The urge to travel through volunteering was first sparked in me by mission trips in high school. Over several trips to Guatemala, I found a love of the Spanish language and culture. In college, I decided to major in Spanish Education with the goal of becoming an English as a Second Language teacher.
Last year, I was in my second year teaching ESL in a public high school in Nashville, TN. I loved my job and grew immensely as a teacher, but my wanderlust spirit was stirring. When I decided to leave my job and travel for one year, I knew I wanted to incorporate service into my year of travel. I remembered that a friend I made in high school, Beth Awalt, co-founded a nonprofit in Ecuador called The Starfish Foundation. As soon as I read more about Starfish’s mission and focus on education, I knew it was a place I wanted to be.
I arrived in Guayaquil on Dec. 9, 2016, excited to improve my Spanish and be in an educational environment again. From the start, I was eager and ready to embrace the joys and challenges that this experience would inevitably bring. The only really hard part of my transition was sleeping! Roosters, dogs barking, and loud music all night had me questioning if I would go crazy from sleep deprivation. I discovered that there are apps for your phone that make sound machine noises and I’ve been sleeping like a baby ever since.
The people of the Starfish Foundation and my host family have been the absolute best part of my experience here. My host family instantly welcomed me as part of the family and the way they care for me is simply amazing. I’ve immensely enjoyed teaching English classes to students and staff at Starfish. I’ve also been able to follow in former volunteer Anna’s footsteps and take a leadership role with the staff through assisting and offering guidance with lesson planning and curriculum development. I have loved getting to step into this new role and expand my professional knowledge and experience.
Despite the excitement and joys of working with Starfish, I must be honest and say that my time here has been hard on me as well. I knew what I was getting myself into by accepting this volunteer position. I have traveled and lived in developing countries before, so I know what it’s like to encounter the realities of poverty. However, seeing face to face the daily challenges of extreme poverty is NOT something you get used to.
There are things that occur daily in this community in poverty that simply would not happen in the community I grew up in, or even in the poorest communities in my country. Most people know you can’t drink the water in most Latin American countries, but what I find most startling is the environmental degradation that takes place as a result of lack of wastewater treatment. Basic infrastructure and public systems – like water treatment, accessible roads, and trash clean up – are not present in this community. These improvements alone would greatly increase the quality of life of every person in Flor de Bastion.
Additionally, I’ve witnessed some truly tragic events in this community that have shaken me to my core.
- I’ve seen a hysterical mother crying in the street as an electrical fire raged outside her house while her daughter tried to call emergency services for over 30 minutes before getting through to an operator with the fire department (and the fire department never came).
- I’ve seen a little girl fly into the air as she was hit by a car and heard her screams as she was rushed to the hospital in a car – no one bothered waiting for emergency services that time.
- I’ve watched a two year old beloved dog die in my arms due to an unknown illness that could have been prevented or treated.
- I’ve heard thieves and house robberies discussed as regularly as the weather.
- I’ve met countless teen moms, heard stories of alcoholic/abusive fathers, and listened every night as a neighbor mother screams at her children.
Each of these experiences has taken a toll on me, even though I am just a bystander.
In the midst of all these hardships, there is life. This life is reality for thousands of people in Guayaquil and millions of people worldwide. Amidst these hardships, many people in Flor de Bastion find joy and abundant life every day!
I am here, confronting this reality that is so different from my own. I will soon leave Ecuador, but I will not be able to turn away from the things that I learned. I will continue to process this experience for years. Americans typically have an action mindset – if we see a problem, we want to fix it. When I was studying abroad in college, one of the greatest lessons I learned about interacting with other cultures is to focus on learning before action. As an American, I do not have answers that will be applicable in the context of this culture, but I can seek a deeper understanding and share my experiences with others.
As I learn more about Ecuador, I am left with more and more questions every day:
- What is my role as an outsider in this culture and community?
- What will my role be when I go home?
- What would “development” look like for this neighborhood and this city?
- What is the goal of “development” in the third world – to make other places more like the U.S./other western nations?
- Will this come at the cost of heavy consumerism/materialism/environmental exploitation?
- How could environmental care transform this city?
- How could sustainable agriculture affect the environment and health of people in this city?
- How can the public school systems be improved to promote real learning and critical thinking?
- How could education transform this city and country?
I do not have the answers to these questions that linger in my mind, but they all draw me back to the very theme behind the name of the Starfish Foundation. The world has many problems on a grand scale, but I will choose to implement change by doing what I can for one person at a time. As more people join the struggle for change, an exponential increase of change will occur. I invite you to reflect on my questions and questions raised in your own experiences abroad and at home. It is in this reflection, I believe, that we will find deeper understanding and mutual respect for all human beings.
Whatever your religious beliefs are, I hope you can find comfort in this verse. It is about accepting everything in life, from the joy of abundant life to the pain of suffering and loss:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”