National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated each year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 and honors the histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans with ancestors who immigrated from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, or South America. Blue Yonder associate Yolanda Vargas-Kohler commemorates this month in her unique way by reflecting on her charitable endeavors that honor her family, culture, and heritage.

My closest friends have all planned special celebrations for their 50th birthdays, so it was my turn this year. It took me a couple of months to organize and communicate with college friends and family about what I wanted to do. Still, I decided in April, the month of my birthday, that I wanted to do something more than just your average celebration. I started thinking, “What should I do to make this relevant?” and I had the idea to make it about giving back.

While my friends and I had a small celebration in May, I told people I did not want presents. I am blessed, and I have everything that I want. I wanted to participate in a charity that was so close to home and make me feel fulfilled.

Being Colombian, I am always inclined to help the people in my country. It is a developing nation, and they need a lot of help. My family lives there, and they were a big help in facilitating my goal. After some research, I decided on an organization called Laudes Infantis due to its unique philosophy. Their “social co-responsibility” system allows the population to access the foundation’s services in exchange for non-monetary contributions for themselves, their families, and/or the community, ensuring that the collective arrangement of even trade will take shape. As Laudes Infantis has grown, it has trained and formed multiple communities, groups, and organizations at national and international levels in the philosophy of bartering. 

My bartering was to pass on birthday gifts, and instead, ask people to give me new clothes for children that I could later donate to the Laudes Infantis preschool. Some people gave me cash, and I ended up getting socks, underwear, candies, and cookies to add something else to each child’s present.

Collection bin at Yolanda’s house

 As I was getting ready to leave for my trip, my mother suddenly passed away so I had to delay but I knew she would have wanted me to see my effort through.  

My sister from Colombia helped organize and bring back some of the clothes upon her visit to the U.S. and I brought the remaining. With the help of my sister and my friends in Colombia, we organized the clothing by sizes. We were unaware at the time but later found out that we donated around 120 pounds of clothes!

We dropped off the clothes at Laudes Infantis, which then coordinated with a local preschool and delivered everything to the children two weeks later. The preschool resides in a very impoverished place in the town where people have been experiencing a shortage of water since June, so there has been civil unrest and protests.

Some of the new clothing collected and donated to Laudes Infantis

Laudes Infantis sent me fantastic feedback from the community; many parents sent emails and various communications to the organization thanking me for my contribution. They also shared pictures of the kids who received the clothes, which I shared with my friends and family who loved seeing the donations in action. These moments will last a lifetime.

While this is not my first time donating or volunteering, this experience was profound. It was a lot of work because it was my project in my home country. I occasionally help with the local foodbank where I live in California and support my son’s school and soccer team. But this effort was special because it was my own. Planning your own philanthropic event takes a lot of time and resources. I am not sure exactly what my next project will be, but I am always open to other opportunities. I feel terrific seeing other people smiling and getting things accomplished.

I want to pay homage to my heritage because you must start with whatever is close to you and then spread your wings to other people in need. It is good to motivate yourself and others. I know I did it because I wanted to do something meaningful in terms of helping others, and many friends gave positive feedback on my unique idea. I was able to fulfill my potential, assist the needs of my people and give others a new look at how celebrating yourself could also mean celebrating others.

I immigrated from Colombia 22 years ago, but I have never forgotten my customs and upbringing. I am a proud American with a strong Latino heart and immensely pleased to honor our heritage with efforts like this.