Often you don't know what you have until you lose it. When I was 7 years old, my hardworking father's jewelry business went bankrupt. I didn't know what the word "bankrupt" meant, and when my parents sent me to stay with family friends in Los Angeles while they addressed the situation, I assumed that I would return home to my normal routine.
But when I returned, it seemed everything had changed. Our two cars that I had ridden in to school or to play with my friends were gone. The air conditioner that cooled us during the brutally hot Colombian summers had been sold. Our color television had been traded in for a smaller, black-and-white version. Foods that I loved were replaced with the bland staples a mother buys when food becomes sustenance instead of something to be enjoyed.
We had gone from being middle class to poor almost overnight, and from my 7-year-old child's perspective it was hard to imagine anything worse. I can still viscerally remember the seeming desperation of that moment.
But my parents found ways to put our situation in perspective and to show me how fortunate we still were, especially given that—previously unbeknownst to me—so many families and children had so much less. Most vividly, I remember my father walking me by a park and watching the street children who lived there. They were my age and their faces didn't look all that different from mine or my friends', yet these children truly had nothing. They lived in the dirt, in tattered clothes and with bare feet, scrounging through garbage for anything to eat. Many sniffed glue to dull the pain of their existence. Despite our situation, my parents wanted me to know that it could be far worse. At that moment, I promised myself that if I was ever able to help, I would.
My first major album was called "Pies Descalzos" ("Barefoot" in Spanish) and was named for the children whose faces had been seared into my memory. I hoped that, in some small way, I was able to give a voice to those children whom no one seemed to listen to or care about. I was 18, and once the album was released I created a charitable foundation in Colombia to try to help kids like the ones I had seen in the park 10 years before and too many times since. I hoped that, as my life and career progressed, I could help poor children escape poverty and make progress in their own lives.
During the last 10 years, Pies Descalzos has successfully served thousands of Colombia's poorest children. For less than $2 per day, the schools we fund give children nutritious meals, quality educations, counseling services (for those who have experienced tragedies) and a chance to pull themselves out of the poverty cycle that previously trapped them.
So don't believe that it isn't possible to educate the world's poorest children. We do it every day in Colombia, a country second only to Iraq in terms of the number of internally displaced people who've fled their homes because of the horrors of war.
Now we are taking our school program to other parts of the world with the launch of a new U.S.-based nonprofit organization called Barefoot.
Globally, 72 million young children don't attend primary school and another 226 million aren't in secondary school. In addition, hundreds of millions of children attend some version of school but can't access the type of quality education that yields real results.
We know how to address this. Governments must abolish school fees, hire more qualified teachers and provide textbooks and meals in schools. Most important, they must decide that a child's poverty is not an excuse—that they will educate all children regardless of what family or neighborhood they are born into. And they must prioritize education funding.
Education affects every aspect of economic development and global stability. Research has shown that a single year of primary education creates a 10 to 20 percent increase in a woman's wages later in life. Education also prevents disease: a young person with a secondary education is three times less likely to contract HIV. Education even leads to more efficient agriculture and improved nutrition.
This is not charity—it is in everyone's self-interest. Our Colombian schools primarily serve children who are displaced by decades of conflict. Many have seen their loved ones die and come to our schools angry and bitter. Education gives them a reason not to join the paramilitary organizations and narco-traffickers that have terrorized Colombia for so long.
We can be the first generation to make education universally available—providing it to all children, everywhere, with no excuses. A barefoot child I saw years ago in the park deserves the same opportunity as any other child.
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