By Deborah Wang, Houston Chapter, Cotopaxi, Ecuador (2012).
I signed up for Amigos de las Américas on a complete whim during fall of 2011, my sophomore year of high school. The past volunteers said that I would change the world, gain a second family, work with children and learn how to speak a different language. Never actually imagined myself living 11,000 feet in the Andes Mountains of rural Ecuador, I went along with the application process. When June 2012 came, I found myself living with a wonderful host family in the community of Cobos Grandes. However, my partner and I had a hard time integrating into the community, but we thought nothing of it. Our supervisor, on the other hand, decided something needed to change.
After cramming everything back into my hiking backpack, I felt an uneasiness sit in my stomach as the pickup truck started up. Moving from one community to the next was taboo among the volunteers. The rough ride up to San Jose de Rubios remained silent. My partner, supervisor, and I never addressed the fact that we had failed, but the silence said it for us. We failed because we never became the volunteers that empowered the community to unite and create something to its use while educating the local children on topics such as leadership and citizens’ rights. According to the program guide, we should have been close finalizing a sustainable project. We barely managed to meet half of the community despite trekking up and down the valley until sundown. No one except for our host families seemed to match our efforts of caring.
We failed because we let exhaustion seep into our minds. Both of us struggled to find motivation to hike the extra mile to interact with the farmers. When our families went to go work in their fields, neither of us persisted enough to convince them to let us go. Talking to the president of the community terrified us, and we never found the courage to try a second attempt after our morning visit went unanswered. We made excuses for ourselves. We convinced each other that we had tried hard enough and that the adults refused to care. In reality, we fell short of making them care. The volunteers that previously occupied San Jose de Rubios gave up after four days for undisclosed reasons. My partner and I knew that they deserved the best. A few days passed before I completely believed in myself.
Success would come, I decided. I just had to take action. Beginning with harvesting and planting potatoes up in the páramos under the strong sun, I shaped an unbreakable bond with my host family. Even though hiking up and down the dusty dirt trail did not seem ideal, my partner and I went ahead and spent hours just talking to anyone who passed by. Within the following days we set up a meal plan and formed relationships with everyone from the little kids next door to the president. Pushing through tiring days, we met with local groups and members to discuss a community based project. I enlisted my next door neighbor to become the local youth leader as my partner and I encouraged her to take part in the leadership role with us. Hiking an hour and half down a mountain to the next community over to catch a bus into the next city, my partner, local youth leader, and I pitched the idea to our project staff. Soon enough, we had the project locked in after hosting several meetings with the president and our supervisor. San Jose de Rubios itself never had a completely stable way for raising funds. To combat this problem, we came up with the plan to sell food during soccer matches and religious events. My partner, local youth leader, and I let the word spread through the children that came to our day camps. Posters and announcements made, we hyped up the community.
After receiving generous donations from various families, we appointed my host brother and his friends to buy gas tanks for the stoves and transport them to the communal house along with industrial sized ingredients. Organizing a rotating schedule, volunteers prepared and sold food such as potato soup, rice and eggs, French fries, and café. A few weeks later, the community began accumulating funds for future concerning environ-mental and educational development.
From this one failure, I gained knowledge about myself. I learned how to deal with the emotional strain disappointment can produce. The hardships during those few days evolved an underdeveloped side of me. Before then, I had no idea how to achieve success outside of my comfort zone. I encountered a situation where the only way out of failure was to face it head on. Something in my life finally gave me the push I needed to become confident and fearless. Realizing that success sometimes takes time and frustration, I understood the importance of letting challenges contribute to victory. In my time of hardship, I discovered my ability to be a catalyst for social change.
Digging deep, I not only proudly left with my picture perfect volunteer experience, but also a second home. Even thousands of miles away from Ecuador, I still maintain and nurture the mentality I grew into that summer.
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