Volunteering in Ecuador: Recap

| August 29, 2014 More

A look back at volunteering in Ecuador with Greenheart Travel

Quito Old Town

First day in Quito

When in 2013 I met representatives from Greenheart Travel, a Chicago-based company providing cultural exchange programs, I didn’t realize it was the beginning of a long-term collaboration. I first became their Volunteer Abroad Correspondent in Ecuador, then Greenheart participated in several Jetting Around events, and finally we teamed up for #JAchat. Each time we interact, I’m reminded of Ecuador.

During my month in Quito, I published weekly articles and videos on Greenheart Travel’s blog. They were geared towards other program participants and potential volunteers. Now I’d like to share them with you.

PROGRAM OVERVIEW

As part of the Education, Care for the Elderly, and Community Development project, I was assigned to spend three weeks in Lumbisí, an indigenous settlement near Quito. I would be living with a host family and assisting with activities at local institutions.

I was initially supposed to alternate between a day care facility, vocational high school, center for the elderly, and organic garden. Due to the length of the program (some volunteers stay several months), I ended up working only with young children. It was to ensure that I’d have enough time to bond.

Besides day-to-day tasks and getting to know the hosts, I explored Quito with my local program coordinator. As expected, all activities and conversations were in Spanish, which provided ample opportunity to practice the language. That’s exactly what I hoped for when I chose South America.

GETTING READY

I arrived in Ecuador a week before the project’s start date. With a tight schedule, I knew it would be difficult to travel around, and I wanted to see volcanoes, rain forests, and colonial towns. Also, I felt that getting acclimated in the country beforehand would help me transition into the program.

Here’s a video I recorded in Baños, a small town in central Ecuador known for thermal baths and extreme sports. It’s also where I tried… bridge jumping.

In a post for Greenheart Travel, I shared my first impressions of the country (“Landing in Quito was not for the faint of heart“) and more information about the host family. See Exploring Ecuador and Preparing to Volunteer.

THE EXPERIENCE

My work at the day care center consisted of serving meals and helping teachers with classroom/outdoor activities (morning through late afternoon, with a lunch break at the host family’s house). There were about 30-40 children between the ages of one and three. It didn’t take long to make a connection with them:

“I enjoyed our little conversations – about my name, what they like to play, their favorite toys – and seeing them laugh when I took them on the swings. At times I was the one comforting them when they fell or were missing mom.”

Lumbisi, Ecuador

What I enjoyed most was playing with the kids outside. It allowed me to be active for several hours a day (what a difference compared with my daily routine), plus I got to see mountains from the front yard. On sunny days, even the snow-covered Cotopaxi volcano was visible.

Here’s a video tour of the facility and more about Settling Into the Volunteer Project in Lumbisí.

With the exception of a few visits to Quito and the nearby university town of Cumbayá, I spent a majority of my free time at home. There were few distractions, and I was able to catch up on both reading and writing.

I also got plenty of sleep and ate well throughout the stay. My hostess was a skilled cook, serving three fresh home-made meals per day. Each came with lots of fruit juice, something I had noticed was popular around Ecuador.

Find out more from the video below and My Daily Routine in Lumbisi.

In terms of language learning, I didn’t realize that immersion in day care Spanish could be so valuable. I picked up new vocabulary almost immediately, mostly names of toys and classroom objects, and got to practice… imperatives.

As far as listening and speaking, interacting with the host family over dinner was most beneficial. We shared stories, talked soccer (Ecuador was on the verge of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup), and even watched talent shows on TV.

Check out the video and Learning the Language in Lumbisi for more insights about Ecuadorian Spanish, including my favorite phrases.

And here’s the youngest member of the host family, Cristian, sharing a few English words he’s learned. (Not sure how much credit I can take for that, but I did help him with homework a few times…)

BACK HOME

Before I left for Ecuador, I heard from other volunteers saying that when you participate in a program, you get more than you give. I didn’t know how that would work for me – the only benefit I could think of was improving Spanish. But they were right…

Connecting with children was by far the biggest reward. I had not expected to get attached to them, especially one 2-year-old boy. My little buddy would often greet me at the gate when I arrived at the center. He would then sit on my lap, try to chat with me (at such a young age, he could talk quite a bit!), and invite me to play ball. Those are the moments I miss the most…

Volunteering in Ecuador - kids

When Greenheart Travel asked me to reflect on the experience in a video, they said to wait a few weeks. I’m glad they did, because the trip took a while to sink in.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that this was a life-changing experience – for me that was when I moved from Europe to the US and became an expat – but it certainly has been a life-improving experience. I learned some things about myself. For example, I never knew how much patience I had.” 

Find out how else volunteering in Ecuador has affected me and what promise I made to the host family:

Have you volunteered (or considered volunteering) abroad? Where did or would you travel? 

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Category: STORIES

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About the Author (Author Profile)

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.

Comments (28)

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  1. avatar Leah says:

    I’m so happy you posted this recap. I was curious about your time in Ecuador. This must have been such a special experience for you.

  2. Awww, I love your Ecuador stories, especially the ones involving your special little friend :-) I’m glad to have gotten to know Greenheart through you and would love to work with them, too. I’ve never volunteered abroad but I’d really like to. South America would be a top choice for me, along with Africa.

  3. avatar Jenna says:

    Seems like such a rewarding experience. I’d love to do something like this someday.

  4. This sounds like a wonderful experience — for you and the kids! I’ve never done any volunteering like that. I’d really like to visit Ecuador, but I’ve also heard several stories of how much crime there is (especially against tourists) in Quito. What do you think?

    • Hi Cathy. There are areas in Quito that are not suitable for visitors (a few are close to the city center; once we had locals and even cops tell us to stay away from one neighborhood). Other than that, no issues, e.g. I took public transportation by myself in and around the city.

  5. It sounds like a really worthwhile experience. You never know how volunteering is going to go until you get there!

  6. avatar Lucy says:

    Sounds like such a rewarding experience – and a way of experiencing a different side to a destination too.

  7. avatar Molly Fried says:

    What a wonderful reflection! I’m awed by your natural ability to connect with people around the world, and your kindness is positively inspirational. I loved the phrase you coined to describe your experience volunteering abroad – “life-improving experience.” Greenheart Travel is lucky to have you as an alumna and friend!

  8. Immersion is such a powerful and learning experience.. I imagine even more when volunteering… Share learning, sharing and making a difference when jetting around, Craig

  9. It’s funny how those little kids can grab ahold of you and create a special bond. I would find conversations with Central or South Americans about football to be so fascinating. Sounds like a great experience.

    • Yeah, the kids were something special… :) And my host was also a soccer player, so we had plenty to talk about. Too bad I didn’t catch any games while in Quito.

  10. avatar Mirja says:

    Dear Pola,

    a beautiful post. I have long in mind to volunteer or work as a volunteer coordinator in South America.
    The closest I got was a second interview at frontier.

    Good luck for all your new projects.

    Mirja

  11. avatar Lily Lau says:

    What a beautiful experience, Pola :) Last Summer I was in a program to go volunteering to Nicaragua and I wish I could go back again next Summer!

  12. I really enjoyed reading about this! Going over to read the blog about your first impressions of Quito now :) Congrats on getting some practice with the imperatives ;)

  13. It sounds like you found a really enjoyable, worthwhile way to volunteer. Ecuador is beautiful too- I’d love to go back!