There is a saying, supposedly Ecuadorian, which goes, “When one is helping another, both gain in strength.” It is a fitting description of the life I witnessed among AVSI staff, partners and program participants during my visit to the “Republic of the Equator” at the end of 2019. Though one of the smaller South American states, roughly the size of Texas, Ecuador boasts a wide variety of landscapes and climes. It borders the Pacific Ocean to the West, and encompasses the wildlife rich Galapagos Islands, made famous by the legendary explorations of Charles Darwin; while snow-capped Andes Mountains run down the country’s center and are host to one of the world’s highest active volcanos, Cotopaxi.
You can see Cotopaxi peeking through the clouds in the background just long enough for us to snap this picture (Stefania, Alexander and Federica of Fundación Sembrar, Pina and Carlo of EDUS, both founding member organizations of the global AVSI network).
AVSI began working in the rural communities surrounding the small coastal city of Portoviejo in 2001 with an innovative early childhood development program known as PelCa (Pre-escolar en la casa or home-based preschool). The program dramatically increases access to quality preschool education in the region by providing mothers the materials and training they need to teach children at home. A similar program is run by Fundación Sembrar in Pisulí, an impoverished community on the outskirts of Quito, the capital city.
Below is a typical street in neighborhood of Pisulí, with its cinder-block houses, and a more expansive view of the precarious neighborhoods like Pisulí, built on the foothills of the Andes surrounding Quito; each one earthquake away from disaster (the country experienced a 4.6 magnitude tremor on the night I arrived, yikes!)
On the day I visited Fundación Sembrar, there was a young couple who had fled Venezuela with their daughter attending the homeschooling workshops which, in addition to training parents to be teachers, presents various ways to save money at home. Both parents had been in the military, he even a junior officer, but the situation back home was intolerable. The workshops were like a lifeline for the young refugees, an invaluable way to integrate into a new community where they otherwise felt alone.
In addition to the workshops for parents, Fundación Sembrar operates an early childhood center called Ojos de Cielo for 30 of the most vulnerable children from the neighborhood.
Across the way, we visited the Centro Juvenile Luigi Giussani, also operated byFundación Sembrar. In a neighborhood like Pisulí with its high prevalence of crime and drug abuse, it’s easy for young people to make bad choices. Fundación Sembrar offers other options for the constructive use of time. Here youth can gather in a safe space to meet friends and take advantage of numerous programs and activities from homework help to vocational training. In the photos, we see a young student doing math problems, a junior chef learning, and demonstrating, basic culinary skills, an older teen explaining what they do in the carpentry workshops, and a young woman training in the on-site professional kitchen.
Later, we went out into the neighborhood to visit some of the families (500 in total) who are involved in Fundación Sembrar’s activities. Here we are visiting the house of Doña Maria. She participates in the women’s empowerment program where she learned how to turn her backyard into an active garden to feed her family and bring excess produce to market, thus generating a small income. As a member of a local savings group promoted by Fundación Sembrar, she was eligible for a micro-loan which she used to purchase chickens - another source of food, savings and income! Below she welcomes Stefania and the rest of us to her home, grandchild comfortably in tow, as she proudly displays her garden!
We then stopped at the house of Fanny who also received a loan from the savings group to buy a sewing machine and some other materials. She is a seamstress by trade and makes custom clothing and other fashion items that she takes to market. With her income, she supports her household with 2 school age children. She welcomed us into the workshop inside her home. Homes in the area are rarely finished on the inside, the same cinderblock walls as the outside.
Toward the middle of the week, accompanied by AVSI Ecuador staff, we traveled south nearly 2 hours to reach the Social Rehabilitation Center in Cotopaxi, a regional facility that houses both men and women deprived of liberty. AVSI is working inside the prison on a project with Cisco Networking Academy to train people in IT skills, giving students a better chance of finding jobs once they are released. We had the occasion to speak with some of the female students and they expressed great satisfaction with the program. They felt it was an opportunity to re-set their lives and to grow in self-esteem. Many commented on how their new skills would help them gain the respect of their children and not feel like failures, since the program afforded the chance to make good use of their time in prison.
Here we are pulling up to the facility since no cameras were allowed inside.
Afterwards, we headed back to the AVSI office in Quito where Yubari, country manager, gave us an overview of the Venezuelan refugee situation as it affects Ecuador. The crisis is set to become greater than that which affected Syria, with over 4 million people forced to leave their homes to date. AVSI is currently working with UNHCR providing humanitarian assistance and is gearing up for the next phase to integrate refugees into the Ecuadorian society through opportunities for jobs and housing, hopefully with funds from US government.
Let’s return to our proverb, “When one is helping another, both gain in strength.” In Ecuador, I saw a people desirous of building up their own lives and their country; ready to join together with others for a greater good. I met staff, volunteers, board members, instructors, participants and partners who were all thoroughly engaged in their work and learning from each other. If you could take the temperature of the creativity of the AVSI and Fundación Sembrar operations in Ecuador, the mercury would surely be bursting through the thermometer! The political environment, unfortunately, hampers interesting innovation – political, economic or social – sorely needed for large-scale change in the country. Yet history shows that hindrance is not the final word – here I have witnessed a point of hope, and AVSI is proud to be betting on the people of Ecuador!
p.s. The trip wasn’t all work and no play.
We did have a chance to visit colonial Quito, a UNESCO heritage site, with its baroque churches where the religious orders seem to have competed in a contest to build the most beautiful dwelling for God. Here I am with friends Sarah and Diego as we visit the Church of St. Francis and the museums which house some truly exquisite sculptures of the Quiteño school (period and contemporary, haha!).
We even had time for a stroll in the Andean foothills with Sarah (photographer), Vidal and their children.
And, of course a trip to Cotopaxi National Park, with its Patagonian-like expanses, lunar landscapes and volcanic rock slopes – and even a lagoon with associated wildlife. Below, Pina and Stefania take in the beauty and finally a shot of the volcano on a clear day (not our fortune, though).
And last, a trip to the indigenous Equator park, which the locals claim to be the TRUE magnetic center of the earth, rather than the official Ciudad Mitad del Mundo across the way. On that day, we took a couple of teens with us from Sembrar, one of whom had had her cell phone stolen at knifepoint by drive-by bandits that same afternoon. Thus, we tried to affirm the positivity of life, notwithstanding the setbacks. We all thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on scientific activities meant to prove that this park possesses the real equator within its borders on the site of an indigenous village, which now serves as a museum.