Sunday, June 19, 2011

Last night in Ecuador

On our last night in Quichinche and Ecuador, the Lopez Perugachi family decided to throw a party with all the extended family. They all converged at Carlos and Susana's house and we ate and played late into the night.

We still find it hard to believe that these wonderful people would have accepted us into their hearts and homes, unconditionally and without ever having met us. We have grown so close to all these people, and they will remain in our hearts forever. We traveled to Ecuador intent on serving the people, but ended up getting to know and love many, many people who served us and loved us for over 8 months. Our time there, and the unforgettable memories filling our hearts and minds, will be forever imprinted with the loving Perugachi Lopez family. We love you, Carlos, Susana, Monica, Josue, Adela, Ruth and Anahi!

A library for Ulpiano Navarro primary school

For the past four years, we have had the great fortune to cooperate with HelpOneFuture, a non-profit organization founded by good friends of ours, in bringing the gift of books and reading to children in the Philippines. We had no intention of breaking this wonderful tradition, and the school our children were attending in Quichinche, called Ulpiano Navarro, presented the perfect opportunity.  

This school, like every other school in or around Otavalo (and in most developing countries), had no library. And unlike most kids in the United States and other similarly situated countries, these kids had no idea that there existed books written for enjoyment. The only books they had ever seen were textbooks. 

The Ulpiano Navarro school is led by a hard working, visionary director named Alexandra Armas. As she and our childrens' teachers worked patiently and tirelessly to help the kids adapt to new surrounding and a new language, our admiration for them grew. They had little in the way of materials, but worked hard and smart with what they did have. As Amy and I learned over the course of the months that we worked in and observed the school about the many deficiencies they dealt with, we realized that a library could be an amazing asset to their school and would benefit them for years to come. 

After talking the idea over with HelpOneFuture, we sat down with Alexandra and asked her what she thought about a library filled with books that children could read for pleasure. An initial feeling of skepticism (no school she had ever seen or attended had anything remotely similar) gradually turned to excitement as she realized the benefits that would flow from having a student body that not only actually liked to read, but excelled at it. 

While we worked on the fundraising side of things, Alexandra quickly took ownership of the project. She organized meetings with the faculty to discuss the project, planning where the library would be, how to integrate reading into the curriculum, brainstorming ways to raise even more funds, and ways to motivate the students. It was absolutely amazing to watch her take this project and run with it. With her at the helm, what started out as a family service project turned into legitimate education infrastructure.  

We hope that the pictures and commentary below give justice to what an amazing experience we had helping to build a library for the Ulpiano Navarro primary school. 

Here is a photo of the front of the school. You will note in this photo and in others that the paint on the school is in pretty good condition. This is because of a local tradition called the "minga," which is basically a community work day. The school or teachers will call a minga, and every parent is required to show up and pitch in to clean, repair, paint or anything else that needs to be done. 

Amy's parents, Joan and David Olsen, traveled to visit us early this year. David had gone to the local libraries in central California to look for used Spanish language books that the library was looking to get rid of. When they arrived, their luggage was stuffed with books. Here they are with Amy and Alexandra at a visit to the school.

Part of what the Tandana Foundation does is help to coordinate group projects in cooperation with universities and other groups from the US. One such group from Northeastern University (pictured below) was in Quichinche earlier this year. We also had wonderful help from a Carpe Diem gap year group and a group of Tandana healthcare volunteers. We also can't forget Anna Taft and Natalie Alm, another long term volunteer who helped a ton. They all volunteered and helped with the logistics of setting up the library, organizing books, entering in all the titles into a database and wrapping the books in protective plastic and organizing the checking out system. 

Early on, Alexandra had decided that the library needed a room of its own, not just a shelf or two in the office or a classroom, so that in time the book collection could grow and become even more a part of the school. She was able to acquire some funding from the nearby city, and joined it with the money she raised from the parents of school children and community through bake sales. They decided to build a smaller kitchen behind the school, and then convert the old kitchen, which was prominently placed in the middle of the school near the office, into the new library. This is a picture of the pre-library kitchen. 

Part of the remodeling effort included renaming the old kitchen. Here is the new "Biblioteca" sign, which of course means "library" in Spanish. A local woodworker did the cool design.  

We neglected to get pictures of the cleaning, sanding and painting, but it got done. The moms of the school donated their time and efforts to ours, and the walls were sanded and repainted, the floor scrubbed and the windows cleaned. We went with Alexandra down to Quito in search of books, because the kind of quantity we wanted didn't exist where we were. We spent a fun afternoon in the bookstore, more or less buying a copy of every single children's title they carried. We then scoured the nearby cities and found a few dozen more. All in all, we ended up with about 700 different books. We then bought plastic covering for the books and spent innumerable hours covering each book so that it would hopefully last for a while.We also had paper pockets and cards made that we glued into the back of the book, to use as a checkout system so that the older kids could take the books home to read. Those of you who went to grade school before the widespread use of computers will remember the old-school checkout system with names written down and due dates stamped in the books. Here we are working to get the books organized and prepared for the kids to read and checkout. 

We had ordered benches and a teacher's chair for the kids to sit in the library and read. Alexandra had found a local craftsman to build the bookshelves. A couple of weeks before the official opening, each class was brought into the library and given a session on what kind of books were in the library, how to treat books, and what the library rules were. They were all so excited. Here is Bentz's class, with the teacher reading them a book. Remember that these kids had never been in a library and surrounded by so many fun and interesting books. They absolutely soaked it in. 

We let each of the classes spend some time in the library, getting acquainted with the books and sitting down to read a bit. At first, we thought it a bit strange that the library was almost ready to go, but Alexandra wanted to wait until it was perfect, and then plan a formal opening ceremony. She wanted to invite the local government leaders, as well as officials from the provincial level education department. We didn't realize that this library would be the very first in the area, and the school was excited to share their experience with others.  

We had wondered whether or not kids who had not grown up with books everywhere and storytelling and libraries would catch on to the reading spirit, but we had nothing to worry about. Every kid who got close to the library promptly grabbed a book, sat down and lost themselves in the story. It was awesome. 

We wanted to make sure that the kids all new how to treat the books so that they would last for more than a couple of years. Alexandra suggested that all the students make posters depicting library rules. So each class, as they came in to get to know the new library, showed us the posters that they had created. 

Some of the books that David and Joan had been rounding up didn't quite arrive in time for their trip down to Ecuador. They sent the remaining books with Tarryn. Here are Tarryn and Alexandra. 

The big day of the library opening arrived, and it turned out to be much more that we had ever anticipated. They had put up a huge tent for guests to sit under, with a table up in front for the speakers and dignitaries. They had all of the kids gathered, and had prepared an entire program replete with musical numbers and speeches. Needless to say, we were a little overwhelmed. 

Here is one of the musical numbers, a traditional dance performed by some of the students. 

They also had speakers, including Amy and I. And contrary to what we would have wanted, they also made a  huge sign in the background. The kids worked really hard at it, so we couldn't really complain. 

Then there was the official ribbon cutting ceremony. I don't think that any of us had ever been to one before. 

Here we are with the provincial level education officials, taking them on a tour of the library. They were very impressed with all that had been done, and we explained that most of it had to do with the vision that Alexandra had for her school. We hope they give her a raise or a promotion or something. She deserves it. 

This poster on the wall is a little hard to see, but it consists of a timeline and pictures representing the evolution of the kitchen turned library. They were so proud of their accomplishment, and we are too. Our thanks and appreciation go out to the many friends that helped with this project through their generous donations and support. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Noe Gonzales

Noe Gonzales and his young family live in a little adobe house that is about the size of a master bedroom in the US. They have 4 kids, one of whom was in Bentz's class. Amy first met Noe when all the parents came to class for the first time to drop off the new kindergarteners. Later on, we learned that Noe also was mormon, but part of the indigenous ward - the ward had the same geographical boundaries as ours, but they all spoke kichwa in church instead of spanish.  Noe and his wife were just plain good people. A young family with not much to go on, but working hard and trying to keep their heads above water. We had the great opportunity to become part of their lives and help them to obtain this embroidery machine shown below. Before this machine, Noe would work up to 18 hours a day, embroidering designs using a normal sewing machine. If he worked the full day, he could pump out one per day. With his new machine, Noe will be able to produce 2 or 3 per day, possibly doubling his earning potential. We wish the best for Noe and his family. 

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More birthdays and fun

When we got back to Quichinche, Amy remembered that Carlos's birthday was around the same time as mine, so she made another cake to celebrate the both of ours. She wrote, "Feliz Cumpleanos dos papas," without the accent mark over the second "a" so the kids were making fun of her for calling us potatoes. To show that she did, in fact mean to call us two potatoes, she added a picture of two potatoes to the frosting. This was the first birthday cake that Carlos had ever received, and of course he loved it. Probably had something to do with the fact that it was a delicious carrot cake that Amy made from scratch.  

Susana is such a delightfully happy person, it is such a shame that she makes a serious face every time the camera is pointed at her. Once in a while, however, we catch her in a candid moment that shows her in her true form. This picture was just such a moment, laughing and joking around with Anahi. We sure love Susana.

Our neighbors next door, Leonel and Carmen Aus, are fantastic neighbors. They are also mormons, and we have made good friends with them both in and out of church. They have a couple of horses, and one night Carmen came over and told the kids to come for a ride. Well, she didn't have to ask twice. Both the Lopez and Lefler kids were over their all afternoon and into the evening. Here is Anahi, holding on to Jorie for dear life while Carmen guides the horse in a slow walk.

A week or so after the double birthday party, it was Anahi's turn. She was in awe of her very own chocolate cake, but was scared to blow out the candles while everyone else was watching. We ended up having the whole family help blow the one candle out.

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Easter egg hunt

We have had a great time introducing the Lopez kids to some traditions from the US. Amy couldn't let Easter pass buy without a good old-fashioned easter egg hunt. She had earlier asked Tarryn to bring some plastic easter eggs from the US, and she had kindly obliged. Amy stuck some candy in some eggs and some bright colored cereal in others, and hid them around the yard.

As you can tell from Anahi below, the kids ate it up.

Here are Ruth and Anahi, with their treasures.

After all the eggs were found and we made sure that everyone had found something, our kids showed the Lopez Perugachi family the other American tradition - wolfing down the candy as fast as they could shove it into their mouths. Wahoo!

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Cake and spankings

I turned 34 while we were staying on the beach in Playas. Amy and the kids are always great at remembering and celebrating birthdays, no matter where we are. They managed to borrow an oven from the owners long enough to cook a cake. As you can see below, I was overjoyed. The kids wrapped up the night with the traditional birthday spanking machine - I had to crawl through their legs as quickly as possible while they got in as many birthday spankings as they could. 

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Boogie boarding at Playas

A few weeks before our planned departure from Ecuador, we decided to make one last trip to the temple and the beach. We had heard about Playas, a nice, relatively quiet beach about an hour to the west of Guayaquil. We happened upon an inexpensive house to rent and spent a week there. It was perfect. The temperature was nice, there was a pool right next to the house, and there were some smallish waves just perfect for the kids to play on. Bentz and Jorie took to the waves like a mouse to cheese. Here are Bentz and I scoping out the scene, looking for the "monster wave."

Despite this being his first time trying the boogie board and getting knocked all over over the place (and probably drinking about a gallon of dirtyish water), he absolutely loved it. Even after getting knocked in the face with a floating 2x4, he still kept heading out for more.

Even after I decided I'd had enough and headed in, I couldn't convince him that it was time to go. He kept going out time and time again until he couldn't get past the close break and the waves just kept knocking him down.

We all had a great time, and hopefully we can get back to a good beach soon so that Jorie and Bentz can head out for some more great waves.

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