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AVSI Ecuador's work presented in Washington DC: Construct together
Friday, 23 September 2011 15:02

On September 14, 2011, AVSI-USA hosted an evening in Washington, DC, with Sarah Holtz on her visit home after the first year of her assignment in Quito with AVSI Ecuador. Holtz shared insights from her ongoing work in an early childhood education and community building program and answered questions of the attending professionals from around the city.

In addition to painting a picture of AVSI’s work in Pisuli neighborhood of Quito, the presentation brought to light a few points of AVSI’s unique method, which presents an opportunity for change and growth in the staff members just as in the people it reaches out to support. Speaking about what she has learned through the relationship with her boss and coworkers about the meaning of work, Holtz said, “I have begun to learn that my value doesn’t lay in what I can do; it doesn’t lay in the results I can produce.  Having understood this, I have begun to realize that work isn’t just about me and about what I can construct, rather about what I can construct, together with those around me.”

Later, she connected the desire to construct with a point from AVSI’s method of ‘doing with’ communities it serves: “ ‘Doing for’ (saving the world) is not the same as “doing with” – and in the end doing with has greater results.”


"Hello, and welcome. My name is Sarah Holtz, and I work for AVSI, an international organization dedicated to promoting human dignity in developing countries around the world. I started working for AVSI in the summer of 2009 after graduating from university. I had a job offer from the Peace Corps starting in March 2010, and until then I wanted to gain experience in the field of development. I was especially interested in AVSI’s approach to development, so different from the method proposed by the Peace Corps. I remember clearly reading the 10 points of the Peace Corps method, one of which was promoting American culture throughout the world, and comparing it with AVSI’s method – the human person at the center of each project – and thinking the second fit so much better with what was important to me.

With AVSI I had the opportunity to do a summer internship together with Antonio Acevedo in Oaxaca, Mexico.  There I worked with AVSI’s local partner called DIJO [now Crecemos], an organization dedicated to the integral development and education of underprivileged children and youth in the slums of Oaxaca, Mexico, doing a program evaluation and working in the afterschool program.  My experience in Mexico was much richer than I could have imagined it would be.  From the very first day, when I was set to wash plates in the community kitchen (really putting my Ivy-league degree to work!), I began to understand that work was at once much more complex and much more simple than I could ever have imagined. Seen in itself, it was a rather boring task, but the project as a whole could not have functioned without people who dedicated themselves for four hours every day to washing plates, so that each child could have a clean plate. When looking at the significance of the work as a whole, there is no such thing as an insignificant task. Alone the task seems to looks unimportant, but in function of the rest, put in relation with its ultimate significance, every task finds its value.

Returning from Mexico I had the opportunity to work in AVSI’s DC office, together with Ezio and Jackie, mainly focusing on website design while helping to write projects and doing translations.  March and my Peace Corps deployment were quickly approaching and I began to realize that I greatly preferred to work with AVSI over the Peace Corps, for within AVSI I had found a place where I learned not only about procedures and methods, but also about the meaning of procedures and methods – I was beginning to form a life criteria.  A place for me was found in Quito, Ecuador as a project assistant in charge of program monitoring and evaluation starting in June, 2010.  In Ecuador, AVSI works in both the urban north of Quito, the country’s capital, and in 41 rural communities of the province of Manabi, located on the pacific coast.  As in Mexico, the intervention focuses primarily on education, but differs from the program in Mexico in that it focuses on family education.  The majority of activities with the 1300 families and 2000 children and youth have developed around a family education program called PelCa, a homeschool preschool program that promotes the protagonism of parents in the education of their children. Since the birth of the PelCa program in Quito, the program has evolved to include a preschool and 5 home preschools for 70 young children, an afterschool program for the school-aged child, a youth program for middle- and high-schoolers and professional formation initiatives for parents and youth.

My work in Ecuador revolves around the monitoring and evaluation of the project – designing tools to collect data, organizing the data, reporting the data to program donors and to program operators (the family educators) to improve our work method and clarify criteria. I participate in the meetings with area directors (preschool, elementary school and adolescents), in the human formation with the family educators (this year we will read Luigi Giussani’s “Risk of Education”[1]) and work with the youth tutoring math and English once a week.

The staff I work with are amazing – almost all of them come from Pisulli the marginalized urban neighborhood in which we work in Quito. The neighborhood is characterized for violence and mistrust.  People live in shacks made of cinderblocks, composed generally of a kitchen/livingroom and a family bedroom filled with two or three beds that are shared by children and parents alike.  Young women are quickly mothers, often having their first child at the age of 15 or 16 years old.  Young men, when they decide to work, generally dedicate themselves to temporary construction jobs.  Only the main street in the neighborhood is paved, and in the summer months with no rain, the air is full of dust blown up by persistent winds, often causing respiratory diseases in the children.

People in the neighborhood generally look for AVSI, known as “the foundation” because they hear that they give free uniforms and school supplies for their children.  But they stay for the educational support they receive, the community they find, the safe place where they are valued and listened to. Our work in Ecuador, as around the world, is that of sharing a need with the people we encounter – yes a need for school supplies and a roof over our head, but there are other organizations in the neighborhood that offer the same services with no need for personal commitment.  Through activities and personal relationships with family educators we try to share the need to belong to a community, to be valued, for beauty and for work with these mothers and fathers who often find themselves living in isolation.  I have heard my boss repeat many times that these neighborhoods aren’t poor for lack of money, they are poor for lack of hope.  Our work is to be a witness to this hope, based in the certainty that life has a meaning and each person has an innate value that cannot be demeaned by any circumstances.

From the beginning, my time with AVSI has been an opportunity for personal growth and discovery, thanks to the people around me and the human formation training my bosses have provided.  In particular related to the night’s theme I have begun to learned that my value doesn’t lay in what I can do; it doesn’t lay in the results I can produce.  Having understood this, I have begun to realize that work isn’t just about me and about what I can construct, rather about what I can construct, together with those around me.  My horizon has been expanded infinitely.

When I began to work for AVSI, and in my years in college and high-school, in front of a deadline, a task, if the deadline wasn’t met, if the task wasn’t completed perfectly (or in school if I received a less than perfect grade) I would crumble. I would become so stressed out that it was unpleasant to be near me.  I realize now that my world was defined by the approval of others.  At the time it was not so evident as that – I thought that I wanted to work, and work well, I wanted to hand in a high quality product, error free and before the deadline – but my horizon went no further than that – I wanted my work to be perfect, because it should be perfect.  This year, thanks to a friend who insistently pointed out that I seemed to be determined completely by approaching deadlines, I began to realize that I wasn’t free, and the heavy of the chain of approval I no longer wanted to carry, that in fact this strive for perfection was hurting the people nearest and dearest to me.  In conversations with this friend and with Stefi, the project director in Ecuador, I began to first realize that I was working in function of the approval of my boss, and second realize that this measure was too small for me.  It was too small, because my value cannot be measured by the quality of my work, my value is independent from what I can produce, because it is given to me by Another! It is one thing to say it, or to hear it, but it is another that my actions and attitudes are determined by this Other; this year I have finally been making small steps in this direction.

This is not to say that doing a good job, arriving on time to the office, or meeting deadlines isn’t important.  On the contrary! But the value of these acts is in function of the horizon of the meaning of work, not a reflection of my own personal worth.  We work not to save the world with our own personal perfection, rather to build the world, as it is incomplete, and build it together with those around us.  As soon as the value of work was not directly correlated with my own value, and in beginning to recognize why I work and what work truly is, the office has taken on new dimensions and has become a world of possibilities – a difficulty, an apparent limitation, becomes the opportunity for creativity and innovation, an error or mistake becomes the opportunity to learn something new, and a project becomes an opportunity to construct with those around me. A new openness has entered into my approach to work, an openness that allows room for curiosity and growth.

One example of this is the writing of a project.  A few months ago we began to write a project proposal with our local partner in Portoviejo.  My immediate reaction was to write the whole project for them, or at least a first draft, then send pointers and insist. With help from my supervisors at work, I realized that would have been violent – for the project to be executed by them, it needs to first come from them. In the end, I waited, I worked with what they sent, was there with them when they began to work, and built upon what they built together. The result was amazing: we didn’t win the project, but we built confidence and capacity.

We are an NGO and need funding, but the need for funding can never be greater than the need to construct with others.  “Doing for” (saving the world) is not the same as “doing with” – and in the end doing with has greater results, even if they take much more personal commitment and dedication, and are not as immediate or as easy.


[1]Giussani, L. “The Risk of Education: Discovering our Ultimate Destiny,” The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2001