June 14, 2021

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Fight for a better life

Long before heading the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico, Nelson I. Colón Tarrats learned the value of work by helping his father, who was a diamond polisher, and later, as a university student, doing maintenance work in exchange for a living in a room.

Those works are part of a story that highlights their commitment to service to others, human rights, the affirmation of their African descent, the fight for equity and work to improve quality life of the "other" in various fields.

He was born in 1947 and grew up on Victoria Street in the urban area of ​​Ponce, in a middle-class black family who highly value education, to the point that he, his three sisters and their three brothers finished university studies. His mother finished the fourth year with night studies and then studied pedagogy. His father did two years of university in Administration, but he stood out as an employee of a factory in Ponce, where they polished diamonds and in which he climbed all the positions, from apprentice to managing it. However, a heart attack at age 42 prompted his father to set up a diamond polishing workshop at his home, which was where he had his first work experience.

That experience was part of the "pilings" that formed him and that they have helped him to go through a life that began with “a childhood with its challenges and opportunities. One of the obstacles was being a black family in Ponce, which had clubs and schools that you couldn't go to, ”he recalls. However, his family, a quality public school and extracurricular experiences in the Boys Scouts of America organization and the YMCA "were the support he had as a young man to continue life forward," says the 73-year-old man. Part of that support also came from the Baptist church he attended with his parents, "where leadership, service, and a sense of connection to something beyond one developed."

The choir to which he belonged as a child and Later, in high school, they also helped. In fact, "there I meet who was the great director of that time, Augusto Rodríguez, he identified me and I entered the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) with a scholarship from the choir."

He stayed at the Evangelical Seminary, where it had great influence of theological currents, particularly, of Liberation Theology, and where it was steeped in the thought of service and defense of human rights. He considered becoming a Baptist minister, but opted for a bachelor's degree in Sociology, at a time when he wanted to be more independent and moved to a room, which he paid for by doing janitorial duties. New York University, he returned to teach at the UPR and, later, at the Interamericana in San Germán, from where he returned to Ponce when his first daughter was born. But it was the 70s and in the middle of the Vietnam War era. "There was persecution against people of progressive thought and I was persecuted," he regrets.

He returned to San Juan, where he worked in a health services corporation and, one year (1980-81), went to do a doctorate in Education and Anthropology at Harvard University in Boston. During this period, he got to know the world of non-profit organizations and, upon graduation, directed the Hispanic Office in that city. In 1987, he returned to Puerto Rico and became director of programs at the Community Foundation, until he was appointed president in 2000.

Transforming role

From that philanthropic organization – which supports other organizations that do community work through economic investment or technical advice- Nelson seeks to transform communities so that the people who inhabit them "develop towards a better point in life from where they are." And he warns that this "best place" does not only refer to the economic aspect. It includes access to health services, education, art, culture, a cleaner environment and a good infrastructure for living.

They are called the capitals of the communities, which have to occur simultaneously: human, social, financial, ecological, and cultural capital. and infrastructure, details.

To strengthen these capitals, the Foundation supports projects such as community aqueducts, "where we support communities to make good use and management of this resource," and the first solar community in Toro Negro, Ciales, where the residents own and maintain the system.

“Now, we are moving to the San Salvador Community, in Caguas, which will be the second solar community. It will be a solar energy cooperative, "anticipates the anthropologist.

They are also developing a project in Loíza, in agreement with the Municipality, to grant scholarships to young Afro-descendants, build 30 homes with solar energy systems and rehabilitate a museum in the Historical Park Cueva María de la Cruz, among other initiatives.

Older adults

As part of the work in the communities, the Foundation has developed an initiative to protect older adults against the spread of COVID-19. With the advice of an epidemiologist, about three months ago they created a plan for communities to organize “so that no one over 65 years of age dies as a result of COVID-19. If the community is organized around that goal, everyone will be healthier and more protected because the old do not become a revolving door of contagion among the relatives, "he explains.

To carry out the initiative, The Community Foundation supported the non-profit organization VAMOS Corporación Ciudadana with an economic investment. This entity started the project in the community dad Arenas, in Guánica, and the model has expanded to 15 communities.

The project has an element of education to the communities, distribution of disinfectant and protection equipment, and meetings Weekly phone calls that not only allow information to be collected and disseminated, but operate as a community tracking service. It also includes the services of doctors and a nurse who do screening and referrals and the agreement with the Primary Health Centers (330), where COVID-19 tests are carried out.

“The goal of zero deaths for people from 65 years or more has been completed and the number of infected is very low. This is a resource available to the government, decentralization, so that the communities assume their responsibility. My invitation is that the government look at that process and take us as the central axis to replicate this strategy, which has worked very well, "he declares.

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