NEWBURY, Mass. (AP) — Some newcomers to this country tend to put aside connections to their former homeland, but Obeida Doherty is spending the weeks leading up to Christmas collecting new backpacks for youngsters near her former home in Colombia.
“I have sent Christmas presents in the past, but this year I have chosen knapsacks as a gift,” the Newbury business owner and mother of two said recently. “Some children, especially in the rural areas, can really benefit from such a gift during the holidays.”
Doherty has been collecting — and sending — for about six years.
She still has family and friends in her former hometown near Santander, Colombia, and she has received the cooperation of Newbury Elementary School in Newbury to help provide gifts to send to them.
Her family in Colombia was prosperous, and among enterprises her father ran was the equivalent of a grocery-and-beer distribution business.
Doherty said her thoughts now are often focused on the poverty in Colombia. One video on her phone shows students crossing a rickety wooden bridge over a rushing river on their daily walk to school.
“Someday we have to improve that bridge,” she said. “It is so dangerous.”
Obeida is married to Steven Doherty, a Boston-area native who works for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
In a fundraising brochure, she says, “Our boys, Andrew (10) and Jonathan (9) are students of Newbury Elementary School. Their walk from school is no more than two minutes, and sometimes they even take a bus.
“We are looking to help those children whose journeys to school are much more challenging. Long hours of walking through the mountains and crossing over dangerous rivers are some of the daily obstacles that these children face.”
She came to the U.S. as a teenaged tourist in the early 1990s, and later, in 1998, she returned to serve as a nanny for a Colombian family in Lexington. She indicated she was looking for adventure and opportunity, but it wasn’t easy.
“I had no English,” she recalled. “I was scared.”
In subsequent years, she worked as a private teacher and then started her own cleaning business.
She and Steven were introduced by a mutual friend, and they married in 2002. She became a citizen in 2008.
Obeida, 42, said her family had stereotypes of Americans, just as some in the U.S. have biases about people from other countries.
“I told my mother my fiance didn’t have tattoos or really long hair,” she chuckled. “And his diet involved more than just hot dogs and hamburgers.”
The energetic newcomer hadn’t necessarily planned to stay here, but after marriage and children she started to feel that settling in America was the right decision.
For a young woman who had witnessed the era of drug violence and political turmoil in Colombia, she found the North Shore a pleasant place to settle.
“I had grown up through some violent times,” said Obeida. “I had seen dead bodies. When I traveled, security personnel would sometimes slice my luggage looking for drugs, thinking I was a mule” — a person smuggling cocaine.
“There is more security here. You don’t have to worry about wearing a watch or necklace on the street, and having it taken by a robber.”
“This community has been great for us,” said Steve Doherty. “The people are friendly and the local school is great.”
Her cleaning business has about 20 customers, and she says owning her own enterprise gives her flexibility to spend time with her children — and launch projects like gathering and sending hundreds of backpacks.
“A new backpack will bring a big smile to a child, and 1,000 backpacks will bring lots of happiness,” she says to prospective donors. “If you can, have a child draw a picture or write a small note and place it inside the backpack for the lucky recipient to find.”
Ever the mentor, her appeal suggests writing in English is not a bad thing for the Spanish-speaking recipients. “The language is not a barrier but an opportunity to learn,” she says.
Obeida said that 1,000 backpacks might be an ambitious figure.
But judging from her own narrative, it sounds like one sometimes has to have both ambition and lofty goals to make things happen.
Information from: The Daily News of Newburyport (Mass.), http://www.newburyportnews.com