Photo bv Shirel Levy, courtesy Gwinnett County

The Colombia Day Celebration was born out of a desire to serve the large Colombian population in Gwinnett County, Ga. It began when Destry Dispain, aquatic supervisor for Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation, was approached by a contractor with an interest in putting together an event for the Colombian community. They met and came up with an all-ages pool party that could commemorate the Colombian Declaration of Independence on July 20, 1810.

The first Colombia Day Celebration began on July 20, 2021, and had approximately 265 attendees — a large showing for Best Friend Park Pool, which is one of the county’s smaller outdoor seasonal pools. The showing proved that Dispain and his team were giving the community something they could get excited about.

“When we do other programs at some of the bigger sites, we don’t even draw this many people,” says aquatic coordinator Jason Cutchins.

Deepening community partnerships

To create the event and its programming, Dispain leaned on community leaders with Colombian roots who knew what would draw attendees. He and Cutchins explained that, while they have the facilities, infrastructure and staff to manage these events, success is truly driven by community connections. They could have designed an event but, without community input, it might not have fostered the type of relationship with the residents.

Cutchins stressed the importance of not trying to control everything as programmers but, instead, acting as a facilitator. He says Dispain does a really good job of reading what the community wants and letting others help.

“Over 100 languages are spoken in our county, and we can’t possibly fathom getting into every culture in every community without these partnerships,” Cutchins says.

The event, which typically takes place from 2 to 10 p.m., is open for community members to come and go. Dispain and Cutchins liken it to a big pool party.

Although it ostensibly is centered on celebrating Colombian culture, everyone in the community is welcome. Entertainment for past events has included live music, food, games and dancing. The pool is open for free swim, and live music or a DJ is set up on the pool deck.

Funds to produce the event come from ticket sales at the door, with additional resources occasionally coming from community partners and volunteers. Because many vendors are Colombian, they know money spent at the event goes back into their community. It has become a way for the facility and staff to really connect with the people they serve, Dispain says.

Making international waves

In three years of events, the Colombia Day Celebration has seen high-profile special guests of various walks of life. These include Helmut Levy, a former competitive swimmer, Olympic participant and coach of Colombian descent; and Colombian musician Fernando Abadia.

This year, Cutchins and Dispain estimate that the Colombia Day Celebration drew approximately 365 attendees. They credit the event’s success with its culturally specific programming designed with heavy involvement from the local Colombian community.

“Utilizing a community partner that already has deep ties to the community is going to facilitate a much more organic event or program that really meets the need of the people that you're trying to reach,” says Dispain.

Coach Levy is one of the community leaders who helps Dispain with planning and promotion. He works for a news organization and has helped to get Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation aquatics programs advertised in Colombia and other countries around the world.

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