Leonel Elias, a Seeder from Mexico, lived in La Palma, Colombia, where he shared his knowledge of gardening and became friends with many in the rural community.
MCC Photo/Anna Vogt

Leonel Elias, a Seeder from Mexico, lived in La Palma, Colombia, where he shared his knowledge of gardening and became friends with many in the rural community.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is increasing its two-year service opportunities for young adults who want to reflect, serve and advocate in another culture by expanding its Seed program into Bolivia, in addition to its original Colombia location.

In January 2014, six to eight young adult Seeders will begin working with MCC Bolivia, helping to expand MCC’s program into the more remote areas of the country.  Indigenous Bolivians living in the more mountainous regions – the midlands and the highlands – face higher levels of poverty, less access to education and health service, and greater stigma than in the lowlands.

Applications are being accepted now for the positions. Half of the participants will be from Canada and the U.S., the other half from Latin America.

Learning through intercultural relations is a major component of the Seed program, said Bonnie Klassen, MCC area director for South America and Mexico, based in Bogotá, Colombia. When the team is diverse and the areas in which they work are diverse, Seeders gain a much deeper understanding of their local and global contexts as they listen and communicate through different lenses and perspectives. Klassen is from Waterloo, Ont.

The Bolivia program will be structured similar to the Seed program in Colombia, Klassen said, in that participants will live in marginalized communities through a variety of areas in the country.  Seeders will build relationships within the community and work with a church or an organization located there.

Seed is a journey of “mutual transformation,” said Anna Vogt, a current Seeder in Colombia, from Dawson City, Yukon Territory. “As Seeders engage in … reflection, service and advocacy, at each step guided and directed by their local communities, they recognize that change is a process of engaging in life together  – across languages, cultures, borders and comfort zones.”

For Leonel Elias, a Seeder from Mexico living in La Palma, an isolated rural community on Colombia’s Atlantic coast, transformation started with himself, he said, as he learned to respect other people’s opinions.

 “As the community has opened up to a larger understanding of what the world is like, I have learned to value a simpler way of life,” he said.

As part of the service component of Seed, Elias does community agricultural work, which included planting a garden in his own backyard. Neighbors learned from his example and began to plant their own gardens, providing them with food in addition to the large rice crops farmers produce.

Wilman Paez, pastor of a local church in La Palma, said some of the biggest changes have taken place simply because of Elias’s presence. 

“As cooking lessons, game playing and leadership workshops take place, relationships are formed and change takes place as trust is built among both parties,” Paez said. “Although Elias arrived shy, “he is now an open person who knows the life story of everyone in the community.”

Built into the program are times for Seeders to come together and reflect on what they are learning. They also visit each other’s placement sites. In Bolivia, those visits will be especially important because one of the goals of the program is to build bridges between conflicting cultural groups and geographic regions, Klassen said.

MCC Bolivia began its program 53 years ago, in the lowlands area, which at the time was not very developed. Now, the lowlands are the economic powerhouse of the country, and in Santa Cruz, where MCC has its office, “many people view people from the highlands and middle lands as lazy and backward,” Klassen said.

Because Seeders are likely to be located in all three areas of the country, community leaders from the different areas will interact with each other as they, the Seeders and other MCC workers visit the different placement sites. After these interactions, they can talk to their friends and neighbors about their first-hand experiences with people from other parts of the country.

“It’s a real opportunity to break down stereotypes,” Klassen said, “not just between individuals but also between communities, gradually building those bridges.”

In Colombia, Seeders’ visits to each other’s communities also strengthen the communities’ ability to advocate for each other in ways they never tried before, Klassen said.  The Seeders’ presence is a source of motivation, showing community members that they can improve their own situation. “Yes, we can change things. Yes, we can do things differently. Yes, we can take risks.”

 “Sometimes that’s just a matter of having somebody different living in the community. Outsiders don’t choose to live in these communities. The fact that Seeders choose to live there for a couple of years and to build relationships and become rooted in the communities is simply a source of hope for the community. Hope is the motor for life-giving change.”

To apply for Seed in Bolivia, visit serve.mcc.org. To learn more about Seed, watch the three-part video on Seed in Colombia.