A look back at volunteering in Ecuador with Greenheart Travel
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…)
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…
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?
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.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Event recap: Meaningful Travel: What, Why, How | November 17, 2015
- 3 Inspiring Women Bloggers You Need to Follow Right Now | Wanderful - Connecting Women who Travel | December 2, 2015