in the world, and this is still being explored. And the reading that I've done has just brought that in focus for me. What a wonderful country Bogota is at 8,600 feet. So you're a little short of breath on the first day you get there. That quickly gets better, but it's, so today it's, it's gonna be 19 degrees in Bogota and every day of the year it's 19 or 20. It's not much more, not much less. I was very impressed. And the more time I spent there, the more impressed I was about the passion that the workers there had for MCC, for the projects they were doing. I mean, they were really invested. The hosts that that took us about and interpreted for us just had a passion for their work. And you could just see the energy they put into their work. It was magical.

Kyle Rudge (04:53):

Bogota is the capital of Colombia, and it was the first stop for our travelers on their learning tour journey. However, they didn't stay there long.

Vern Sawatzky (05:01):

One of the first projects that we visited after landing in Bogota was a barrio on the outskirts of Bogota.

Kyle Rudge (05:10):

What's a barrio?

Vern Sawatzky (05:11):

It's, I mean, I guess in other countries you might call it a slum. So it was a community developed over many years in land that was not deemed to be residential enough to be part of Bogota. So it was on the very outskirts, it was very poorly serviced in terms of its water and sewage and hydro. They had some cobbled together hydro, they didn't have water every day of the week when the water came, the people filled their storage barrels so that they would get through the days they didn't have water. So there's a project in a community called Soacha and Daniel was one of the leaders in the church. He's a young man. He's a father, he's in his twenties, he's married. He actually attended the program in the church that we visited as a child, and his own child was in the building.

Darlene Hiebert (06:13):

He had a history as a young child of being a very good soccer player and had his family had some means, he may have been a professional soccer player, but his calling was to this program, and he was mentored in this program, and he was called by this feeling of, these kids need me, I could do some work here. I could teach soccer. And he ended up coaching some kids in local soccer. So these kids in this barrio now have a really good soccer player, a young man who's fit, who's, you know, able to go and teach them some skills in soccer and be part of, you know, get community spirit. And so he found himself there and was feeling pretty, you know, passionate about his decision. And we were all really moved to hear. Later we were served a meal in the building, and we saw his wife sitting with one of the three-year-olds that was in the program. So this program involved very young children in the community that had nowhere to go during the day when their parents were working.

Valorie Block (07:36):

This primary school, you know, sort of associated with the church. You know one of the sort of bigger picture themes there, was that they really prioritized like the whole person, like the whole child, right? And as has already been mentioned, you know, sort of the nutritional, like providing food and, and recreation, the physical, the emotional, spiritual needs of the kids. And they don't charge for the kids to come to the school even though it is at a private school. But what they ask for in exchange is that the parents sign an agreement that they will take care of their kids as well as they can and prioritize the emotional needs of their kids when they're at home. You know, even that like, modeling of connection between home and school and you know attending to the fact that it's the whole being that needs to be taken care of for people to thrive.

Kyle Rudge (08:41):

They visited several projects along the way, but another one that stuck out was just outside Cali in Palmera. It was an income generation support program, which seeks to empower women to generate income through entrepreneurship. Vern, Darlene and Val attended a fair where these women were showing off their work.

Darlene Hiebert (08:58):

And the one woman that I made friends with was growing small plants, so for indoor and outdoor and she was making concrete pots. So in the morning when our bus rolled through town, I saw this woman on a motorcycle, and she was holding this box. She was a passenger on the motor holding this big box with plants bouncing down the street, We got to the community center, and I said, I saw you from the bus this morning. She goes, yes, I made many trips, she said, with her wares to bring. And the only thing that I was able to bring home was a picture that she painted. But I found her, she gave me her business card, and I found her on Instagram. And this morning I sent her a message and I said, I know your business name, but I don't know your first name. Could you share it with me so that I can share it for this? So she said, of course my name's Andrea and my daughter's name is Hannah. They spoke to us about the fact that they were feeling empowered by having a group of people that, you know, was backed by MCC, but they had friends that were in the same place. They had a community, they had meaningful work, but they said the work wasn't as important as the community that they felt. And the fact that they now felt just, they stood a little bit taller. Their kids were there. I think it was a Saturday. They brought their children with them. Their children looked so proud of their mamas. It was wonderful to watch.

Valorie Block (10:47):

And many of the women involved in this initiative were from Venezuela. Others were displaced Colombians that had, you know, needed to move for various reasons. And, you know, as Darlene has already shared, they talked about how it had increased their self-esteem and how this group had become, started to feel like family, and they were learning about themselves as individuals and encouraging each other, and you know, one of them even said, you know, I thought I was gonna, you know, be learning about how to be a better entrepreneur and run my business, and so many of the sessions felt like therapy. And she said like, this has just become so much more.

Darlene Hiebert (11:32):

The way they were confident enough to get up and speak in front of us too. I thought, you know, not everybody is comfortable doing, but they, they all did. They all spoke.

Kyle Rudge (11:42):

All three of them shared much of the same sentiments with takeaways from the trip.

Darlene Hiebert (11:47):

I applaud them all. I just absolutely was blown away by the youth. The young people that MCC has hired to support these programs. Their commitment and their passion and their brilliance. I mean, they were just lovely to get to meet. And that was my takeaway is that these people are the future. I mean, they were young. They're in their twenties, two of them.

Vern Sawatzky (12:17):

I think the projects had huge impact for those small communities where they were able to get involved. We had a chance to, again, experience the people who are providing some leadership who we consider as friends and family. When we left Medellín and we left our friends there they said, well, now you have not just friends, you have family here. And I feel that.

Valorie Block (12:45):

I think for me, it just really made it so much of the reading and the learning and the day to daywork that I do, it brought it to life in three dimensions in a way that it wasn't before in this part of the world.

Kyle Rudge (13:05):

A few announcements from MCC Manitoba, are you still thinking about Salt? Applications are now accepted until April 30th. Salt is a free 11th month program for adults 18 to 30 with MCC beginning in August. You'll immerse yourself in a new culture, serve a community, gain real world skills, and grow in ways you never imagined. Visit for more information. Browse the open applications or start the application process today. Also, what would it look like to do a month of climate actions for peace? Sign up to get your free calendar with a different climate action you can take each day in April. From learning to praying to advocating, this month of activities will help you take action to address climate change. Visit for more information. MCC Threads is produced by KR words. Thanks to Vern, Darlene, and Val for your words and willingness to share about your recent learning tour to Columbia. I'm Kyle Rudge, and this is MCC Threads.

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