Editor's Note: Shakopee Rotary member Ron Smith, who has devoted much of his time to improving the lives of people in a Colombian community, has been chosen by the Huffington Post as today's "Greatest Person." This is our story, which originally posted on Oct. 11. Our "Greatest Person" series focuses on people who make exceptional impacts on our city. Email your "Greatest Person" suggestions to Lisa.Baumann@Patch.com.
Located along the Andes mountains in Colombia lies a city called Cúcuta. A population of almost one million people, Cúcuta is the fifth largest city in Colombia. It is also the location of an extensive Shakopee Rotary Club project spanning many years and thousands of dollars.
At the head of the humanitarian projects in Cúcuta is Ron Smith, a 70-year-old Shakopee man dedicated to bringing hope, health and compassion to the most vulnerable communities in Colombia.
From installing a clean water system to setting up organic farms and coordinating a temporary hospital after a devastating landslide, Smith has spent his last 22 years at the Shakopee Rotary building up the international projects in Cúcuta.
Forty miles outside of Cúcuta is a small school for children who have been orphaned, their parents killed or disappeared. There, Smith has arguably made his grandest impact—installing a clean water system for the students and staff, as well as starting an organic farm where older students are trained to work the fields before they leave school.
“This way, when (the students) got out there, there is plenty of land, and they could just farm it and at least grow crops so that they can support themselves,” Smith said. “These students are depending on the school for 100 percent of their support.”
After a mudslide that tore down the local hospital, Smith helped coordinate a relief effort for the medical services that included bringing hospital supplies and setting up temporary operating and patient care tents.
“The hospital was completely wiped out and it was damaged extensively. They were able to get the people out of the hospital, but because of all the rain, it caused the ground to be somewhat loose. There were mudslides and they caused havoc,” Smith said. “Essentially, we replaced their medical equipment that was lost in the hospital. We supplied all the medicine on a temporary basis for the hospital as well as the tents they could use, computers and mobile generators to run the diagnostic equipment.”
Smith added, “So it was kind of nice that the people in the community were able to continue to live there and get medical care from (the doctors) that were previously giving them care.”
Because of the way the Rotary is structured, Shakopee Rotary funds can be matched several times before they reach a project, which equates into thousands of dollars raised, said Chuck Berg, Rotary District Governor for Shakopee. Aside from raising funds, Smith has been instrumental in helping to define the scope of these large international projects, he said.
“(Smith) took the bull by the horns,” Berg said. “He has traveled down there several times. When he comes back and talks about the work that he’s done down there, it brings you near tears sometimes."
But, it seems, Smith’s proudest humanitarian project isn’t the water he brought to the school, the “quite huge” greenhouse he helped build or the cattle he purchased for the community. It’s the music he brought to Cúcuta: instruments and sheet music to the orphanage outside of town.
“I think children that learn how to play musical instruments and learn music—it helps develop their minds,” Smith said.
Smith’s work illustrates that the Shakopee Rotary isn’t an organization where “we send them a bunch of money and hope they do something good with it,” said Berg. “It’s more of a partnership with the (Colombian) Rotaries.”
So what does Smith receive for helping the people of Cúcuta?
"When you just look at their faces and smiles, and look into their eyes, it’s like they’re having Christmas and Easter and their birthday all in the same day,” Smith said.