In the northeast Venezuelan city of Barcelona, in a historic, colonial-era house that once hosted liberator Simon Bolivar, children learn about the visual arts, body language, theater, music and dance.
"When the doors of the house are closed, and you are there, inside, you're in another Venezuela — a Venezuela that is full of hope," said Raquel Aché-Leonard of New Tampa, who leases the house and uses it as a base for her charitable foundation.
"When you leave to go out to the street, there is fear and anxiety for the crisis that took over my country. It's a really sad reality my people are living."
Her work in education is just one way the 73-year-old Aché-Leonard is helping the people in her native country as they struggle with the disintegration of what once was a modern, seemingly democratic nation just hours by plane from the United States.
The United Nations' Agency for Human Rights has expressed concern about acute shortages of food, medicine and commodities in Venezuela. The problems have led to riots, arrests, and calls for the resignation of socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
When the nation recently reopened the border with Colombia, more than 130,000 Venezuelans crossed over to buy necessities.
Aché-Leonard has been involved with causes in Venezuela for more than five decades. Today, the wife and mother of four daughters is retired from her work as cultural ambassador for Tampa's Patel Conservatory and helps provide medical supplies as well as educational tools through her Lourdes Armas Foundation.
She raises money for her work among people in Tampa Bay, including its Venezuelan community, in part through the sale of the Venezuelan tamales known as hallacas. She recently made and sold 550 of them at $6 each, raising more than $3,000.
"Venezuelans here do not help as they should and some believe that they come as tourists, for a little while," she said. "But there are also many Venezuelan families who are sending boxes full of food and other supplies."
The Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey said nearly 6,000 Venezuelans lived in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties — the largest population group from any South American country except Colombia and Peru.
In Venezuela, people like Adriana Velasquez have come to depend on Aché-Leonard and her donors for surgical materials. Velasquez is director of Social Management Lencherías, a foundation that works with needy communities in the Venezuelan state of Anzóategui. Barcelona, a city of nearly 1 million people, is the capital of Anzóategui.
Felix Arrioja, a doctor, said the help she provides is a lifeline for an area lacking in resources.
"I have known Raquel for 30 years," Arrioja said. "She is so supportive and committed. Raquel founded this house as a bridge of humanitarian and cultural expression. Definitely there is no other like her."
She also works to get free medical help for those who need it.
"I wanted to concentrate on the health of children because we have to save them," she said.
Aché-Leonard has been living in the Tampa area for 20 years but her love for her native country has led her to return at least once a year to the colonial house that for two centuries has received Venezuelan historical figures including Bolivar, who led the liberation of Spanish South America.
Each trip she makes to Venezuela comes with a new action plan.
"Every time I travel I'm going loaded with gifts, and now with basic supplies. Last time I went to the area of the Orinoco delta and met with many indigenous people that were infected with malaria," she said.
She also has visited the high Vichada — guerrilla territory along the border with Colombia.
"That experience made me not be afraid," she said.
As someone from the United States working in poor areas, Aché-Leonard faces the constant risk she'll be kidnapped.
Some call her projects madness.
"I am by nature a motivator. Everyone is born with an ability. I do not disappoint and I can use that. I have to trust in something positive."
Her most recent trip to Venezuela lasted six weeks and filled her with energy, she said. Among the tasks she undertook were painting the house in Barcelona, a sort of cultural oasis, and offering workshops using puppets for the children taking classes.
A great uncle of hers owned the house, and since 1982, its doors have remained open for young people in the area. Currently, 100 children take advantage of the cultural and education offerings there — far less than when times were better in Venezuela.
"The children of the foundation had a performance at a mall, with typical costumes sewn for their mothers," Aché-Leonard said. "To bring that joy to a country where there is nothing to eat is wonderful."
Centro Tampa is a sister publication of the Tampa Bay Times. Contact Myriam Silva-Warren at [email protected] or (813) 226-3388