Otavalo Feature Recommended read

The alarm clock sounds. Its 6am, far too early for my love of sleeping. The chilled blue air pours through the crack in the window just above my bed, fueling my desire to remain in cozy hibernation just fifteen more minutes. Then, I think of my kiddies, and the dismal beds in which they are waking up, or the lack there of, and my feet touch the floor. Another morning expanding over the hills and mountains surrounding Otavalo, Ecuador. Another day of volunteer work at the little school in Urcusiki, the tiny mountain community forty minutes up questionable roads, just past the main gate of Cotacatchis nature reserve.


It's been almost three months. Therefore, my morning routine unfolds without hesitation: Wake up, throw on the same, withering clothes I throw on every day, run up the stairs to grab a quick breakfast with Monica (my host-mum) and Galud (host-grandma), assemble my various folders and gadgets for the days activities, and set off to meet the transport.

Hurrying down the street, I can feel breakfast's cup of Nescafe beginning to charge my system, and with the sun just peaking over the summit of Imbabura, my mind awakens and I glance west to the mountains where my kiddies must also be up and moving, putting on the clothes that they wear each day, while their mothers wash and braid the long, thick, black hair that is so customary among both boys and girls.

Saying hello to my fellow volunteers at the gas station on the corner, I watch the transport – our sixteen-seater white van – haul to a stop to pick up its essential cargo, us. As most volunteers utilize the ride for more sleep, I close my eyes towards the sun, and contemplate my up-coming departure.

It's been quite the ride, I tell myself. It's a job that's frustrating and exhausting, it makes me sweat and makes me sick - I've had a head cold now for four weeks - and at the end of each day, I'm not a dollar richer. I paid to do this!

However, there's a key-element to this project that keeps all the volunteers going, and makes us all look at these discomforts as "just part of the job." The children. It pains me to think of saying good bye to mis hermanitos y hermanitas. How many individuals get to head off to work every day (view from the “office:” panorama of six volcanoes) to teach sixty unforgettable, Ecuadorian children between the ages of five and twelve? How many people show up, open their car door and instantly find themselves cloaked in hugs, hand-shakes and warm smiles from miniature, indigenous people? Buenos dias, Senorita Katrina! How many adults get to hold little Doris – age six and excruciatingly beautiful - in their arms? Doris, a girl who will stare you down with disapproval on the off-chance that you overlook her during morning greetings? The answer: not many. This is an exceptional experience, and it's worth every cold, rainy afternoon and stressful English lesson.

For the volunteers, that's great news. However, how does this project affect the kids? From the first day of my arrival and especially as my departure approaches, I have been contemplating whether or not this humanitarian project is making a positive difference for the children and their community? Who is to say that we’re doing the right thing by being here?

Volunteers come and go all the time, staying anywhere from four to sixteen weeks, which in my mind, is destabilizing for the kids. Personally, it was only after month two that I finally started to get a groove - knowing every child’s name and certain complexities of their personalities, recognizing where I was needed in the classroom and stabilizing certain boundaries with the kids and local teachers. How can this be attained if one only stays for six weeks? And how can I leave at the end of month three, just as I am gaining a solid knowledge of this job? In the beginning, I was very bothered by these questions. However, I have collected enough verification from first-hand experience, to know that this project is helping the lives of these kids.

Dominic Williams (a.k.a. "Dom") established Working with Children in Ecuador in the three communities of Urcusiki, Menuala, and Wayropongo in April 2006, thus, the project remains in a juvenile stage of development. There are still kinks in the system and improvements to be made, but as with any humanitarian aid project, this all takes time to realize. I have decided that, although volunteers arrive and depart so frequently, it is better than having no volunteer help at all.

Dom is contemplating the idea of offering past volunteers six-month long internships, in order to maintain student-volunteer relationships. An actual major advancement is the colegio (high school) currently being built to accommodate the kids of all three communities who would like to continue their education after sixth grade. Present circumstances only allow students to complete elementary school up to sixth grade, at which point, they have no other choice but to work in the fields with their parents, since the closest high school is located in Otavalo - a daily transit far too expensive for the majority of the families. Therefore, this construction in itself is a miraculous opportunity for these kids.

Besides the colegio, the conditions at the elementary schools have been significantly improved thanks to volunteer efforts. It’s hard for me to imagine how these children were previously getting through school. Government-provided food rations, intended for an entire school year, dry up after only two to three months. We supply the rice, lentils, and tuna once this happens, and also bring fruit and vegetables daily, adding essential nutrients to their otherwise-meager diets. If the local mothers do not show up to cook lunch that day, a volunteer can step in, preparing lunch for the entire school.

In Urcusiki, there is a 30:1 student-teacher ratio without the volunteers; Señor Jesus and Señorita Rosio are each charged with the task of handling thirty kids spread across three different grade levels! We also buy school supplies such as books, pencils, erasers, paint, notebooks and chalk, which would otherwise not be provided. Dom reports that, since the debut in 2006, the children look healthier, happier and more energetic. I fully agree; these are precocious, curious, adventurous children who adore the friendships formed with the volunteers. The project is not flawless, but it has made leaps and bounds administratively and in terms of catering to the needs of the kids. The project’s top priority is the kids.

As the local teachers head home for the day, I begin searching for the four kids in charge of sweeping the classrooms out that afternoon. I see Benn Jordon, the project manager, walking down the road, tossing Franklin up in the air as he approaches.

With a huge smile he asks, peering over Franklin's right shoulder, "How'd it go?"

"The day went smoothly," I say with a chuckle, "As smoothly as any day can go at Urcusiki. Wilsononly tried punching two kids, and Jenny Sofia helped me out during math class today with the fourth and fifth years. The soccer goals have seen non-stop action, acting as goals for the boys and a climbing gym for the girls."

Benn gives me a hand in doling out the daily fruit, a mandarin orange for every student. Lizbeth, an adorable 5 year old, - (we try not to pick favorites, but who am I kidding, she is top on my list) – stares up and clings to my right leg, waiting for me to finish with fruit so that she can sit in my arms again. Gracias Senorita Katrina! Gracias Senor Bennito! is heard out of their tiny mouths. I reach for Lizbeth and throw her up in the air before settling her onto my hip, where she grins with satisfaction that I have not forgotten our afternoon time together. Her nose is running and I wipe the snot away with my already-germ-infested sleeve. She looks up at me with enormous, watery-brown eyes and then lays her head on my collar bone, tuckered out from playing all day. I walk up the road a bit, carrying Lizbeth, to get a better view of the mountains; the clarity of the day even allows for a look at snow-capped Cotapaxi. I breathe in; I breathe out, smelling wood smoke and dried grass in Lizbeth's hair. I'll miss this place and these kids, but I know I’ll be back and soon..

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