April 29, 2020 / 1:06 PM / a month ago

Musical minivan brings birthday messages to quarantined Colombians

SAN MARTIN (Reuters) - Luis Armando Velasquez normally drives around the streets of San Martin in central Colombia blaring advertisements for local businesses from the loudspeakers atop his minivan.

But with the town’s inhabitants confined to their houses amid a nationwide coronavirus quarantine, Velasquez is using his van to bring cheerful messages to people celebrating birthdays behind closed doors and to deliver food to those in need.

“The most important thing is to bring happiness, not just to the people living in the house, but to the whole area,” said the 59-year-old married father of one.

Velasquez spends about 10 hours each day driving around town to sing “Happy Birthday” to people who request a musical visit.

He parks his truck in front of the house of whoever’s birthday it is and plays music and sings through his speakers. People in the neighborhood often come outside to join in the celebration.

Velasquez does not charge for his visits; instead he asks families to donate money so he can buy rice, eggs, oil or other foods to give to those going hungry during the quarantine.

Although Colombia’s government has budgeted 18 trillion pesos (about $4.43 billion) to help support the country’s vulnerable - who often work informal jobs like street selling, construction and recycling - many are out of work and say they have received no aid at all.

“If someone gives me 50,000 pesos ... I take a photo of the money, which I post on social media attributed to an anonymous donor,” he explained, citing a contribution worth about $12.

After buying groceries, Velasquez takes a photo of them and the receipt, which he also uploads to social media.

Velasquez himself is living off savings.

“If I see someone who looks like they need help, I stop the car and ask them ‘are you getting help?’ and if they say no, I believe them and give them some of the items we have inside the car,” he said. “We’re trying to reach those no one else has.”

Normally Velasquez charges 25,000 pesos, about $6, for an hour of advertising on the streets of San Martin with his speakers and double to travel to another city.

He hopes the quarantine passes so that he can soon get back to his day job.

“I’ve never cried as much as I have recently,” Velasquez said, recalling both birthday sing-alongs and his food distribution efforts.

Reporting by Cesar Hernandez in San Martin and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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