The Somos Amigos is a highly personal experience. Whether explicitly stated or not, every participant has their own goals from an immersion trip to another part of the world; in our case, Quito Ecuador. Students are interviewed to get an idea of their commitment to working, involving themselves, and ultimately learning from the cultural immersion of the trip. One common theme that came up in pre-trip retreats was that students want to explore outside of their “Brookfield bubble”. The time of trip is limited and students know that they will returning to the comforts of home at the end, so naturally, it begs the question of just how much impact a two-week trip can have when there is an end point in sight. However, based the changes from the time of take off to return, our students have come a long way in their journey to become Men for Others.
After a day of flying out of Chicago O’Hare, hopping planes in Panama, and a 1AM bus ride into the Guayllabambawe River valley, we arrived in Quito at the Working Boys Center and spent our first day acclimating to the surrounding area. We spent several hours wandering the streets to take in the sights.
We happened to pass an open door which revealed a local Sunday league football game. Players from a wide range of ages compete for the fun and we enjoyed watching an enthusiastic game in front of a view of the mountains surrounding Quito.
Afterwards, we celebrated Sunday Mass with Padre Halligan S.J., the Jesuit who founded the Working Boys Center in the 1960s, and Madre Miguel BVM, who organized the center into the large institution that it is today. We wore ourselves out with our own game of football before heading to bed for the work that would begin the next day.
Our first day of work began with a tour from Rodolfo, a former student who now works at the Center. While the Center was founded on the idea of helping young boys to gain education and job skills to sustain them into adulthood, it now operates by involving the entire family; parents as well as students. Families are accepted and students are given education when parents agree to volunteer with operations at the center.
In addition to elementary school classes, we saw the shops where students can learn job skills including carpentry, sewing, metalworking, auto repair, and cosmetology. Afterwards, we were ushered to the cafeteria to help prepare for lunch.
Volunteer cooks work all day preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for students and their families and it is a wonder they are able to do all the cleaning and preparation without a small army of additional volunteers. Lunch was our first introduction to the kids at the center, and while we may have been hesitant at first to truly get involved with their lunch tables, the kids immediately welcomed us and wanted to be our friends.
Playing with kids quickly became our favorite pastime and, even though there was a language barrier for many of us, they were thrilled to tell us everything they were thinking about and didn't mind that we couldn't necessarily respond well. When it would come time for us to leave, the majority of our students were sad mostly for the fact that they would be leaving the kids behind. It’s one thing to be told that some of the happiest people are those who have the least in terms of material possessions, but it’s another to experience that first hand.
We were introduced to the Center's yearlong volunteers who work as teachers. Our students were able to help kids during class and learn about the challenges of teaching a class of students from another culture, especially when on a limited timeframe. Once again, kids were thrilled to have “gringo friends” especially during English classes. I would not be surprised one bit if a student or two of ours would consider volunteering in this program in the future.
By far the most humbling and impactful days however, were those we spent on house visits and our "Minga” in which we labored to help construct and improve homes of several families involved with the center. Our day began with a two and a half hour bus ride with 5 changes before we arrived at the mountain side where we were to work. While walking up towards the site, we mulled the fact that these families have to make that trip every day in order to go to school or volunteer at the center, and what they have to return to are little more than shacks with metal roofs just to store their few possessions and keep most of the rain out. While we were only able to work for a day (and digging out chicken coops or a foundation for a new house are hard labor) this was likely the most tangibly rewarding day of the trip as we were literally creating the foundation for a family’s first home.
The following morning, we headed off on the bus to visit the homes of four different families. These homes were little more than two room shacks with corrugated tin roofs. All the families had multiple children with 1 home having two single beds shoved together to accommodate five boys and two girls. The tenants we spoke with were all struggling to find work and pay rent on a regular basis, and many considered themselves lucky to be able to afford their home at all. A drive back to the Center passing literally thousands of similar looking homes punctuated the experience.
One the flip side of our trip, we spent some time visiting markets and stores in Quito and the surrounding areas of Otavollo and Banos. Those trips were loaded with a greater understanding for those from whom we were purchasing wares and snacks. For us, the U.S. dollar (used as the currency in Ecuador) goes a long way towards purchasing comforts that we are used to, but our students could now imagine just how far that money would go for its recipients.
When the time came for us to leave, there was no question that what our students were most disappointed to be leaving behind the children with whom they had become friends. Spending time with them at school became a very comforting experience, and I will maintain that the friendships and playtime with them were the most important aspect of the trip, both for MUHS students and the students in Quito. One of the main underlying themes of the trip is that there often exists an ingrained, often subconscious sense of distrust between foreign cultures. Though brief, I believe this trip is able to leave an indelible mark and goes a long way towards breaking down those barriers both for the trip participants and the people they visit. There is a reason that this trip is called Somos Amigos after all.