Maria Paz Rios

founder of duke for colombia

Arden Schraff

Maria Paz Rios is a rising senior from Colombia double majoring in mathematics and history. If that doesn’t impress you right off the bat, in the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, MPR founded DukeforColombia, an aid organization based in Colombia focused on providing food and supplies to impoverished families in Bogota.

 

MPR moved around when she was younger, spending part of her childhood in Chile, part in LA, before ending up back in Colombia. When coming to Duke, she found a Colombian community almost non-existent, only two, maybe three students from Colombia. But, she’s found that the Latinx community at Duke allows her to feel connected to home, specifically through the support network it has provided. When arriving back in Colombia after her year at Duke, she is always struck by how privileged she is, and all of us are at Duke. It is a reminder to her that she holds a responsibility, a duty, to give back to the disadvantaged factions of society in order to level the playing field as much as possible. This goal has filtered into giving back to her community through whatever means she can provide (contributions, professional advice to those in need, or free tutoring).

Returning home in March due to the pandemic was much the same.  Colombia’s response to COVID-19, specifically Bogota’s, was centered on strict lockdowns leading to bankruptcy of many small businesses. Since a large sector of their economy is informal-- this street vendors, small shops, etc, the working-class of Colombia was hit hard. These people living ‘paycheck to paycheck’ no longer had any sense of economic stability, which also jeopardized the safety of Bogota as people desperate for a source of income increasingly rely on theft. 

 

The economic fallout from COVID-19 had worse effects than the virus itself. The news showed hundreds of families hanging red towels and cloths outside their homes as a cry for help. It was a way of saying that their family hadn’t had anything to eat in days. This is when MPR founded DukeforColombia. 

 

The organization started as an organic, ‘amateur’ campaign, MPR calling for fundraising efforts via her Instagram account. Soon afterward, the word got around to various groups on Duke’s campus. The ripple effect was incredible. Despite not receiving help or support from the institution of Duke, the support from Duke Students was astonishing.

 

 In the beginning MPR aimed for a small-scale campaign, hoping to raise around $1,000. With the encouragement of parents and friends, she lifted the goal to $5,000, something she considered impossible to achieve. Around halfway through the second day of the campaign, she was about to beat the $5,000 milestone. She quickly realized she would have to partner with an institution in order to establish credibility and reiterate the transparency of the campaign among her donors, since she was now handling larger sums of money. The alliance with Duke was crucial since she didn’t have an existing infrastructure framework to handle the purchase and delivery of thousands of food kits. “There’s only so much you can fit into one car!” she exclaimed in the interview.

In addition to the partnership with Duke, MPR reached out to Red Cross Colombia. Impressed by the campaigns and its efficacy, they agreed to help her with the logistics of the delivery. After raising almost $11,000 in the three days that the campaign lasted, they ended up with trucks full of kits for families in need in Bogota. These kits ended up in one of Bogota’s poorest neighborhoods, Soacha, where MPR was focusing her outreach efforts. They distributed 600 family kits that included food items (pasta, beans, rice, coffee) and other essential supplies (toilet paper, soap, detergent). The kits were aimed to supply families of 5-6 people for two weeks. In the end, the campaign ended up helping a little over 3,000 people.

 

As those receiving their supplies waited in line, “you could see the gratitude in parents’ eyes as they took their kids to pick up food and supplies for the next two weeks. It was a really special moment that made all the fundraising efforts and (tedious) logistic coordination worth it.”

Often times, people contribute to campaigns that are in geographic locations or causes that are foreign to them, making the impact less tangible since they do not witness it firsthand. With most donors knowing MPR personally, she wants all the Duke students who contributed to know that the impact of their contributions was felt in the streets of Bogota. Even to those $3 or $5, it was enough to buy a pack of eggs or a pound of pasta. Every donation counts and the impact was life changing for hundreds of families. “I also want to thank everyone that trusted me and my campaign, our transparency, our purpose, and our judgement.”

 

For anyone trying to start their own initiative, MPR says,

“it doesn’t matter whether it’s only you, or your target seems small—the gratitude that those you help will show to you and to those who contributed will make you realize that in times of desperate need, any help is very necessary. I’d definitely encourage others to embark on their own initiatives to help others, whether that be by providing free online classes, or fundraising, or just contributing to something that you are passionate about.

Also, leverage and rely on your communities—people are more willing to help out than you think they would. Don’t be afraid to fail, to fall short of your objective. Even if you ‘fail’, having tried already makes you braver than most people, and taking risks usually leads to either a great life lesson, or a great outcome. So, don’t be afraid to try.”

 

Despite her studies at Duke and her current internship in Goldman Sach’s Investment Banking Division in NYC, MPR hopes to one day be able to come back to Colombia and generate structural socioeconomic changes to improve the severe inequality in Colombia. Although, she would prefer to do this from the private, not public, sector.

 

As COVID-19 continues, DukeforColombia hopes to continue providing aid to those in need. With the media attention the campaign got, allowing for the campaign to be wide spread, four other campaigns throughout Colombia, Peru, and Panama were inspired. These campaigns sought to do the same thing and consulted MPR in the process. She wants to continue to inspire others not to be afraid to launch their own initiatives.