Erin Sanislo
Erin Sanislo
Ecuador 2018
From January – April 2018, I partnered with Manna Project International to advance literacy and develop arts and creative programming at the Manna Project’s library in the Chillos Valley community outside of Quito, Ecuador. Join me on my journey to empower Ecuadorian children and connect them to books. Read More About Erin →

Home from Ecuador: Final Reflection

The last 3.5 months were filled with highs, lows, and lots of unknowns in Ecuador. For the first time, I ran community programs by myself, lived as one of the only Americans in a remote valley, and navigated daily life in Spanish. I received positive praise from community members, formed relationships with children, parents, and students my own age, and helped revamp five community center programs at the Manna Project: reading hour, kids cooking, physical activity, and childrens’ and adult English. I originally planned to serve in Ecuador until August, however, with the support of people I trust, I have returned to the United States early for safety reasons.

One of the greatest life lessons I have learned from my Lumos experience is that life isn’t always what you expect. You can research and vet an organization in detail, but have a completely different experience on the ground in a foreign country. As open-minded travelers, we have the responsibility to adapt as much as we can to fit into the organizational culture and culture of the country we are serving in. However, we also hold responsibilities to ourselves and our loved ones to stay safe and know how to assess risks. For my particular Lumos award, the best decision for me was to change the duration of my service in order to prioritize my well-being.

Here is a run-down of the positives and the negatives I experienced in Ecuador:


  • I increased the attendance of the community center’s programs and formed a group of kids who became regulars of its weekly programs.
  • I stayed with an Ecuadorian host family for my first week and maintained a strong relationship with them throughout my time in Ecuador (and will continue to do so in the future).
  • Over 85% of my English students passed the English levels I taught and advanced to the next level.
  • I used my Spanish skills to help support the Manna Project community center by providing information to parents and connecting with non-English speaking kids during programs.
  • I traveled hiking Ecuador’s beautiful volcanoes during my days off with Ecuadorian friends. I shared my American culture with them while they shared their culture in return.
  • I discovered my passion for sharing my love of languages through teaching. My Lumos service propelled me to enroll in a Master of Arts in World Languages teaching program at the University of Utah to become a future Spanish teacher.


  • The organization I worked with, Manna Project International, seems to have better management at its Nicaragua site than at its Ecuador site. Unfortunately, the management was extremely hands-off, disconnected, and dismissive of safety concerns. For future Lumos travelers, I would not recommend working with this organization.
  • During my time in Ecuador, I had money and my iphone robbed. Although petty crime is common in developing countries and there are many underlying reasons for it, the frequency of its occurrence in the specific location I lived in and the threats with weapons or physical force that accompanied it were very unsettling.
  • Safety concerns: Part of the Manna Project’s mission is to live in a communal house. Unfortunately, the house was extremely poorly maintained and presented safety risks from gas leaks, exposed electrical installations, venomous insect infestations, and a house robbery. The attention that was attracted from four American girls living alone in the house also was difficult since some people assumed we were rich and easy to steal from.

Although it was difficult to come home early, I am very thankful for the opportunity to serve abroad on a Lumos award. The experience in Ecuador will make me a better, globally-minded Spanish teacher in the future. I hope to instill the desire in others to use their language skills to serve communities abroad and connect to other cultures. I also hope to include aspects of South American cultures including the Ecuadorian culture and service learning into my teaching pedagogy.

I look forward to returning to Belmont in the fall to share more about both my achievements and difficulties in Ecuador. I also will provide helpful information to future Lumos travelers about what to look for and what questions to ask when choosing an international nonprofit to partner with. Thank you to Lumos and Belmont University for your support, and see you in the fall.


Discovering my love of teaching


My host family from my first week in Ecuador meeting my parents. We all plan to stay in touch.

Three-Month Update from Ecuador

I’ve passed the three-month mark in Ecuador, and can’t be happier about my progress advancing my Lumos goals. The Manna Project community center’s programs are booming, and I’m thrilled to be leading many of them on a weekly basis. Here’s an overview of how my programming is going:

Reading Hour: The kids are learning to have more fun reading! They needed to be pushed with the help of a few structured activities to become more motivated to read. I created a Literary Bingo with challenges such as read a borrowed book, read a book in English, read a book to someone else, read a mystery, etc. and gave the kids the opportunity to win a prize. I plan to continue developing similar activities to keep the kids engaged and challenged.

Kids Cooking: Kids cooking is my program with the highest turnout of kids. It has grown from an average of about four participants when I started to as many as twelve. I am transitioning the program into not just an educational opportunity to learn how to cook, but also to review basic vocabulary. The kids love shouting out the names of the ingredients in English. I would like to engage the kids’ families in the program, and am planning to have the kids ask their parents for recipes to bring in.

Physical Activity: Rainy season has begun in Ecuador, so we can’t always play on the soccer field outside anymore. I would like to the use the time inside to organize some diagnostic measurement days for the kids to learn their weight, height, blood pressure, etc. I also would like to organize exercise stations in the center’s gym.

Guitar Club: Guitar club is a new program that just started at the center! The director brought in a professional guitarist from a guitar duo who is volunteering his time. However, he often cannot come, so I am periodically teaching the guitar class! It is great to be using my musical and Spanish skills. Many people in the community have come in with their own guitars eager to learn! I would like to think about what other talents of mine that I can channel in other talleres, or workshops such as dance and arts and crafts.

General Activity Leader: I am succeeding in getting the kids off technology and involved in more interactive activities. At a Manna Project goal-setting meeting, the Program Directors decided to create one interactive activity per week to provide during the general play time at the center. Some of my ideas include: a scavenger hunt, obstacle course, making a puzzle, and arts and crafts projects.

Now that I know my way around Ecuador, I’ve been able to narrow my focus towards forming relationships with the community members I spend time with inside and outside the center. Community members have driven me home for work, had me over to their houses for dinner, friended me on facebook, come to the center early before classes to get homework help from me, and invited me to go hiking with them. I want to continue revamping the center’s programs to be the best they can be, but also think about time spent with community members outside of the center’s programming. The center’s programs provide great educational content, but I can complement them holistically by getting to know the community members outside of them.

At the Manna Project’s goal-setting workshop, I set the following goals: advertise my weekly programs on social media and by word-of-mouth, set up more special workshops, plug my programs in my English classes, and involve family members in my programs – not just the kids. I want to think about all my skills that I can share at the center – the kids have been asking me about a dance class which I would love to teach! My parents will be visiting Ecuador this week and are bringing me some new supplies and arts and crafts materials! Stay tuned for more updates about what my Ecuadorian kids are up to at the Manna Project and happy Easter from Ecuador!


The first winner of my Literary Bingo challenge!


Some of my favorite kids from the Manna Project

A Day in the Life: A Wednesday in Ecuador

8:30 am – I wake up and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast with some guayusa. Coffee isn’t popular in Ecuador and my home doesn’t have a working coffee machine, so the guayusa caffeinated tea is the next best option. I hear roosters in the distance and can see the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano shining under the morning rays of sun outside my window.

9:30 am – I am assigned to the organizational position of house manager. I coordinate the repairs for the house and clean for 1-2 hours daily. I’ve had to push myself to use specialized new vocabulary to talk about electricity, drains, water supplies, etc. with repairmen in Spanish.

12:30 pm – I print my lesson plans for my English classes the next day and put them in my teaching binder.

1:00 pm – I start my bus route to the Manna Project. The fare is 30 cents, so I’ve started to use dimes, nickels, and pennies for the first time in my life. The center is only three miles away, but takes 45 minutes to get to by bus. My first bus drops me off in the center of the Conocoto, the nearest town. In Conocoto, I run to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for my kids cooking class. I am given a weekly budget of $7, enough to make a meal for 8-12 kids in Ecuador. At the grocery store checkout, the cashier has to verify that my $20 bill is real and has trouble making change for it.

1:30 pm – I catch the second bus to the center. Some days, the bus is stiflingly hot and I typically have to stand holding my heavy backpack and grocery bags. The bus continues to move as people get on and off. Peddlers board the bus to try to sell everything imaginable – chocolate, avocadoes, sunglasses, chips, markers, candy, stickers, notebooks, CDs, and backpacks. Beggars also often board the bus announcing sad stories about their families while they ask for money in the aisle.

2:00 pm – I arrive at the Manna Project ready for my afternoon programs. The regular kids are already waiting outside the door for it to open. I start my first shift as the GAL – General Activity Leader. I set the kids up with arts and crafts materials, play board games with them, do puzzles, and play foosball and basketball.

3:30 pm – I take all of the kids outside for my physical activity hour. We play tag games, have obstacle and running competitions, and play soccer.

4:30 pm – Me and the kids head to the kitchen for my cooking class. The cooking class usually has about ten participants, between 4-13 years old. Even the four year olds can handle the knives under my supervision. The last few weeks, we have made vegetable pizzas and egg and potato frittata.

6:00 pm – I go home to cook dinner for my housemates. Every girl is assigned a night to cook and do dishes. I’m always exhausted and starving by the time I get home and feel like crashing into bed. I put on music in the kitchen to find a little energy to cook.

7:30 pm – Dinner is served.

9:00 pm – I finish the dishes, shower, and check my emails from home. Before bed, I watch Netflix for an hour. Even though I’m tired, I just can’t give up my television time. I love watching my favorite show in Spanish to improve my language skills in my limited free time at night.

11:30 pm – Sleep

Life in Ecuador is busy and exhausting, but I know all of my energy is being channeled toward very deserving people and programs in the community. Cheers to five more months to go serving in Ecuador!


English in Ecuador

I recently started volunteering with one of the Manna Project’s partners, Chaupitena. Chaupitena is a local public school in the Chillos Valley for K-12 children. At Chaupitena, I serve as a teaching assistant for two English classes. Working in an underserved school has helped me realize the desperate need for stronger English skills in Ecuador and how valued I am as a native speaker.

My first class is grade 4B, which is mainly eight and nine-year-olds. Since the school has limited capacity for students and teachers, the children attend classes during the morning and the high-schoolers go to school in the afternoon. The kids have a lot of energy, but they’re eager to learn English. They love deducing English words that are similar in Spanish and shouting out the pronunciations of new vocabulary. The class gets sad when I tell them that I can’t be with them every day.

During the afternoon, I assist with 2B. The 2B class is in the second year of bachillerato, or high school. They are between sixteen – eighteen-years-old. Working with the 2B class has been one of my greatest challenges in Ecuador, but I also expect it to be my most enriching experience. As a white gringa in a low-income public school, I face pointing, stares, and laughs. I’m the minority for the first time in my life. The students in the class aren’t opposed to my presence, but they also haven’t been disciplined or learned the respect expected of students in the United States. Sometimes their teachers set the example of arriving late and leaving or canceling class without an explanation, so it’s understandable why they sometimes don’t seem to take learning seriously. However, even when they are occasionally rude to me, I see them looking at me with curiosity. I’m determined to earn their respect.

The last two classes I have assisted with involved speaking expositions. The students had to give an oral presentation summarizing an article they had read in English. It was immediately clear that the students had never been taught presentation skills in their lives. As they stumbled upon English words, they took long pauses staring at the ceiling, nervously shifted their feet back and forth, and attempted to cheat looking at their notes behind their backs. It was extremely difficult to make out what they were saying in English, and the majority of the words I did understand were pronounced as if being said in Spanish. I took notes of the poorly pronounced words and made the class repeat them.

Volunteering at Chaupitena is tough, but it’s a window into the reality of the struggling public school system in Ecuador. I feel empathy for the teens in my 2B class knowing that they will be graduating soon and going out into the world with such a lacking education in English. I can’t resolve their English level to where it needed to be years ago, but I can possibly inspire their curiosity and awareness of how studying English could help them have better opportunities. I’m up for the challenge.


Behind the Smiling Faces

As I open the door to Manna Project every afternoon, I hear the running footsteps of excited children racing up the stairs to get inside. We exchange our usual “buenas tardes” and “cómo estás” and I hear about the kids’ days at school, birthdays, and other events going on in their lives. We read together, we play sports together, we cook together, we do homework together…we do everything together. Many kids stay at the center during the entirety of its open hours from 2 pm – 7 pm. For those five hours, I get to be their teacher, role model, and friend. Here are profiles of some of the Ecuadorian children I’m forming relationships with thanks to Lumos:

Valentina, 9 years old: Valentina lives two apartment buildings away from the center and comes nearly every afternoon. Valentina’s parents work long hours, so she loves the attention she receives at the center. Valentina occasionally calls me “Mami.”

Elohim, 15 years old: Elohim waits outside the center starting at 11:30 am, even though he knows it opens at 2 pm. He is content with being given a hello and a book to pass the time or sitting with me while I do my morning work before opening hours. He is mildly autistic and only goes to school on Saturdays. Elohim has to be pushed gently to play and participate in the center’s programs, but every once and a while, his eyes light up when he finds an activity he likes. He recently spent five hours happily completing a 500-piece puzzle.

Ariel, 12 years old: Ariel is a student in Kids Level 3 English class who often comes for homework help. He struggles with pronunciation since his Ecuadorian English teachers have not had the opportunity to interact with many English-speakers or travel outside of Ecuador. Ariel’s school assignments are not appropriate for his English level and are poorly chosen, antiquated worksheets that do not follow a logical sequence of learning English.

Jonathan, 13 years old: Jonathan is a thirteen-year-old that looks like he could be eight. Like many Ecuadorians in the valley, he is very small, short, and thin for his age. Jonathan loves to cook, and is always excited to get to handle knives and use the stove at the center.

Yamileth, 13 years old: Yamileth goes to a low-income public school in Ecuador. She comes to the center regularly in the afternoons to use the laptops in the computer lab. At first, she did not know how to use the laptop well. Now, the computer lab is her go-to study spot to do her English homework, use google, and type assignments.

Moises, 7 years old: Moises is a soccer fanatic that lights up when he has someone to play soccer on the field with. He brings his “lengua” homework to the center, which is his Spanish language class. He’s learned some of his own language from me and I often correct him on how to spell in Spanish.

Isaac, 12 years old: Isaac is one of the most promising English students who takes classes at the center. Some kids complain because their parents force them to spend three hours outside of school per week taking additional English courses at Manna. Isaac, his eighteen-year-old sister, and their mom all attend English class with a desire to learn and superior work ethic. Isaac is gifted, and might have the chance to go to a good university and exchange abroad with his level of English.

Stephen, 10 years old: Most kids who come to the center beg for time to play the videogames or use the computers. Stephen, on the other hand, begs for the latest book he wants. He’s reading the series “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” in Spanish and always has a book or two checked out of the library.

Jersson, 14 years old: Jersson is a preteen who is more mature than many of the kids who come to the center. Many kids his age are out with their friends or playing soccer, but Jersson always ends up at the center even though he has to play with kids much younger than him. During library hour, Jersson reads childrens’ picture books.

Gema, 10 years old: Gema is the oldest of four who comes to sports class with her three younger siblings every week. When her siblings fall down, need help tying their shoes, or need to cross the road, she helps them like a mother would. She carries their money to ride the bus, and takes her siblings to and from the center.

The kids I spend time with have different backgrounds and stories, but they all have the Manna Project in common. The Manna Project is their second home that always has its doors open for them. I cannot be the kids’ parent, but I can be a positive influence, attention-giver, homework helper, and person willing to give love and support to the most well-deserving children.


Eating stir-fry after cooking class


Being silly with the boys

Voluntourism – Volunteer or Tourist?

One of the responsibilities of Program Directors at the Manna Project is to coordinate and run spring break service trips. During the first week of March, I will be responsible for coordinating eleven Vanderbilt University students who will stay in the volunteer house, assist with the Manna Project’s weekly programs and English classes, and participate in community dinners and cultural activities around Quito. The upcoming spring break trip has made me think a lot about the idea of “voluntourism.” Voluntourism is defined as doing volunteer work in a community where you are also vacationing. An estimated 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation each year, and the voluntourism industry is worth $173 billion annually. By being privileged enough to travel the world, the eager volunteer somehow feels qualified to ease the world’s ills.

Community development is a complicated, long-term field that is plagued by clichés and good but unrealistic intentions. The story of the white volunteer arriving “on the ground” in a “third-world” country to work “in the field” and “change the lives” of impoverished people is all too familiar. Short-term volunteer groups come for a week or two to work on a project such as a medical clinic, an orphanage visit, or school or home construction. Just as quickly as they arrive, they leave, often without leaving an infrastructure for sustainability in place. For example, it is a wonderful act of service to build a new school, but if there are students with access to transportation, textbooks, or qualified teachers in place, the building just becomes another abandoned infrastructure in the community. The sad reality is that many short-term service trips have been criticized to benefit the volunteer more than the community members in the country of service. The volunteer feels the satisfaction of seeing the “real” or “authentic” country and of using his or her vacation time to do good.

I want to approach the spring break trip thoughtfully with these realities in mind. How do I give a meaningful experience to both the community and a group of students who will be in Ecuador for a mere seven days? A benefit of my Lumos award is that I have the opportunity to spend the extended time of seven months in Ecuador. I’d like to inspire the Spring Break volunteers to apply for summer intern or program director positions to return to Ecuador in the future. I’d also like for the spring break volunteers’ service to contribute to improving sustainability of the Manna Project’s presence in Ecuador. My ideas include: organizing community dinners with Manna’s host family contacts, organizing resource donations from the States, marketing the Manna Project’s ESL resources, adult conversation, and homework help, and involving both children and parents in the Manna Project’s programming. The community center is a staple for children who are regulars – they count on Manna every afternoon to help them with English homework that their parents cannot help them with. I want more community members to become “regulars” of the community center, and view the center as a long term, stable presence in the community. I think that the spring break volunteers could think about how to improve access to resources and the reach of the Manna Project’s programs, a goal which I will continue to advance as a long-term volunteer. The spring break volunteers could also survey the Manna Project’s programs and make suggestions for improvement.

As I’ve struggled with the voluntourist’s dilemma, I encountered some good advice: arrive with no expectations, be present, and observe. Listen to community members first and then form a course of action. Sometimes you can’t “help,” all you can do is experience the country with an open mind, listen with open hears, and grow with an open heart. The change will come, just not when you will it to happen.

In the Swing of Things

17 days in Ecuador down! I’ve acclimatized to the altitude, learned how to navigate the bus system, spent a week with a host family, and most importantly, started leading my programs with the Manna Project.

Here is a rundown of my weekly programs at the Manna Project’s community center and library:

Kid’s Cooking: Every Wednesday, I cook a healthy recipe with the kids in the community center’s kitchen. As we cook, I provide information about nutrition and healthy living. While our food is in the oven, we usually head over to the center’s gym to exercise and play sports. My first week leading the program was a success! The kids prepared prosciutto and melon kebabs and chocolate-covered strawberries. They even cleaned up their mess in the kitchen afterwards!

Physical Activity Hour: A new program that I am developing is physical activity hour, a program two times per week that motivates kids to exercise. This week, we played kickball outside, lifted weights, did cardio exercises, and played parachute tag games. Physical activity hour is a great way to channel the kids’ energy and get to know them!

Library Hour: Every Friday afternoon, I lead a story time with the kids. We take turns reading the pages of the books and I give them comprehension questions. Literacy is central to my goals for my time in Ecuador. Along with implementing the story time hour, I also advocated for a new policy at the community center. When kids come in, they must read for 15 minutes before being able to check out games from our counter or sign up for computer time. The kids are trained now to know that the library room is their first stop at the community center. A feature I will also implement for library hour is using bilingual books to simultaneously improve literacy and English skills!

Adult English 1: English is of high-need in the Valley of Los Chillos. I teach a three-hour class on Saturdays. So far, the class has been a great way to relate to the community members and learn about the struggles they are facing with their educations, jobs, and other challenges in the community.

Kids English 3: I teach English to eight and nine year olds on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

General Activity Leader: The general activity leader is responsible for running the floor at the community center outside of program time, which includes engaging the kids in activities such as games, arts and crafts, reading, and puzzles.

Homework Help/Tutoring: The “Sala de Estudios” is a computer lab/study space where kids can bring their homework or study materials for standardized English exams. The homework help that the Manna Project provides is critical; many parents in the community do not have the level of English or expertise in the different school subjects to be able to help their children. The homework help that Manna provides is also helpful for students in large classes in the public schools who receive very little attention from their teachers. 

Chaupitena: In two weeks, I will be starting to volunteer my time with the Manna Project’s partner, Chaupitena. Chaupitena is a public high school in the Chillos Valley. I will offer my assistance as a native speaker at English classes at Chaupitena and assist with lesson plans, presentations, and teaching classes.

So far, my service at the Manna Project has been rewarding. Some children have told me that I give them more attention and spend more time with them than their parents. Many of the kids are regulars that come to the community center from 2 pm – 7 pm every day. I’m excited to boost attendance at the center’s programs and become a steady presence in the kids’ lives that can influence them for the better.


Parachute time during physical activity hour


Kid’s cooking class – I’m also learning to cook alongside the kids!

From Ecuador, With Love

First full week in Ecuador: check. I’m currently in the final step of my Ecuador orientation: my host family stay. The Huertas live  in Fajardo, a tiny rural community that is a ten-minute walk from the Manna Project. When I arrived, I was greeted in a house decorated with balloons and streamers and given flowers, a scarf, and chocolate. The family had added an extra room to their house just so that they could be able to host Manna Project volunteers. As I spend more time in the Chillos Valley, I’m learning that I have everything I need. The Ecuadorians give all they have to me, and I don’t know how to thank them.

The Huertas are very proud of the culture of the Chillos Valley, which has deep roots in the indigenous cultures of Ecuador. Almost every house in the valley has a small plot of choclo, the Ecuadorian corn. Corn is a staple of life in Fajardo and dates back to the Incas. I’ve been introduced to various juices of corn, toasted corn, corn soups, and corn kernels that are added to many Ecuadorian dishes. The people living in the pueblo wake up at 5 am to farm the corn and many do not stop working until 9 pm. There are no major grocery stores, only tiendas which are small convenience stores and bakeries on the corners. Fresh fruit and vegetables and meat are sold on the streets, in the patios of peoples’ houses, or in open air markets. Restaurants don’t exist in Fajardo; rather, people cook and set up a table and chairs in their garage or a room of their house for people to visit. The rest of the necessities come from trucks with loudspeakers that pass through the streets selling items such as tanks of gas, potatoes, juice, and water.

The Manna Project was busy this Saturday for inscriptions day. My position was to give the community members diagnostic tests to place them into the correct English levels. The center opened at 9 am, but people began forming a line outside the door at 5 am. In Ecuador, outside of the private schools, the English teachers are usually under qualified. Since they typically haven’t traveled to America, their pronunciations suffer due to lack of contact with native speakers. The community members have shared that the presence of native English speakers at the Manna Project is much more valuable than an English class at a public school.

Inscriptions day was a success. Each level of English (4 classes for adults and 4 classes for kids) is full with 30 students. I elected the programs that I will lead: Adult English 1, Children’s English 3, library/story time hour, kids cooking and physical activity class. All volunteers will take turns being the general activity leader, who manages the center for three hours and plans activities such as games and arts and crafts during that time. The focus of my Lumos service is literacy. I plan to use the Manna Project’s library as a resource to expose children to bilingual books as they simultaneously learn how to read and gain exposure to a second language. I will use exercises such as providing comprehension questions, children taking turns reading a page, and changing a word and having the children correct the grammar. From my first few days at the center, I’ve witnessed that the children are willing to read. Now, I hope to get age-appropriate books in their hands with consistency and use reading to improve their language usage. The children coming to the center from illiterate families and poor public schools are often facing the double challenge of struggling in both English and Spanish. I’ve had to correct children on grammatical and spelling errors in their own language, Spanish. Reading is a great way to help children become familiar with the correct spellings of words and different sentence structures.

I’ve had some challenges in the last week: cold showers, lack of availability of safe water, minimal access to internet, and my big mistake of losing my entire wallet and keys. But, my host family has been a blessing and I feel like I’m in the right place. My twelve-year old host brother Iori told me he starts to cry when children younger than him try to sell things on buses and don’t even have bread. Iori constantly gets up on the bus for older people or people with children. He even went on 30-minute walks with me to the center multiple times to help me look for my keys. The Ecuadorians I know are giving, thoughtful, and selfless. They share everything around them – whatever food they have, stories, their houses, and their culture. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been told the story of Alexander von Humboldt, who famously climbed Ecuador’s highest volcano, Chimborazo. He commented that he was flabbergasted to meet the most peaceful people in the world, given that they lived amongst no less than 50 volcanoes! Ecuador is a special country!

Next week is a full work week at the Manna Project. I will be leading programs on my own for the first time. I already have children recognizing my face, and it’s really nice to see the same kids returning almost every afternoon. For some of them, the center is the best part of their day. Thank you, Ecuador, for all the love and kindness you’ve given me during my first week here.


My host brother and sister: Elaine and Iori


Library hour/story time


The Teen Center


The Chillos Valley

Day One in Ecuador and Meeting Manna

I have officially stepped foot in South America! I arrived at 11:30 pm on Saturday, Jan. 7, but my partner organization had the volunteer pick-up scheduled for 5 pm the following day. Naturally, I wanted to use every minute to get to know my new home! I spent Sunday morning and afternoon with my pen pal, Sebastián, and his family. They graciously invited me to their home and cooked me a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast of tigrillo, which is a mix of eggs, cheese, green plantains, salt, pepper, ahí, and onion. After breakfast, Sebastián gave me a tour of Quito!

First, we walked from my friend’s house to the city center after I emphatically shook my head saying no to taking a taxi. We went up El Panecillo, which is a famous statue of the Virgin Mary sitting on a hill above Quito. I was stunned seeing the panorama of Quito from above. The colored houses stack on top of each other high up in the mountains and the silhouettes of Quito’s historic district dot the valley below. Next, my friend showed me the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a gorgeous church in the city center with painted blue patterned ceilings. Later, we bought street food for $1.50 in Parque el Ejido, an urban park in Quito. One of my favorite foods here is choclo, which is jumbo corn. In the park, we also rented a bike to see the city from a new perspective. A lot of quiteño children laughed at our horrible bike-steering good-naturedly, and I loved how the whole city seemed to be out and about outside smiling, playing lawn games, basking in the sun, and exercising.

It is customary to give gifts in Ecuador, so I brought my friend a baseball bat, glove, ball, and hat since he is fascinated by American baseball. I taught him how to play in another park called Parque Itchimbía, which has arguably the best views in the city. The park was definitely a locals’ hangout, and I had fun passing soccer balls back to quiteños!

After an eight-hour day of eating street food, biking, playing baseball, and walking miles around Quito (9,300 ft.), I felt very accomplished! Although I need to rest soon to continue acclimatizing, it was more important to me to dive into the Ecuadorian culture from day one! Entering my volunteer service, I now feel that I have a better understanding of the day in the life of Ecuadorians, including their food, culture, dialect of Spanish, and surroundings.

Sunday night, I moved in to the Manna Project house where I will be living for the next seven months. The house is located in Conocoto, a rural suburb about 40 minutes from Quito. I met the other Program Directors I will be living with, who are very internationally-minded people like me! The next morning, the Country Director and Senior Program Director led orientation meetings regarding risk management, Program Director roles, and the culture of Ecuador. Next, the Senior Program Director, Hunter, took me to learn the bus routes and find my way to Spanish school, where I will attend classes during the mornings for one week and the next three consecutive Mondays. Hunter also provided a short tour around Quito to several artisanal markets and the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús church, which is almost entirely covered in gold. We ate lunch at Cafélibro, a well-known café famous for offering dance classes, book clubs, and concerts.

This week, my orientation will include shadowing the Manna Project’s programs, additional welcome activities, and an introduction to the community center where I will serve. On Friday, I will move into a host family house for a 1-week homestay that prepares Program Directors with intensive Spanish immersion.

I’m exhausted, but very pleased with the partner organization I chose, the Manna Project. Manna’s Ecuador Country Director Carolyn emphasized the 50/50 mission of Manna facing both Program Director volunteers and community members. The Manna Project will help me grow because it intends to develop social change agents who can thrive working in international settings and continue to do similar work in the future. Simultaneously, the Manna Project aims to support the community with knowledge and better resources through its primary focus: community development using educational programming. I am anxious and excited to meet community members as I shadow programs this week, and can’t wait to begin teaching classes the following week. This Saturday is a big day: inscriptions day. Inscriptions day is when community members sign up for the community center’s English classes and other programs and take placement tests. The community center’s programs are so popular that a line apparently forms out the door starting at 5 a.m. for class inscription at 9 a.m.

All in all, it’s been a fantastic, exhausting, overwhelming, and productive first couple days in Ecuador. I’m confident that I couldn’t personally have chosen a better country for my Lumos service; I’m invigorated and ready to put my Spanish skills to work in a community that is very deserving of help! This is only the beginning of a long relationship with Ecuador and its people, and I look forward to every minute of my experience!




Ecuador in Two Words: “Buen Vivir!”

An Ecuadorian friend recently summed up his country in two words for me: Buen vivir. Buen vivir means “good living” in Spanish, and originally comes from the Quechua words sumac kawsay. Quechua is the most widely spoken indigenous language in Ecuador, and the belief systems of the Quechuan people continue to influence Ecuador’s social, political, and cultural philosophies.

Buen vivir describes a way of living that is community-centric, ecologically balanced and culturally-sensitive. The philosophy has been powerful enough to inspire cultural movements across South America and is even included in the Ecuadorian Constitution! The Constitution reads, “Se reconoce el derecho de la población a vivir en un ambiente sano y ecológicamente equilibrado, que garantice la sostenibilidad y el buen vivir, sumak kawsay.” In English this means, “Ecuador recognizes the right of the population to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment that guarantees sustainability and the good way of living (sumak kawsay).” Ecuador is the first country in the world to have acknowledged the connection of people to the environment in its Constitution!

The principle of buen vivir will guide my service in Ecuador. When I met with a friend who started a nonprofit while applying for Lumos, her advice to me was to talk to community members in my host country to listen and acknowledge what they wanted. Since Ecuadorians have shared to me that buen vivir is important to them, I will model it in my philosophy toward community development. In the context of community development, buen vivir includes the well-being of the individual in harmony with his or her community and natural environment.

Buen vivir is viewed as new way of developing nations because it places a decreased emphasis on economic development and an increased emphasis on relationships with natural surroundings, human development, and the enrichment of core values, spirituality, and ethics. It’s a far cry from the Western worldview model of never-ending development, capitalism, consumption, and commodification. Although it will take some time to become assimilated into the Quechuan belief systems that many people live by in Ecuador, I can adopt buen vivir by connecting the Ecuadorian children and communities I work with to their natural environments. My partner organization, the Manna Project, periodically sponsors outdoor recreation trips for the children and teens in the host community. I think that a combination of exercise and education about sustainability would be wonderful for the community. At the library I will work in, I intend to incorporate nature and environmental themes into my book selections for the children, arts and craft programs, and educational workshops. The Ecuadorians I have spoken to are very proud of the beautiful natural environment in their country, and rightfully so. I hope to bond with Ecuadorian children and teens by sharing my love of the natural environment in my projects and adopting my own sense of buen vivir in my teaching and community development philosophies.