IBM volunteers in Colombia help give life to ideas

Story of service • Colombia • September 2013

Andrea Garcia, Luis Camilo Rodriguez, Catalina Pinzon, Jose Misael Ceballos, Lisbeth Sanchez and Nestor Raul Ruiz
IBM volunteers in Colombia helped students take their environmental ideas from concept to reality. Seen here in a newly completed paper workshop at the Republica de Bolivia School are (left to right) Andrea Garcia, Luis Camilo Rodriguez, Catalina Pinzon, Jose Misael Ceballos, Lisbeth Sanchez and Nestor Raul Ruiz

Like many well conceived projects, this one had a start, a middle and a defined ending—an ending that saw the successful completion of several environmental initiatives by schools in Colombia, and the associated IBM team members named IBM Volunteer Excellence Award winners.

Starting in June, 2011, IBM volunteers in Colombia led “jam sessions” with 1,300 students at 40 public schools in the cities of Bogota and Medellin. Using an IBM Activity Kit called “Mission: Innovation,” the volunteers inspired young people to consider how technology is making the world a better place and to brainstorm their own ideas on how to solve common challenges.

From that effort, two schools would be awarded IBM grants to put their ideas into practice. Jose Misael Ceballos, an IBM systems service representative in Bogota, remembers the day very well. “The workshop I was in guided high school students in how to save resources such us energy and water in their schools. They had ideas on how to invent technological devices to optimize the usage of those resources.”

Jose says that none of them—volunteers, teachers or students—were experts on the environment. “We all went out of our comfort zone, but it was a very rewarding activity. We could all learn from the students’ creativity and enthusiasm.”

Managing the middle

Two schools were selected for participation in the middle phase—Republica de Bolivia School and Arborizadora Baja School—both of which serve children with disabilities from low income families. Also, the schools had already involved their students in other environmental projects—the ideas generated at the initial brainstorming session would be linked to existing aspects of their curriculum, increasing the odds of success.

Still, ideas can languish without proper planning, so Jose and eight other volunteers from IBM—Viviana Achury, Alba Albarracin, Carlos Cruz, Lissette Morales Martinez, Carlos Fidel Pardo, Catalina Pinzon, Nestor Raul Ruiz and Alexandra Salas—continued on to the middle stage of the project acting as project managers, assisting the student and teacher leaders in planning, and executing and monitoring their tasks.

The students defined project objectives for each school including: remodeling the recycling collection center; building a greenhouse with a composting area; and implementing a communications campaign to enhance the environmental culture within the school.

The Republica de Bolivia School had an additional objective to develop a workshop to support craft activities using recycled paper—a worthy objective in itself, but also something to help their students with cognitive disabilities improve their motor skills.

Jose says that the first challenge for the volunteer team was to learn more about environmental initiatives by researching urban gardens and recycling collection centers. “Now I'm more aware about the 3Rs: recycling, reusing and reducing.” With that learning, they proposed a methodology based on the project deliverables and available resources. Responsibilities were then assigned to volunteers. “The support and commitment of the staff at each school was vital to execute the project, as was the teamwork from both IBM and the schools,” he says.

A professionally enriching and socially rewarding ending

“On time” and “on budget” are sometimes considered the hallmarks of a successful project and the IBM volunteers helped the schools achieve both. Plus, leading students in educating their community about a cleaner environment and recycling almost 1,300 pounds of paper and plastic in one month resulted in other, tangible measures of success.

The IBM team devoted five months and more than 420 hours of volunteering to help the schools achieve every one of their objectives. The IBM volunteers were performing classic project manager roles, but only two of them were certified project managers, which created a learning and professional development opportunity for Jose. “I learned a lot about project management from my peers. I picked up a methodology that I can now apply to any project I lead.” He adds, “Besides the project being enriching from a professional point of view, it was certainly rewarding from a social point of view.”

Jose recalls the day the team went to present the project results to one of the schools. “They invited us to share lunch with the children and despite most of them having some small cognition disabilities they were so aware of the meaning of the new greenhouse in their school. That really touched me because I felt the project might change someone’s life.”

At a closing ceremony, the principals and teachers of both schools recognized the contribution of IBM and its volunteers—highlighting the important role the volunteers played at every stage of the project and citing the willingness, knowledge, project management methodology and time commitment as keys to the success of the project.

Jose and the team of IBM volunteers from Colombia are winners of the 2012 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award which recognizes IBM employees or teams who best exemplify the IBM values of dedication, innovation and trust through their volunteer efforts.

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