28 4 / 2014

28 4 / 2014

I have been dreading this post for a while. It is quite possibly my last post here, as I have officially left Estero and am back in the USA. Andrew and I left Estero last Friday night. Our plane to the US was Monday and we wanted to stay in Estero until as late as we could. In the past, many of the fellows have left Estero a couple weeks early to do some last minute traveling. Although I love exploring and traveling, and the country of Ecuador is so diverse and beautiful, I could not find it in my heart to leave Estero any earlier than necessary. 
The people of Estero became my family in so many ways, leaving them was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Although I plan on returning, it is not the same as being with them full time. I won’t be able to gossip with the women, play with the kids everyday, or dance bachata on Saturday nights with the local men. I am still talking to some of them continuously though, but it is not the same. My conmadre (mother of my godson) Jenni calls me or texts me every time she has cell service to update me on her three children and the rest of her family. I have been in contact still with some of the becados through facebook when they go into town. Everyone is doing well, but there is a lot of news since I left only a week ago and even right before I left.
About a week before I left, I found out that my host sister, also a becado, is now pregnant. I wrote about Celeste in an earlier post. She just graduated colegio last month and took her exams to go to university a few weeks ago. At the end of March, Andrew and I took the becados to Quito where we were able to tour a university and go to a university fair for all the students. Celeste was overly excited to go, constantly talking to me about ways she can apply, which schools are better, how she was going to pay and look for scholarships, what clothes she would wear in Quito, and more. She couldn’t wait to get out of the small town, study in the capital city, and make friends from all over the country and the world. And I couldn’t be more excited for her. But about two weeks ago, her mom woke up to find her missing. I had gone out dancing with her the night before and apparently after I went to bed, her boyfriend came to town and the two of them left for Guayaquil without telling anyone. Her mom came and found me the next morning hysterically crying. She had suspected she was pregnant and that was why she left. She was able to call her the next day to confirm. For me, I am just still so confused as to why she didn’t do more to protect herself. I had talked to her a lot about pregnancies and safe sex, and she always told me how she did not want to have a kid yet, she wanted to finish school, get a job, and then have a kid. Because of this, her mother and I got her birth control pills from the health center in town. It is free there and easy to get, but there is a stigma to not use birth control, usually coming from the other mothers. But her mom got it for her as well and wanted her to be careful. Her mom, my host mom, is one of the poorest I know. She has 7 children whom she raises mostly on her own. She wants a better life for her own kids. When Carmenia, Celeste’s mom, went looking through some of her things after she left, she found the pills untouched. Celeste had told me she was taking them everyday, but clearly not. I am just not sure why not. I am really hoping it wasn’t planned, but I know that many of the young girls here do plan to have kids at a young age. For them it is a way to control their lives. I’m not sure if this was her intent, or if it was a mistake, but I am still talking to Celeste and and hoping to continue convince her that she can still pursue all her dreams. It will definitely be more difficult and more complicated, but it is nowhere near impossible. She can still go to university and get the job of her dreams. She has a wonderfully large family who are willing to help her continue her studies and aspirations, with the baby. Sometimes things in life go unexpectedly, but that never means you need to give up or give in. Persistence and patience are some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned while living in Estero. The people have taught me so much, and I am forever grateful, and I plan to continue helping them as well. There is so much potential in the people of Estero, especially the youth, that I cannot wait to watch these people pursue all that is possible. And so much is possible. 

19 4 / 2014

Last Thursday, my friend Mirna, a member of the Estero community and a wonderful daughter, sister, mother and friend to many passed away. This has been extremely depressing time for the entire community. She was sick for a long time, almost a year. In December I was able to convince her family to take her to the hospital. I had been paying the majority of her medical expenses and spent much time with her and her mom in the hospital during her first week there. She was moved to Quito and I continued paying her expenses. She came home finally in February after being in and out of a coma for 2 months. When she came home, she couldn’t walk and had no muscles to play with her daughter or physically do anything. I spent much time with her doing physical therapy, working with both her and her mother to help her build some muscles. She was doing so much better the last couple months, finally walking a little, and was stronger.  However, she began relapsing in the last few weeks. I tried convincing her family to bring her back to the hospital as there is no doctor in the town who could help her in her condition, but she didn’t want to be away from her family, and her mother didn’t want to go against her wishes. She was sent by ambulance to the hospital last Tuesday, and passed away early Thursday morning. For me personally, I at first took it as a huge failure on my part. Since I was working with her, I felt there must have been more I could have done for her. Why couldn’t I save her? I realize though that it is not my job to save her. I am not a doctor. By the time I met her, she was already really sick. But I did help her hold onto her life a little more. spend a little more time with her family and young daughter. I still feel a little at fault, like I could have done more, reached out to more resources for help. But in all honesty, I’m not really sure how much more I could have done. This in itself has made it that much harder to leave this town of mine. The people here are my family and I want to do everything I can to continue helping them. As her family is one of the poorest in Estero, I am currently planning an event to help get some extra money to her family. Mirna’s two brothers are in colegio and need the money to continue studying. There are four little girls in the house who had stopped going to school because they were busy working, cooking, washing and cleaning, and could really use the extra money to be ensured food on their table. Kids need to be kids, but with everything that has been happening, there isn’t time or money for that. And Mirna’s father is a drunk who barely works to help his family financially. Her family could really use all the extra help they could get. 
Throughout the year, I have painted a series of watercolor paintings (I currently have 27 finished) of the children here in Estero. I am currently working on creating a show of these paintings at Union College when I return in a couple weeks. I want to charge a little or ask for donations to help make a contribution to this wonderful family. They deserve all the support and love they can get during these extremely difficult and stressful time. Even though I leave here so soon, the people of Estero truly are my family. I want to continue helping them for as long as possible. 

07 4 / 2014

Recently, I had to ask my parents for some money.  My mother proceeded by asking me why I needed some, asking if Union had factord in all my expenses.  I have a fellowship from Union College, where they paid for my flights, my living expenses, traveling to and from Quito, etc., and yes, for the most part they had factored and paid me for everything.  What Union did not factor in, however, was the fact that sometimes things happen when living in a third world country, or anywhere.  When Mirna (the girl I wrote about a few blogs ago) got sick and her family didn´t have any money to help her, and was just allowing her condition to grow worse and worse, I couldn´t help but step in and help.  I spent a few hundred dollars helping her and her family.  I helped with her hospital expenses but also to take care of her family at home.  While her and her mother were gone, they left Mirna´s two younger brothers, her father ( a drunk who didn´t work or help with anything in the house) and her daughter and three younger sisters (4 little girls all under the age 12).  If I didn´t help while Mirna was hospitaized (she has been back now and was doing better, but unfortunately is relapsing), the little girls would have unjustly suffered. 

Union also didn´t factor in mothers begging me for money or borrowing money they could not return because of thir faulty and unreliable husbands.  A few months ago, my co-madre (mother of my godson) and her sister-in-law asked me for some money for school supplies for their daughters and promised that when their husbands came the following week, they would pay me back.  The sister-in-law´s husband paid me as soon as he got to town.  However, when my co-madre´s husband arrived, he drank the whole day and then beat her that night and left the next morning.  I did not feel it was my place to have her ask him for money.  And when my current host mom, a mother of six with a husband who cheats, driks, and refuses to support her, often comes to me crying and asking for a little extra money, it is so difficult for me to say no.  Although I don´t have much money, I also don´t have children I need to worry about.

When high schoolers ask me for money because they need some extra to get to school, or to pay for graduation supplies, or work on projects for class on the internet, it is difficult for me to turn thm down.  And I don´t.  I am here to support furthering education, and when these youth want to learn and succeed in school, but their families can´t afford the extra expenses, how can I say no?

And another huge thing that Union did not factor in is the unfortunate event of getting robbed.  Luckily I have never been pick-pocketed or put in danger, but I have had a lot of money stolen.  While I was living at my old house, I did not have a lock on my door.  I kept all my money hidden away, but with so many people always in the house (about 15 people live there, with many always coming and going), people often saw when I took some money out and where I put it back.  At first I noticed some money was missing, but not wanting to assume the worst, I assumed I must have spent it without realizing.  When this happened a few more times it became more obvious.  I then started keeping less money in the house and keeping track of exactly what I had.  When I was officially sure it was stolen and not spent by me, I told my host mom.  When I lost even more money the same day, her husband put locks on my door.  I had a few hundred dollars stolen from me over the time, and I still don´t know who it was.  What saddens me most about this is that if whoever had taken my money had simply asked, I most likely would have given it to them.  But being robbed in a town where I feel so comfortable really put me out of ease.  These people make me feel so at home and like one of their own, but this incident made me feel like such an outsider, like some people only see me for the money that I have.  Luckily since then, I have had nothing stolen, but it does leave me short some money in the end.  I budgeted well, as did Union when paying me in July, but these cases could not be factored into the fellowship.  Unfortunately this is life.  Although people can still be very happy with very little money, in this day and age, in both developed and developing countries alike, we all need money to live. 

02 4 / 2014

When I first arrived in Estero, I came to think that women run this town and their families.  In many ways this is true.  They raise the children and grandchildren, attend meetings for the school, do the cooking, wash the family´s clothes and dishes, and some even work in the fincas (farm/ rain forest land where many familes have platanos, cows, pigs, and more), or go out finding pulpo and camaron (octopus and shrimp— very popular here for ceviches, a popular coastal dish) for their families to eat.  They are always busy and work extremely hard. 

After living here for a longer period of time, however, it becomes a lot more apparent that the men actually have complete control.  The men are the ones who´s jobs make the money (most men leave town and find jobs in bigger cities while sending money back home).  While women often work harder and raise their families, they are often completely reliant on their ¨husbands¨(nobody legally gets married here— when a girl gets pregnant, the father of this baby usually becomes the ¨husband¨).  This financial reliance means that if the man cheats on his wife, or is a drunk, or beats her or her children (which happens way too often in such a small town), the wife has no option but to stay with him.  I am trying to change that, but it is extremely difficult in such a poor town that is so isolated with very little job opportunities.  My closest friend´s husband hit her a couple months ago because he thought she was cheating while he was away working in Guayaquil.  At first she kicked him out and sent him to his parents in another town, but she quickly took him back realizing she needed his income to support their three children.  Her mother, my old host-mother, recently told me that her husband used to drink too much too often and used to beat her.  She kicked him out and fortunately he stopped drinking immediately, came home, and has never hit her since. 

Before I moved into my new host family´s home, my new host mother came to me crying one night.  She told me how her husband has a new girlfriend and is a drunk, but is too afraid to leave him.  She was working in a local comedor (small restaurant) but was fired because she needed to take time off one day to take care of her sick son.  She has six kids and has no way other than her husband to earn money for them.  This is when and why I offered to live there.  We pay the host families money to live and eat at their home, and this was my way of helping her make some of her own money that she can use on herself and her children to help better their lives.  Obviously it is only temporary, but I am hoping to give her the confidence that she doesn´t need her husband. 

There is also a women´s entrepreneurial group that was created to help the women come together and make money for themselves.  Although the idea is wonderful, there are many issues within the group.  There is a lack of trust in the president, but nobody else wants the responsobility.  They cook for tourists most weekends, but only get paid $5 or $10 when each works, and because they work in small groups, each person only works once every couple months or so.  Andrew and I have spent a lot of time working with them and attending their meetings, but the more we do this, the more they rely on volunteers. They are slowly learning to be more reliant on each other and themselves, and hopefully this will better the group. 

It is definietly hard being a woman here, but for the most part, the women are very strong and wonderful, I just wish they were a little more independent from the men.

I will end this quote by Charlotte Bronte about women who can and should be independent, especially with the circumastances listed above.  ¨I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will¨

17 3 / 2014

Some photos of the Grupo de Jovenes organizing the books in the Biblioteca, as well as the wall I painted that lists all their goals and desires for their community of Estero

17 3 / 2014

On Friday, my host sister, who is also a becado, graduated from high school! This is extremely exciting news for her family and the town.  She is the only graduate this year from Estero at her colegio, and is also the only becado to graduate this year.  Her hard work has finally paid off.  I am constantly impressed by this girl, as she works hard every day in school, waking up early and arriving home late after a few hours of travelling to and from school.  When she is home, she helps her mother with the cooking and taking care of her younger siblings. Since we arrived, I have noticed the impact and persuasion she has on her friends and on the town.  Not only is she smart, but she has such a confidence and esteem in her, that I myself sometimes envy.  She continuously takes charge and is often the one to initiate events and activities for the becados.
At the end of this month, she will take her exams to go to university. Not only is it rare to find someone here who has graduated from high school, it is even rarer to find someone who wants to and has the grades to go to university.  We are currently trying to figure out a feesible means of paying for this university, after her exams are finished.  The university in Esmereldas has free tution, but she will still need to figure out a living situation as well as pay for books and exams. 

I see so much potential in this young woman´s life, and I know she can go so far. Her character and enthusiasm are evident to all, and her hard work is paying off.  She is a great example for the town, the other becados, as well as her five siblings, three of whom are under age ten.  She is a prime example of how Estero is developing and advancing for the better.  Best of luck to this recent, beautiful graduate!

26 2 / 2014

As anybody who´s talked to me or has read my blog since I got to Estero knows that the kids here are a special breed.  They are always playing, dancing in the street, climbing trees, swimming in the river, and curious about everything.  My senior thesis at Union was about children throughout the world and how no matter their circumstances, they are all so similar.  Kids want to play, draw, dance and run around.  As an artist, I wanted to teach art classes in the school to bring about the creative and curious sides to all these energetic and lovable children.  I have been teaching art here for about 7 months now and the kids all love it.  I teach the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders each once a week.  With the younger kids, I work mostly using colors, shapes, and numbers, as the majority of these students do not yet know the differences.  I have done projects such as ¨connect the dots¨, ¨color by number¨and other exercises.  Some days I simply read them a story and then have them draw the images they can imagine and interpret from the story.  We work on drawing animals using only shapes or figures, and drawing certain animals or foods with the colors that most identify them.  Las week they worked in partners to draw portraits of each other.  Whenever they use their imagination and creativity, the pictures always come out unique and beautiful.  For Valentine´s Day, I cut out pink hearts from construction paper and had them make cards for someone whom they love.  I then taught them how to make flowers out of pipe cleaners so that they could give colorful flowers and a card to someone. 

I personally think that having art in one´s life allows for an expansion of that person´s creativity, self-expression, and inflence on that person´s work or career.  When people use their creative and visual sides of their brains, more often they are able to create new ideas and perspectives for their current lives and projects.  It is important to have some type of art in everyone´s life, but especially in a child.  It allows for them to learn in different ways as well as to expand their imagination and natural curiosity.  Each week the children become more active and interested in their own creations.


26 2 / 2014

A couple weeks ago we had a meeting with the Padres de la Escuela (parents of the school) and the teachers to discuss a myriad of issues.  The first that was brought up (a reason why Andrew and I had asked for the meeting) was from one of the parents concerning the assistencia (attendance) of the teachers at the school.  The teachers often miss a couple days of school every week, or will often let their students out of class very early so that they themselves can go home earlier.  When a teacher does not show up to school, the students are simply sent home.  The fact that students are missing class a couple times a week is detrimental to their ability to learn and retain information.  Kids have a basic right to learn, and these teachers are not giving them this right.

The fellows from last year had told me that the parents had brought up the assistencia at a meeting last year.  But because nobody had any written evidence of their absences, the teachers lied and denied it all.  This year, when Andrew and I decided to have a meeting with the parents and the teachers, I decided to start taking attendance on my own.  By the time we actually had the meeting, I had about a month´s worth of their attendance.  Within that month, there were only two times that all four teachers were present.  When we brought this up in the meeting, we made it clear that the concern was only about the students.  We did not want to cause a fight or invite blame, just to come up with a solution for this problem.  This is not a problem for the parents or the teachers, it is about the students and their rights to a basic education.

Unfortunately, when the teachers rarely show up, or simply write things on the board for the students to copy (while they play music at their desk or take naps), the students fail to receive their basic level of education.  There are far too many students of all ages and grades who cannot read at all.

When the topic of their assistencia was brought up, the teachers were livid.  Anytime a teacher spoke, the parents all listened giving them respect.  When a parent, or Andrew or I spoke, we were constantly interrupted by the teachers, yelling and screaming extremely rude things at everyone.  They were very disrespectful to everyone involved, and refused to help resolve anything.  They were appalled that we would take attendance and made crude remarks about certain parents. 

As there was no solution made during this meeting, Andrew and I have thus decided to skip having another meeting with the teachers, and just go straight to the district.  We are writing an oficio (an official letter of concern) for the district and will go with one or two parents to try and come up with a solution for the upcoming school year.  These kids deserve someone to fight for them.  They deserve an education.

22 2 / 2014

We have exactly 2 months left here in Estero before returning to the US.  One of the main things we´re trying to do with our last couple of months is to inspire the people here that they can do so much on their own.  A couple of months ago, Andrew and I were told that we might be the last fellows here in Estero.  We recently found out that there will be 2 more next year, but we want to ensure the people here that they can do so much without the help of fellows or volunteers.  There will not always be volunteers here, and our hope is to get these wonderful people to rely less on the help from people like us.  Many people here, such as the Women´s Group, rely dependently on the fellows here and we are trying to simply ease that reliance.  In doing so, we are workling hard with the Grupo de Jovenes (the youth group).  This is the first generation of youth that the town has seen, who are mostly all in high school.  They attend school in towns outside of Estero and aside from getting a higher education, they are also able to meet and learn from people who come from bigger towns.  We are thus working on helping this group really become strong leaders in a myriad of projects for this town (such as getting cell phone service).

The problems that are prevalent in Estero derive from the fact that it is so small, isolated, and often forgotten by the government and the world around it.  There are so many towns all over the country and throughout the world that just go unnoticed. It is not their fault, but it definitely leaves the people without much confidence or esteem.  

The people in this town are not lazy or stupid.  In fact they are some of the most hardworking people I have ever met.  There is just a lack of opportunity and conviction.  When they are constantly forgotten or passed over, it ensues a lack of drive in the people.  The teachers don´t want to come to school everyday and often leave early, not allowing these children to learn to their fullest capacity.  There also aren´t many jobs available.  Currently, there is no running water (for the past month or so) and most days there´s no electricity.  People want to work, they want a better education for themselves and their children, it is just extremely difficult when the government seems to forget about them and they lose their confidence to ammend these problems themselves.

The Grupo de Jovenes, however, has a lot more esteem.  Their potential is incredible.  They have a higher education, as well as the knowledge that there is so much they can do themsleves to help better the lives of the people of their town.  They still fear that they can´t do certain things alone and without the aid of volunteers, but they can.  My goal for the rest of my fellowship is to help create leaders within the people of the town, especially from the Grupo de Jovenes.  We recently painted the inside of the biblioteca (the library where we often meet), and on one of the walls I painted a mural with a book filled with everything this group wants for the future of Estero (I will post a picture soon).  Their potential is enormous, and the people of the town will only grow their own confidence if they see their own members of their own community as leaders, not just fellows.  I am eager to see how these young, creative, and inspiring teens work together to better the community of Estero.

¨Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.¨ -Margaret Mead