“Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

1It has been over two months—TWO MONTHS—since my immersion trip to Ecuador. As time goes by, I find it harder and harder to process the experience that I had. I flew from Philadelphia to Miami and then from Miami to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s economic capital, with twelve other eager, but anxious participants.

I had never been outside of the country before so I was nervous that I would be so shocked by the culture that I would not be able to fully take in the beauty of the country, while still noticing the extreme levels of poverty. However, I can say that while these fears were definitely rational, I felt completely different when I first walked out of the airport and through each adventure during the entire week. I felt at home so far away from home. And it was one of the greatest feelings I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

We were fortunate to work with the Foundation Rostro de Cristo throughout the week. The name translated in English means The Face of Christ, and is reflected in every part of the foundation’s mission. While in Ecuador, the thirteen of us stayed in a retreat house located within a compound next to the yearlong volunteer house. There were six yearlong volunteers who had all started in August. They were each placed at two of the five work sites and would accompany us 2to each place, as well as cook lunch and dinner with us daily. We also had a volunteer leader, Bri, who was such a positive influence and inspired every one of us to continue Rostro’s mission when we returned to the United States.

Immediately as you walk into the retreat house, there is a message painted on the wall in the reflection room that completely embodies the foundation’s purpose: “Rostro de Cristo welcomes you into our community where we strive to see the face of Christ in ourselves and others. We are a Catholic lay community committed to spirituality, simplicity, community, service, and hospitality. May your experience here be full of Christ’s peace and God’s grace.” Throughout the course of the week the thirteen of us lived out this mission by the service of presence—being, not doing. We embraced the uncomfortable and reflected as our journeys went on as a community. It was the first time that I had completely been off “off the grid”—no phones, no watches, no music, no news. We were completely immersed in the culture and were truly living among the local Arbolito community.

3We experienced a lot of the injustices that the community undergoes on a daily basis. The sewage systems in the entire country cannot handle toilet paper. Thursdays is the only day that the community receives water and the majority of the people do not have a means to properly store the clean water. Therefore, the residents have to boil the sink water for an extended period of time to use it to cook and drink. The majority of the roads are unpaved, and will flood easily during the rainy season, which also causes relatively frequent power outages. The majority of the houses are huts and shacks and provide no stability or security. Also, since Arbolito was started as an invasion community, the houses are built on unclaimed land. Because of this, the people in the community could be bulldozed at any point. However, Arbolito was recently recognized by the government as an official town due to the growing population and increasing development.

Over the course of the week, we went to five different service sites. The first was Semillas de Mostaza, which is an after-school program for children in the Arbolito community. While there, we would tutor the kids and then play with them for 4recess. They would then receive a banana, a piece of bread, and a vitamin before they left. Also, before and after the program started, the volunteers would walk to District 3—the newest, most underdeveloped section of Arbolito—to pick up and drop off the kids so that the walk would be safe for them. We were fortunate to be able to go on one before and after walk with the volunteers to witness the underdevelopment and greet the children. It was a truly eye-opening experience. We also visited another after-school program that was located in a different community in Ecuador, Manos Abiertas, which was structured similarly to Semillas de Mostaza. Here, I worked with four incredible boys: Joel, Francisco, Luiz, and Eddy.

We were also fortunate enough to visit a school, Nuevo Mundo, in Guayaquil that enables both children of the affluent and the impoverished to receive a quality education. The morning school funds the afternoon school through various different means, including the snack bar that students frequent. While at the school, we were able to visit a ninth and tenth grade English classroom. It was such a cool experience to speak English with Ecuadorian students and really connect with them through our native language. We were all so humbled by their openness to speak with us and it was so impressive!

5Another service site that we visited was Damien House, which is a hospital and ‘house of dignity’ for Ecuadorians suffering from Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Not only does it treat people with the disease, but it also helps to face the stigma that leprosy is known to have. While there, we conversed with the men and women to learn more about their lives and even played dominos! We also met Sister Annie who started the house. All of the people who stay there were incredible grateful for the work that she has to done to help them. It was truly inspiring.

Lastly, we visited Una Sola Fuerza, which is run by Ecuadorian sisters of the Santa Mariana de Jesus order. There, we learned about the work they do including offering holistic medicine, exercise sessions, and therapy to families from the surrounding community. We also took a walk through the community, which was one of the most memorable moments for me, because we walked on a dirt road that had just been swampy land. Our volunteer leader, Bri, even said it had been her first time walking on the new road, which is a huge improvement for the community.

6Another big part of our week was spent by participating in neighbor visits. We met four, all from Arbolito: Lupe, Marisol, Carlos, and Pastora. They were some of the most welcoming people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. “If you ever return to Ecuador, you can stay here and I will cook you great meals!” The love that was within all of them was spread within each and every one of us. It was amazing to hear them open up about their lives, even after just knowing all of us for a short amount of time.

There are so many more things I could write about, and it is hard to feel like I did the people justice, but I know that by continuing to reflect within myself and with my group members I will be able to keep this experience forever in my mind, heart and soul. I continue to educate and share my experiences in Ecuador to others to continue the mission of the trip. Even two months later, I still think about my week in Ecuador every day. It will forever be a part of me. Ecuador me ha cambiado para mejor.

7A life altering experience that has opened my eyes and my heart to a community that is all too often overlooked.” – Emily Kamelhar ’16, trip leader

My heart is forever changed from the unwavering faith and the unconditional love that the people of Arbolito shared with all of us.” – Jackie Bonner ’17, trip leader

If you are interested in learning more about Rostro de Cristo, please visit their website and watch this empowering video created by the Foundation just 4 months ago.

Posted in: Community Service & Social Justice, Magis & Jesuit Identity, Religious & Spiritual Life, Study Abroad