Fight Poverty: Educate Women in Panama

by Fundacion Calicanto
Local woman managing a food stand
Local woman managing a food stand

We have graduated more than 700 women since 2005, of which 64% are working in hotels and other businesses; and 8% chose to continue their studies.

So far, our area of action had limited itself to San Felipe, El Chorrillo, Curundú, Santa Ana and Calidonia but in 2015, we started the process of expansion outside our traditional sectors.

The province of Colon is located near the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal. It is commercially important for the country because of the Free Zone (the world's second largest) and by its ports activities. We aim to change the reality of families living at dangerous and marginalized areas, this effort is supported by the Embassy of the United States that rely on the viability of the program and have chosen the City of Colon as the perfect candidate for social change. 

Why is it important?

Colon City has big problems such as unemployment, education and social support, which is why many of the young people end up associated with gangs. However, women have an entrepreneurial spirit and desire to succeed with their families. They represent 48% of the colonense population, within this percentage the majority is under the figure of "head of household" and must address their homes by themselves.

Our desire to help

Calicanto Foundation, ensuring the social restructuring of the province of Colon and believing in strong women living in this sector, decided to extend its training program (CAPTA) to areas such as Barrio Norte, Barrio Sur, Buena Vista, Puerto Escondido, Villa Caribe, reverted areas and Arco Iris located in the City of Colon. During the next two years, we plan to train and locate more than 220 colonenses women in the Hotel industry.

A CAPTA woman increases 70% of her self-esteem; 60% of them became leaders in their community; 90% received health certificates. 85% of women culminated the course and 64% of them are located into the labor market.

Expansion has not been an easy task, but we have had the support of the Embassy of the United States during this journey of hope. We have approximately 75% of the funds needed to develop our program in the sister province of Colon. In 2015 we managed to perform: 

  • Community research
  • Geographical recognition of Colon
  • Reconstruction of the class room
  • Installation of furniture
  • Manual and Training Plan
  • Hiring full-time staff

Our work does not end there. We need your help! we want to educate each of our beneficiaries with the right equipment and provide them the tools they need to achieve their goals. Once accredited to take part in the tourism-hotel sector, it will attract other women to improve their lives and their environment. 

Help us build a new Colon City, full of opportunities and decent work for colonenses mothers. Hundreds of homes, children and communities will be influenced by this wave of social restructuring. You can be part of this change!

Colon City view from above
Colon City view from above
Colonenses women and their children
Colonenses women and their children
Second recruitment of local women
Second recruitment of local women
Facilities center before the renovation
Facilities center before the renovation
United to change the community of Colon
United to change the community of Colon
Photography by Jorge Duarte
Photography by Jorge Duarte

Abigail’s story

Abigail gave birth to a young girl just days before her 15th birthday. She never took a sex-education course before or had access to birth control because she was born and raised in an indigenous region with a very strict culture that believed bearing a baby during childhood is a betrayal of the family and a sin. After giving birth to her child she was forced to leave the house.

She dropped out in the fifth grade and moved to her aunt’s house at Cerro Batea (makeshift houses atop a mountain).  She didn't have stability in her home, shifted from house to house until she finally met her partner. The instability and long distances between these homes and her school made it impossible for her to continue her studies and led her to drop out at a young age. 

No access to water or electricity, Abigail’s lives in a makeshift home, roughly the size of a regular bedroom, with her partner, daughter and two cousins. She is now 20 years old and faces the reality of many poor women living in Chepo (district in the outskirts of Panama). 

She found the Project CAPTA (Fight Poverty: Help Educate the Women of Panama) through her aunt, a CAPTA graduate, who told her that there were job opportunities for her in the hotel industry and all she had to do was call and ask about the job.  At that time she neither worked nor studied. “I have a daughter. I need to work and do everything  possible to survive for her”she said. Doubtful at first, she was finally encouraged by her aunt to participate in our intense seven-week program that would conclude with a job opportunity.

To participate in this program, Abigail faces many difficulties and makes tough choices  everyday such as: leaving her four year old daughter alone, not knowing what they will eat or where she will find the money to feed herself and her daughter. In the wee hours of the morning when most of us are still sleeping she is already on her way to San Felipe where the foundation is located. It takes her two hours, walking by herself at dusk, a bus and a train to arrive on time. 

One of the most valuable things she has learned in the course is to control her anger. Assertive Communication has taught her to think things through before speaking, to be more tolerant of others and to improve her attitude. In order to make the most of this opportunity she tells herself: “I have to fight for this, I have to achieve this!”.

“I want to work to protect my child’s life”. In spite of all the obstacles she faced, Abigail finished the program with a better self-esteem and is now ready to pursue a professional career that will help her pay for her daughter’s education expenses. This will be the way out of poverty for Abigail. Now she counts with the tools and skills to find a job and she has the confidence and ability to deal with the challenges ahead.

(The names in this report have been changed to ensure the privacy of our beneficiaries.)

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Abigail and her daughter
Abigail and her daughter
Her makeshift house
Her makeshift house
Abigail's aunt and her children
Abigail at her graduation
Abigail at her graduation
CAPTA Women dramatizing their journey
CAPTA Women dramatizing their journey

A CAPTA student stood on a stage and used the words CAPTA and Calicanto interchangeably.

The evening began with much planning here at Calicanto. At 3, under a cloudy sky and following a countdown on our social media that had our followers on the edge of their seats, our most recent cycle of CAPTA women finally graduated.

And what a graduation it was!

Miss Panama Irene Nuñez was our Master of Ceremony and with a clear and elegant voice, she presented a fantastic group of speakers.

Our dear Hildegard Vasquez reminded the girls that, in a modern world, they cannot be Cinderellas who wait for princes to save them, but instead must be the heroes of their own story.

The director of Panama International Hotel School, Roberto Jean-Francois, gave the students and all the women in the world the title of “CAPTAlized women.” He reminded the audience to always remember the importance of the International Day of the Woman.

Tamara McPherson, director of Asociación Judio Panameña, our old friends and collaborators, expressed the great inspiration that our CAPTA women are and gifted a scholarship in order to change a life during our next cycle.

Similarly, Clínica Ford and American English Overseas Center also presented scholarships for “the perfect smile” and for tutoring in English.

But the moment the auditorium at the Museum of the Interoceanic Panama Canal was quietest was when Elena took the stage.

Mere moments after having graduated along with her CAPTA sisters, she explained to us that, when she arrived at the program, she felt there was no hope for her or her children.

She described CAPTA as a cocoon where she, the caterpillar, had transformed herself into a butterfly that was ready to be seen and to explore her new world.

With a strong voice that still broke at times, she let us know that the program changes lives and that, in only seven weeks, she leaves us a new person.

But the most interesting part was her interchangeable use of the words CAPTA and Calicanto. She switched back and forth as if both had the same meaning.

While to most, it might have seemed simply a mistake, Elena was correct.

CAPTA, Esperanza, and Enlaces (Fight Poverty: Educate Women in Panama, From Street Gang to Service Industry in Panama, and At Risk Children Dance for Social Change) might be three separate programs with three different approaches, but they are all synonyms for Calicanto simply because they have the same mission: to light a candle (as Hildegard Vasquez did with our graduates yesterday) in the darkest corners of Panamanian society, even when the day is as cloudy as it was.

The architect said it, the speakers reiterated it, and the girls showed it through their dramatic renditions: the CAPTA woman represents new light and new opportunities. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be new challenges, but that there is potential for a good future for both them and their families.

Elena speaking to the audience
Elena speaking to the audience
CAPTA woman receives her diploma
CAPTA woman receives her diploma



Carolina lost more than anyone should when her house went up in flames. Now she lives in a makeshift apartment in Casco Antiguo, a neighborhood that we focus on with our social programs and that she refused to abandon, with a small room and several other family members, her children and mother included. Very few would’ve blamed Carolina for having a defeatist attitude.

When we complain about our problems, they seem to be the most important thing at the time. It’s hard to put them in context and zoom out because they’re very real to us. But when we encounter people in Carolina's position, we often wonder whether, if we were forced to shoulder burdens twice that size, we would be able to move forward.

Carolina did.

Losing your house, however, is not the same as losing your home. For Carolina and for many of our students at the Foundation, home is a synonym for family. This means that Carolina lost both. One of her children, a boy who had yet to reach his ninth year of life, passed away during the fire. He left behind his twin brother and his entire family. Instead of wallowing in her pain (and could we have faulted her for it?) she decided she would never allow something like this to happen to her family again.

She joined the most recent cycle of our GlobalGiving Project CAPTA (Or Fight Poverty: Help Educate the Women of Panama) and graduated last Thursday, going as far as winning a scholarship from our friends at the a local dental clinic for "The Perfect Smile". For many of our women, it is a hard lifestyle change to come to the Foundation from 8 to 5 and acquire knowledge in a formal setting. Can we stop for a second and imagine how much harder it is to do so when the shadow of a loss like this tried to poison Carolina's mind and drive her to self-pity and apathy every day? The mental healthcare professionals who work with us at the Foundation reported that Carolina would have episodes during the program where she would be overcome with grief, sometimes collapsing. But she had other children at home that depended on her. So after one of these bouts of grief, she would always come back the next day, ready to continue her lessons. Nothing stopped her.

Carolina did not only overcome the many social hurdles placed in front of people in her position. By graduating, she also overcame a psychological pain that she couldn’t simply escape when she went home at 5 every day. With this recent graduation, her diploma might represent her new accreditation, but it also represents the love she had and still has for her deceased son. She honors him and the rest of her family by not letting anyone or anything, not even her own tragic past, dictate her future.

(The names in this report have been changed to ensure the privacy of our beneficiaries.)

Carolina's Old Residence
Carolina's Old Residence
Carolina Receiving Her Diploma
Carolina Receiving Her Diploma


We conduct these interviews with our graduates to understand what motivates them to join CAPTA and also to provide basic insight into the mindsets of the women we train. This is Ana's interview, she recently graduated and has been able to cash in her first check which will contribute to her daughter's education back home. 

What is your name?


How old are you?

I am 47 years old

Are you single or married?

I am legally married, but at the moment we are separated.

Do you have children?

Yes, I have a daughter who is 8. She lives far away from me with her grandparents and I miss her very much.

Have you finished high school?

No, I couldn’t finish high school. I reached 11th grade.

What did you do before the program?

Before the program, I used to work as a housemaid.

When you heard about CAPTA, what did you like about it?

What I really liked about CAPTA is that the program offers the opportunity to learn important skills that could help me land a stable job.

Why do you think you need this program?

The reason I think I need this program is for personal development, as a mother I want to provide for my daughter and I want to give her a better life.

What did you feel when you were accepted into the program?

I felt the desire to improve I knew this program would be for my benefit.

What would you like to change about your life?

I think that I would prefer to have a better quality of life.

What are your goals after you finish the program?

For me it’s a must to always keep learning and growing. I would like a stable job, improve my quality of life, own my home so that I can bring my daughter to live with me and provide for her.

What change would you like to see in the world?

I’d like to see equal opportunities for children. Learning and studying are basic things that all children should have, just like food and water.

What have you learned recently that you would have liked to know when you were a young girl?

I guess I didn’t know how important school was; if I knew better, I would have finished high school.

Anything funny about your personality?

The way I communicate, always with joy even if I am tired.

What does luxury mean to you?

Luxury means being able to afford a comfortable life style. Having my own home and car to move around, having my bills up to date. 

What would you tell a woman who could help you by buying something luxurious?

I would tell her how grateful I feel for the help she’s provided me and other women in need.

Would you like to receive some advice from these women? What would you ask?

Yes, of course I would. I would ask her for advice on what can I do to have the same opportunities she has. 

What advice could you give to a younger woman?

A good advice for a younger woman is to study, so that she does not regret it later.

How did this program change your life? Has there been a change in your life after the program?

The program helped me to improve as a person. Now I can solve conflicts and express myself without aggression.  My life changed because they gave me the key to change things in my life. For example, now I have a stable job and I am about to cash my first paycheck. I will send that money to my mother to help pay my daughter’s education back home.

Ana in the International Hotel School
Ana in the International Hotel School
Theater helps the women understand their emotions
Theater helps the women understand their emotions

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Organization Information

Fundacion Calicanto

Location: Panama City, Panama - Panama
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Hildegard Vasquez
Panama, Panama

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