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Volunteering in Ecuador – What you need to know

Read about a university student’s placement on the Human Rights and Women Empowerment project in Ecuador and the advice she has for volunteers following in her footsteps.

About me

I’m Jess Ribbens, a 22-year old senior from Central Michigan University. I spent my last semester earning college credits by volunteering in Ecuador at the Human rights and girls’ empowerment placement in Quito.

Starting my placement

For my first day, I visited the administrative office of the NGO to have a meeting about my time as a volunteer. I was offered a unique and unexpected opportunity to work for a couple of days of the week at the office to assist the communications director and the financial resources manager.

I, then, went to The Nest El Nido, the protection home. There I met the director of the house, the social worker, the psychologist, and the girls living there. I broke the ice with the girls initiating conversations and asking them questions. Once they warmed up to me, they asked a million questions about me, where I’m from, what I like, my tattoos, my family, and everything in between! From the beginning, I was welcomed warmly and I could tell that this organization has a special energy, with a family-oriented dynamic.

My typical week

My main schedule changed many times over my 3.5 months. Not all volunteers will help at the administrative office, it depends on their current needs. If not, you’ll be at the Nest full time. All hours are available as it runs 24/7. Volunteers are most needed in the morning and afternoon.

My advice to other volunteers

Bring your passion, enthusiasm and creativity. The team seeks out and welcomes new ideas that are organized and well presented. Absolutely brush up on your Spanish skills before you go. Your Spanish doesn’t need to be perfect by any means, but the girls need to be able to communicate things to you and you need to be able to communicate yourself effectively to them, so an intermediate level of Spanish is recommended.

Make sure to take time to focus on your own mental and physical health (e.g. journaling, eating well, exercising, meditating, yoga). Taking good care of yourself is imperative so that you can effectively take care of the minds and hearts of the girls at the protection home. Starting these habits before leaving home will help you to be ready to cope with culture shock, a different diet (lots of carbs!), high altitude and bacteria your body isn’t familiar with.

What to know before you arrive

First and foremost, I had the expectation that the girls would be happy to be in a safe and loving environment, but it’s far more complicated than that. Some miss their families and their homes. Others find it difficult living in a small house with many other teenage girls, lots of rules, and a fixed schedule. They also struggle with the stress of the legal processes they’re going through, on top of healing from traumatic circumstances. Keeping this in mind, they may not want to participate in the workshop you worked on for hours, don’t take it personally! Your workshops will almost never go exactly as you expect them to so be ready to adjust to the needs of the girls in the moment.

Also, keep in mind that things may not be run in the way that they would at an organization in your home country. Communicate your concerns respectfully if something is keeping you from being successful in your work. The team may need you for different tasks than you were expecting, so keep your mind open to help accomplish the organization’s mission, rather than your own mission. The main takeaway is that you should expect to be flexible and grow in flexibility during your time volunteering, especially as you’re in a developing country. It will be a life-changing experience if you have your heart and mind open to the lessons and new experiences that this will bring you.

My favorite task at the project

My favorite task was organizing workshops talleres for the girls. I loved the creative freedom to think of the needs and wants of the girls currently in the house and create activities or reach out to outside professionals that could come to meet those needs and desires. It can be a challenge based on the differing demographics, education levels and interests of the girls coupled with a lack of funding, but when you’re able to organize something successful, it’s a great feeling.

In my first week, I brought paint every day and gave the girls “tattoos”. It was a really great way to spend individual time with each one and have a space to converse. I continued bringing paint every now and again and it was always beautiful to see what they asked me to create for them. I also think it’s valuable to have someone paying attention specifically to them for a time and leaving them with something meaningful (often they asked me to paint the names of loved ones on their bodies).

My most memorable moment at the placement 

It’s difficult to say, as there have been so many. However, I will never forget the day I spent two hours on the rooftop porch with one of the girls. She decided to open up to me about her story, sharing the traumatic events that had brought her to the Nest. I was so grateful that she trusted me enough to share her story; it affirmed to me that the relationships I was making were impactful, even if it didn’t feel like it every day.

Another moment I’ll never forget is the day that we brought a large speaker outside, as it was a beautiful, sunny day, and we all danced together. The energy is not always as light and joyful at the protection house, but that day the girls taught me different dances and it was refreshing to see them so purely enjoying themselves.