Our family of 4 (two boys 8 and 10) recently took a trip to Ecuador for two weeks combining a one week trip to the Galapagos and a family volunteer vacation for a week in Quito. We travel often with our kids in both the US and abroad and they have had a chance to see a lot for their age. However, despite all of these great family trips, I wanted them to see and experience more of the local life beyond the “tourist curtain”. This was the inspiration for our family volunteer vacation in the capital city of Quito.
As I researched different organizations and programs, I kept in mind my goals for the family: to build empathy, encourage flexibility, increase cultural knowledge and give them a feeling of empowerment by being directly involved in the work. And since I have two young boys, it was also to keep them as physically active as possible! I lucked out and found a great organization International Volunteer Headquarters, or IVHQ for short. IVHQ is a global organization that organizes volunteer programs abroad by coordinating with local non profits. I liked their bottoms up approach of using local NGOs that are already doing substantial work in a country and placing volunteers within these organizations. IVHQ also provided the flexibility we needed: a 6 day volunteer program to fit our schedule, volunteer work in half days (1-5pm) to allow us to to rest or take Spanish lessons in the mornings and local accommodation with a host family.
There were several volunteer programs in Quito for us to choose from such as teaching english, school support, assisting in physical education class, and working with market/street children. We chose the Market/Street Children work so that we could be outside, and engaging with the children in their local environment. The program was run by a very dedicated and amazing staff at the UBECI Organization. The goal of the Street Children Program is to help at risk children through education. The children stay and work with their parents in the markets up to 12 hours a day. UBECI gives the children a break during the day through educational, social and recreational activities. So, with that in mind, we ordered several indestructible soccer balls from the One World Play Project, bought a half dozen Childrens books in Spanish and took off for Ecuador on our first family volunteer vacation.
Arrival and Accommodation
We arrived in Quito Sunday evening after a week spent in the Galapagos which you can read my post about it here. IVHQ had provided us with online training and information so we were well prepared. Our IVHQ representative met us at the airport and took us to our homestay in South Quito. We were greeted by a lovely family and taken to a private room in their home.
The home was set up to host about 15 IVHQ volunteers and we met a great group of young men and women (approx 18-25 yrs old) from Iceland, Germany, Ghana, Canada and the US who were volunteering for periods of 2-8 weeks. We were the only family during our stay. We had breakfast and dinner as a group every morning/evening. My kids loved meeting all the other volunteers and they were very welcoming, engaging and a great role model for volunteer service. They made our week extra fun with great conversations and support for the boys.
Orientation and Schedule
Monday morning, Gina, the representative from IVHQ, arrived at the homestay for our orientation which educated us on our surroundings, rules for the homestay and schedule for the week. She then took us on a walk to show us how to get to the Volunteer Offices every day (approx 3/4 mile walk), showed us the nearby MALL for any extra necessities and various lunch options (we were on our own for lunches).
In the afternoon, Gina took us to meet our local non profit, the UBECI Organization, for an orientation on the work we would be doing as volunteers (Tuesday-Friday). We learned the various markets we would be traveling to and games, songs and projects we would be doing with the children. We also had the opportunity to sign up for morning Spanish classes with a private instructor which we jumped at since neither I nor the boys spoke much, if any Spanish. My husband, the Spanish speaker in the house, had to leave Quito before the project began and we knew we would need some help to be able to communicate with the children at the market.
Our schedule for the week (Tues-Friday) looked like this.
Breakfast at Homestay: 7:30-8am
Walk to Ubeci Volunteer Offices: 8:30am
Private Spanish Lessons: 9-11am
Break and Lunch: 11am-1pm
Take Bus with Ubeci Volunteer Group to Local Markets: 1-2pm
Volunteer at Local Markets 2-4pm
Take Bus Back to Ubeci: 4-5pm
Walk Home: 5:30 (with a stop at the local mall for hot dogs and french fries)
Bedtime: As fast as I could
Volunteer Days: Morning
Tuesday, we woke bright and early, ready to begin our walk to work. We walked about 3/4 of a mile through South Quito. Although we felt safe, we were warned to keep our phones and wallets tucked away in crowds. The walk every morning was an interesting look at a typical Quito neighborhood. In many aspects, it was like any city with high rise apartments, a large shopping mall, restaurants, gas stations etc. What most struck me, was the pollution and stray dogs. There were stray dogs roaming the streets and often their refuse close by. And the trash cans and often the parks were overflowing with trash. This was very different from the Quito we had seen when we visited the famous churches. museums and central square the week before.
We arrived at the Ubeci Organization and were greeted by a wonderful staff of volunteers. We were given pennies to wear every day at the local markets to help identify us as Ubeci volunteers.
Volunteer Days: Spanish Class
IVHQ organized an (optional) private Spanish tutor for me and the boys from 9-11am every morning. My boys have had limited introductions to Spanish and were still struggling with Gracias and Buenos Dias. I did not have high hopes that they could sit through 2 hours of instruction. We had an amazing instructor named Julian who was one of the most engaging and comical instructors I have ever had. He brought games such as an Ecuadorian version of Charades to keep the kids motivated and laughing. But after an hour, they were spent. While the boys retreated to playing cards in another room, I continued an additional hour of instruction working on basic communication, colors, family members etc that I would use at the markets with the children. It was very helpful to have this instruction and then put it to use later that day.
Volunteer Days: Lunch and Bus to the Markets
After our Spanish class, we had two hours to spend getting lunch. Often, we ate at the food court in the mall, grabbed an Empanada or sat down for a typical meal of soup, rice and meat (usually beef, chicken or the delicacy, cuy-guinea pig). I steered clear of this one. The boys struggled with the food and often only ate rice with olive oil and salt for lunch. We usually made up for this with a hot dog from the Mall after the work day was over.
After lunch, we gathered back at the office with the Ubeci volunteers who took us on the bus to visit the market where we would work for the afternoon. We boarded the bus with a HUGE bag carrying canopies, mats, toys, school supplies and sports equipment.
Volunteering at the Market
We visited a different market each day, 4 in total. The markets were primarily food markets with some goods that served the local population.
Once at the market, we would get to work setting up the canopy, mats and getting out books, legos, crayons, and balls. We would then accommpany the UBECI staff to the market to collect the children from the working parents. We would do various activities with the children such as legos, coloring and reading to them (in Spanish). I had brought Brown Bear, Brown Bear i and enjoyed reading this in my broken Spanish. The UBECI staff would also lead several songs and activities. One of our favorites was Tingo, Tingo Tango where each child was asled about their family and the important roles played by each parent, aunt/uncle, and child. My boys were often called upon to answer questions about their own family and it was fun to hear their responses about what they believed was the most important thing that mom or dad did in the family (spoiler: driving them to school). The boys would spend the afternoon playing legos with the younger children and playing soccer with the older ones. We brought along an american football and even taught the staff and kids to throw a good spiral. The boys did struggle with not being able to communicate well with the children and often felt embarrassed. But they learned that a football game goes a long way in creating a bond with other children.
We had a wonderful host family who were also responsible for setting up the local arm of IVHQ (Volunteer Connection) in Ecuador. Our last night at the home, the daughters performed an Ecuadorian dance that showcased the 4 regional Ecuadorian regions (The Galapagos, the Andes, The Amazon and the Coast). After their dance, all of the volunteers engaged in salsa and dancing to celebrate the end of the program. We were truly lucky to have such welcoming and fun hosts.
Would we do it again?
Yes! The IVHQ and local UBECI staff were all amazing and it was an incredibly well run program that was safe, flexible and good for families. Next time, I would consider a different program such as teaching English, physical education in the schools or even environmental work. But overall, this was a great experience for the whole family and met all of our goals.
I am hoping that having seen the conditions that people live and work in and engaging with the children in the markets, that we all are better able to look a little beyond ourselves and our cozy lives at home.
- Food: We all struggled with the food a bit, not having our “go tos” and being pretty carb heavy. But we easily survived and thrived, eating the local food. For a few days, my son subsisted on bread and rice and paid the price when he started to throw up right in the middle of the market on our first day. We ran yelling “banjo” through the market and it all ended ok with a good lunch followed by ice cream.
- Routine: Although the UBECI team gave us a detailed itinerary, the boys still had A LOT of questions about EXACTLY what would be happening every moment. I had to constantly respond with “I don’t know, we’re winging it”. They learned that sometimes, you just have to go with it. Period.
Increase Cultural Knowledge
I feel that we hit this one out of the park. With the combination of Spanish classes, playing with the children, eating the local food, the homestay with an Ecuadorian family,
that we got a big dose of Ecuadorian culture and we loved it.
Empowerment through Direct Involvement in Work
All of us were engaged every day in the local work from setting up the tent/canopies to singing, playing and reading with the children. The UBECI staff made us feel that the work we did was important and they showed us the ways we helped to educate the children and encourage their parents to enroll them in school full time. It was great to see that our work and that of the UBECI staff had real results.
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