On the Streets of Quito: Working as a Volunteer in Ecuador

Posted by Clara Eckstein • Thursday, May 12. 2011 • Category: People and Places

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June came along a lot sooner than expected and all of a sudden I was sitting in the plane to my final destination and home for the next two and a half months; Quito. Until then I was provided with a contact number and the handbook that was sent to me online. Not sure if I had packed the right things, I was nervous about meeting my host family for the first time.

While revising the few basic Spanish sentences I learnt during the last two semesters at university, I wondered if it was the right decision to bring a warm fleece shirt to a place that is not only situated on the Equator but also named after it.

After a very long and strenuous flight I arrived at the airport in Quito where two young men were waiting for me with a sign in their hand that said my name. I quickly learnt that I would not get very far with my basic knowledge of Spanish and tried to switch to English, but English did not help very much either. I realised I had to learn Spanish very quickly. I decided to give up on the language problem for now and to enjoy the view out of the window instead.

Basilica in Quito
(c) by Allan Harris

Quito is the second highest capital city in the world at 2800m. It is located at the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active Stratovolacano on top of the Andes Mountains. Coming from the airport in the north we had to cross almost the whole city to get to the area in the south where my host family lived.

In the past my host family had taken on many volunteer workers and was prepared for my arrival. I was warmly greeted and welcomed by the family. I lived with a single mother, her 21 year old son and 15 year old daughter. While the mother shared a room with her children I had my own spacious room.

They always cared about my well being and made sure I would get breakfast and lunch and more food whenever I needed it, even though the fridge and cupboards were always empty. Coming from a house where the fridge is always so packed that you forget about the food in the back of it and a basement with a big storage cellar, this was a very new situation for me.

Food I noticed was their lowest priority and to save up money for the broken car and the son’s university education was on first place. When there was a nice occasion they would get KFC or take home pizza, but that would only be for birthdays or if someone was leaving.

At the beginning I was often jealous when other volunteers would tell me about the freshly made juices they would get for breakfast and the big meals they received for lunch. Not long until I noticed that all that did not matter because in my family I was taken in as a member and they would take care of me and make sure I was happy as much as they could. They would always help me and walk me to the taxi when I was visiting friends after 7 o’clock when it was dark outside, because the area we lived in was not the safest. They also invited me to a friend’s wedding and helped me with all the questions I had and also with my Spanish.

On my first day they showed me two different ways of how to get to the volunteer office. One that I could take in the morning and a safer one I should walk back at night. Staying with a host family for me was such a huge part in my experience with Volunteer Work. Not only during the day but also when I would return from work I was involved in the culture and everyday life of an Ecuadorian family.

I worked for 10 weeks with the NGO organisation called UBECI. They have different programmes supporting street children, summer schooling and English teaching. I was part of the street outreach program, which is supposed to give working children an alternative view of life. Almost 90% of the children in south Quito work about 12 to 14 hours a day starting at 4 in the morning when they accompany their parents to the markets.

There they are exposed to aggression, poverty and lack access to education. They have to work to cover the daily expenses and to provide food for their numerous brothers and sisters. Because they get torn out of their childhood by taking on so much responsibility, they completely miss out on the experience of being a child. With the street outreach program UBECI tries to give those children some time back to be a child and also supports the ones that want to study by counselling and finding alternative ways of financial, academic and psychological support.

For each day of the week we had one market to visit. The weekly markets shifted their places on the different days of the week. The markets usually consisted of fruit, vegetable and meat stands. The children play in between these, having no toys but what they find on the streets to play with. The sun during midday on the Equator is very strong and most of the children’s skins are dry and cracked because of it. Their faces and clothes are dirty and almost all of them have a baby sister or brother to take care of.
Clara in Quito
(c) by Clara Eckstein

When they saw the workers and volunteers from UBECI arrive you could always hear screams and laughter. UBECI worked up a close bond of trust to the parents over the last few years and is proud to say that most of the children on the markets are allowed to spend time with the organisation.

At the beginning of the day our program coordinator would go to the market to collect the children while the team of volunteers built up a tent to provide a shade. Every one of the children had to wash their hands and faces before they were allowed to play. This is to teach them a certain level of hygiene and it is also a welcome sign to the parents if their children return cleaner to them as they were before. On a normal day we had about 30 to 40 children to watch after. There were babies as well as 12 year olds. Most of the children were 3 or 4 years old.

I would usually read books to them, play rope or football. Even though my Spanish wasn’t good and I could only read in English the children enjoyed any kind of attention with such an enthusiasm that you were always able to make them happy. Because the children aren’t used to someone playing with them or giving them attention they are very open and embrace you with such love that it is very overwhelming at the beginning. On an everyday basis you can find yourself having four children sitting on your lap reading the same story for the fifth time.

Later in the morning our program coordinator would take over and we had a different lecture to teach every week, either about hygiene, culture or other things. We would sing songs with them and usually do another activity, such as drawing a picture or making bracelets with them.

When looking at those children it becomes clear what a well protected and easy childhood oneself had and it is only to admire with how much love these children take care of their siblings and how innocent and joyful they are. This kind of volunteer work is so important because maybe only 2 to 3 hours spent with the children a day might change their perspective on life, might make them decide to strive for education and help them step by step to a better life.

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