Entering Panama City is like coming to Hong Kong. The sky scrapers are leaning against one another and glass and steel are shining in the tropical sun. Lourdes Alvarez, the National General Secretary, is a big smile and a warm heart as she is picking us up at the airport. We talk so much and so eagerly that she forgets to turn to the hotel, and before we know it we are deeply into the old town and driving amongst old churches and through very narrow streets with lots of reminiscences from the colonial past. This bonus sight seeing is a great introduction to Panama – a shining mix of wealth and poverty, tall buildings and narrow streets with small local shops.
Panama became independent from Spain in 1821, and this is the left overs of a very old Spanish church.
My good friend Bill Stewart, who resides for parts of the year in Panama, tells me that the country is really a mix of the rich and the poor, well illustrated by the two snap shots from the immediate neighborhood of my hotel in the city. Above the local business and below the foreign investments in all its shining grandeur.
I was taken so much by surprise by the beautiful headquarters of Panama YMCA that I did not really get a good photo of the building , and hope to make more justice to the building tomorrow. YMCA got this property as a donation from the government, and this was due to excellent work by Juan Roquebert, a board member with contacts in high places, and lots of stair walking and lobbying by Lourdes herself. This is a property from the times when the area was the administrative centre of the Panama Canal, and both buildings are built in the same typical architecture from the beginning of the 20th century.
This had been the villa of Dr William Gorgas, famous for his fight against Yellow Fever and Malaria. For the men leading the Panama Canal project in 1904, challenges of building the canal were exacerbated by the infectious diseases that ran rampart in the hot, wet Panamanian climate. By 1906 more than 85% of the canal workers had been hospitalized. Dr Gorgas had the idea that if they could get rid of the mosquitos carrying the disease, they would save the men and the project. His theories turned out to be correct, but extremely expensive in implementation, thousands of square kilometers of swamp and rainforest had to be terminated along the canal site to get rid of the mosquitos. Finally President Roosevelt gave the funds needed, and as soon as the work had been done, the number of Yellow Fever cases sank to zero in a few weeks.
And here a snapshot from Lourdes’ office. Slowly the board members came in, one by one, and when we were in quorum, we went in to the very nice board room with comfortable chairs around a heavy meeting table. “All of this are donations”, says Lourdes, “the building, the furniture, the equipment, all of it donations.” We have a long conversation where we get to know much more about Panama YMCA, it was founded in 1904 by the American Armed Forces who came to Panama to dig the Canal. In 1966 the Panama rooted YMCA was officially inaugurated, at that time the US based YMCA had been closed for a longer time. YMCA has always focused on social change and programmes for children and youth, and this resulted also in the founding of a YMCA School where all education is offered in English language and now has 250 pupils. The school has been a great project, which has really tested the capacity of the local YMCA, and a few years ago they paid down the last debt by selling parts of the camp site they own outside of Panama City.
Another popular programme is Table Tennis, or Ping Pong, as my old friend Dorothy de Sing, previous Treasurer in the World ExCom calls it. The players from the YMCA are in fact the national Team of Panama and the champion in Panama is working for the YMCA. I was amazed to see the professional equipment and to see some examples of their very technical playing.
Lourdes summing up some of the discussions by linking Sarah to the left below, responsible for the volunteers in the YMCA, and a possible Staff Placement in Geneva this year, and Juan, the man behind the government donated headquarter for Panama YMCA.
Below the National Table Tennis Team of Panama, plus an anonymous admirer from Geneva.
These young men have a lot of plans for the near future of Panama YMCA and how to use Table Tennis to attract the interest of more young people and families, and we had to share with them our ideas of Power Spaces, very similar to their own ideas!
As the friendly conversation and sharing of experiences and best practices came to an end, we said good night and went out into the romantic and narrow streets of the old town of Panama City.
Tomorrow we are going to visit the YMCA school, meet all the young people and hopefully have an excursion to the Panama Canal itself. Such technical wonders fascinate me and I would be very happy if I could visit it. We shall see tomorrow!