Destination Colombia

Miracle in Nuquí

The principal character in this story was not satisfied with merely leading a bland, comfortable life, and after wide-ranging volunteer experience, she relocated to Nuquí, in the Colombian department of Chocó, only to become part of an inspirational story in this near-paradise blighted by neglect.

By Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino

When she came to live in Nuquí, Kathy Sutton spent long hours walking along the beach. Many years of life lived in various cities with cynical societies and boring conventions ended up both wearing her out and making her rather offbeat. She had always wanted to embrace the secret meaning of life and, even as a child, she was obsessed with helping others. This led her right to the heart of the incredible Colombian department of Chocó, where beauty and monstrosity, luxury and misery, and exuberant nature and social poverty seem absurdly —and often cruelly— linked.

Deep thoughts and musings danced through her mind, caressed by the music of the waves and that bewitching landscape that sometimes brings to mind the canvases of Gauguin. She remembers the hot afternoon when a young, brown-skinned lad, almost a child, approached with a mix of curiosity and an eager desire to make friends. This young man, named Mais, was a bright teenager with inky black hair and dark eyes that seemed to communicate an indestructible joy and a feeling of perpetual surprise. He would swim and fish while the rituals of life on the humble streets of his hometown continued around him; his dreams were beautiful in their simplicity.

During the conversation, Kathy remembered that she had a couple of surfboards at home that had been given to her sister by a visiting Australian friend. The boards had been sitting unused in the Nuquí house. Mais was extremely excited about this piece of news.

This incident sparked a relationship between the town’s youngsters and surfing, an activity they knew and loved, but for which they had no equipment. Before loaning out the boards, Kathy conceived of a brilliant strategy: she would get the youngsters to tackle the pressing task of cleaning the ocean of the plastic and waste that tainted and harmed the sea, putting it at imminent risk. The kids would repay the use of the boards by cleaning up; through volunteering for the community, they would give the beaches back a measure of lost pride.

In Nuquí, like in hundreds of other places near oceans, plastic is a silent enemy, an almost apocalyptic invader. At sunset, the water would usually behave like a rude dinner guest, spitting out everything in its maw: bottles, containers, labels, cans, stickers, and any number of other items produced by an industrial society, carpeting the landscape and veiling its charm. When Kathy came to the town, she was surprised to see that the inhabitants knew the waste products well; they had accepted them in their lives without even suspecting the negative consequences.


The Youngsters of the Sea

After Mais saw the surfboards, the news spread quickly through Nuquí. More and more youngsters and children started showing up at Kathy’s house to earn the privilege of riding the boards.

“I didn’t want to make it completely free. I know from experience that the best things in life, those we truly value, have to be earned. For these children, fun came with responsibility. And to my surprise, I gradually began to see that this pointed the way to a good solution to the problem of waste,” says Kathy, as she recalls how astonished she was by how effective the children were at cleaning.

“It helps that the sea is close by in Nuquí, but three boards were not enough to meet the growing demand. The children sometimes remove the wood supports from bed frames when their parents drop their guard, and they head into the ocean with these improvised surfboards,” says Kathy, looking amused.

“I was surprised by the grace and unexpected talent shown by most of the youngsters on the surfboards. I spent many hours watching their muscular elegance, and the fanciful geometry and visual plasticity of the ocean ballet of the youngsters and children of Nuquí. For me, they represented no less than hope for a region that, although totally enchanting, was constantly beset by calamities, and where, to give you just one example, business people and shady politicians have stolen the highway funds over and over,” relates Kathy somberly.

She grew to be part of the pulse of the town, but soon realized that she had to implement some sort of strategy to lift this success to something more than an anecdote. She was determined to capitalize on these unforeseen and recently-revealed talents

Partners started popping up in this unexpected adventure: local character Josefina Klinger headed the list. She is a kind of spiritual mother and touchstone in Nuquí and Chocó, and her struggles and creativity are already national legends. Kathy has known her for a long time, and her influence has always been wise and helpful. Another ally appeared: Amira, a kind and diligent Chocó native who sold Kathy the land on which she built the dream house where she spends much of the year. In addition to being a wise counselor, housekeeper, and seasoned cook, who turns out magnificent shrimp and crab dishes, Amira has been a mainstay in Kathy’s adventures. Not only does she know the region like the back of her hand, she is willing to help elucidate the inner lives of the inhabitants of this slice of the tropics.

Also helping Kathy chase her dream are community leader and weather-beaten surfer Néstor Tello, who was convinced to join in after much persuasion by Kathy; Coldeportes executives Claudia Guerrero, Mónica Fajardo, and Edwin Cabezas; Lena Fajardo, director of the Comité de la Federación; Yesid and Marcos, willing drivers of the town’s two boat-taxis that connect Nuquí to the outside world; and Elliot, Katty’s husband, without whose help this work would be impossible.


Making the Invisible Visible

Years of philanthropic labor have helped Kathy bolster her mission with the youngsters of Nuquí. She has always had good relationships with the National Anti-Poverty Agency, the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, and the private sector. Now she knocks on each and every one of these doors.

Kathy goes to their offices and gives a colorful and almost mythical description of the Nuquí she knows. She speaks of its shameful neglect by the State, the absence of public services, and its meager and badly-funded health service. She sketches an image of that remote environment: a pharmacy, a couple of shops, a few houses haphazardly built of wood, a pool hall, and two boat-taxis.

“To give the discoveries and the activities with the children of Nuquí a happy ending, we needed to work on two fronts: on the one hand, their clean-up work required a new and dynamic form of recycling that could cope with the astronomic amount of waste the kids collected; and on the other, we had to find a way to push their sporting abilities beyond just hobby level. In other words, we had to draw out their inner athlete,” explains Kathy. She took on both tasks.

“Surfing is a passion, a lifestyle, and a discipline; it is respect and faith. All these values have been taught to these children, whom I sometimes see as my own. Now I have 177 children in three small towns: Termales, Partadó, and Arusi, and I am hoping to get going with the club in Arusi, the one in Juradó, and that of Valle del Chocó, all affiliated with the National Surfing League,” states Kathy.

On cool and auspicious nights in the breezeways of her house, Kathy calculates, like a marathoner or a ship’s captain, how long it will take the youngsters, the “friends of the Earth,” to finish their important tasks.

This dwelling was built by Louis Kopec, an architect who thought building a house was like writing a poem, and who was also the husband of her mother, the energetic artist Sara Modiano. Both were very good at inspiring hope.

Kathy remembers him as she stares into the tropical night from her house.