As a newbie to Cuenca, arriving late in January from frozen Minnesota, I’ve experienced things expats know all about: smiling Ecuadorian eyes, chatty expats, gringo gouging, SuperMaxi bargains, mercado avocados, alarming car alarms, terrifying taxis, and dogs, dogs, dogs.
The most jarring and memorable moments, though, have come from answering an ad for a writer in CuencaHighLife.
As a result of that ad, I met with Colleen Eschenburg of Hearts of Gold. In the shadow of Cuenca’s Broken Bridge, she shared with me the history and vision of Hearts, a fledgling foundation started by expats four years ago.
To be frank, their mission to help provide Cuenca charities with fundraising, volunteer and donor management, programmatic structure and reporting, did not warm my heart. After all, no one was singing songs to shut-ins or making meals for the homeless…
Yet, coming from a nonprofit setting in the States, I knew that these practical components were essential for the success of any charity, and that Hearts was bridging a gap and filling a thankless job, for the sake of those most in need.
I was hooked, and agreed to help Hearts raise funds for Fundacion El Arenal, a 22-year-old Cuenca charity that feeds, tutors, and helps give some of the most desperate children in the city a future they can look forward to.
To share with you El Arenal’s impact, three of us joined their staff one sunny Saturday in March and visited five El Arenal graduates, and their families.
Colleen conducted the interviews; world-class photographer, Geoff Odell, of Geofoto Studio, took photos; and I observed and took notes, in hopes I could somehow relay these precious people’s stories to you.
Having observed nonprofit work in the States, I had a preset mindset about what the day would be like: happy graduates, happy families, and relatively easy success stories.
By the end of the day I knew a new reality, the poor of Ecuador were not like the poor of North America.
Besides economic hardship, rejection, discrimination, and hunger none of us can imagine, the families we visited struggled in ways I’d never seen before.
Sonia had to secretly study at home by candlelight, when she was told to quit wasting electricity on such foolishness.
Ramon and Viviana’s home of many years had a floor installed, just one week earlier.
Christian’s mother has sacrificed and worked tirelessly to ensure his life will be better than hers.
Jonathan lives with his mother and siblings in a one-room, adobe home that holds four beds, a dresser, a small table, and little else. Their water comes from an outdoor hand pump.
Unlike many in the States, there was no hint of entitlement with these families.
Instead we experienced jaw-dropping hospitality, for they offered us their best: a seat on their bed, a cup of fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, a visit to the outhouse, a room with a floor.
“Gracias” and “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you) showered our comings and goings, and seemed to flow out of a deep sense of gratitude.
They displayed no shame or embarrassment, only excitement to welcome us and share their stories of struggles and successes, so that other children may be helped.
I was taken by surprise that day, and something within me shifted. Perhaps a layer of cynicism lifted or a need for gratitude landed, or….I don’t know, I just know I have changed for the better. And for that, I thank the children and families of El Arenal, the poorest and the most beautiful people I have ever met.
Please support these children today by sharing this story with your friends and family, and by making a contribution.
*All photos courtesy of Geofoto Studio*