AMIGOS Then and Now…

Pucara
As a volunteer in 1990 just after AMIGOS celebrated its 25th anniversary, I lived in a mud brick house with no electricity and no running water. I shared my “bedroom” with a half dozen or so cuyes who actually lived there before me. My community comprised of eight homes and I was partnered with Emily and Karen who lived in the next community down the mountain – about a 20 minute walk downhill and a 30 minute walk back up when I went home. To get to a telephone, the plan was to go down the hill to the little shop, whose owner had a truck, and ask him to drive me to the nearest town further down the mountain.

Our job was to work with the Ministry of Health and community members to build flush latrines (those you “flush” by dumping a bucket of water into the bowl) for members of both communities. We were also involved in some reforestation projects and general health education at the school.

In my spare time, I milked cows, learned about the native plants, especially herbal remedies, and watched the clouds rise and fall above and below my village as day progressed to night.

As a Route Leader, I often had to ride six hours on a bus, then walk two or three hours unless it was dry enough and I was lucky enough to catch a tiny camioneta. If I was late or unable to make it, I may or may not have had any way to let my volunteers know. Once, I was heading to one of my more remote communities and it had been raining… no camioneta… so I had to walk about 10 kilometers. Fortunately, I had some very fine boots bought at the market in San Jose so on I trudged, squish, squish, squish… Oops, the sole of one of my boots came off. No problem, I tied it back on with the laces from my tennis shoes. Squish, squish… until I arrived.

As a Project Director, planning for initial survey, I had to plan far in advance, writing letters (who remembers snail mail?) four weeks before my trip so that hopefully my partner agency contacts would be aware of my upcoming visit and available to meet with me.

As I started and continued my career at the International Office, I was eventually able to fax communications to partner agency contacts and then even email them. At a certain point we even started giving laptop computers to Project Directors for their use in the field, albeit big ones, not the skinny ones of today.

I oversaw a variety of projects, driven largely by our partner agencies, not only latrine construction, but also human immunization, canine immunization, teacher housing construction, lorena stove construction, reforestation, community gardening and more. Our projects evolved as we focused more on program evaluation, sustainability, heightened community involvement and introduced the idea of collaboration with Latin American youth.

Then I left for a new corporate job at Shell Oil… Of course I continued to support AMIGOS through donations and helping out when asked, but as my compadres at the IO also eventually moved on, my connection to the reality of the programs dwindled.

Fast forward just over 17 years… My wife and I decide it’s time for us to return to Ecuador after more than 20 years and introduce our children to a country that holds such a special place in our hearts. Rather than plan a typical “touristy” vacation, we decide to prioritize connection with people and places meaningful to us. As part of our program, we hope to visit the Project Staff in Chimborazo. Molly Friend puts us in touch with Abbie Gittinger, Project Director, who graciously accepts our request to visit. At the last minute, I think “Boy, wouldn’t it be cool to take the kids (14 and 11) to see one of the projects in action”. Abbie and Pau (Paulina, Project Supervisor) arrange this for us literally the night before, Pau calling the partner agency contact on her AMIGOS cell phone, while Abbie took a call from a volunteer on hers. The kids and I are all thrilled. I can’t wait to be in the field after such and long time and I love that my kids are so interested in a visit like this rather than hanging out on their electronic devices.

Before we can visit the community, we attend a mandatory briefing with Plan Internacional, one of the local partner agencies. They describe be their rules to ensure safety and respect for the community members, as well as their programs, focusing on gender equality and women’s empowerment, violence prevention and education beyond the schools. Cool I thought, but how does AMIGOS fit in?
Rather than take a bus as I expected, a Plan driver took us out to the community, taking me back to the days when I was an AMIGOS visiting dignitary ☺ I loved the opportunity to learn more about the region from Fanny, the community promoter who drove us, as well as the chance for my daughter in particular to talk to Pau about what being in the field with AMIGOS was like. My son enjoyed a bit of a nap…

We arrived in a community called Santa Cruz, where I re-met Jessenia, one of the very inspiring Youth Ambassadors from last year (as a side note, if you live in Houston or the San Francisco Bay area and have the capacity, check with Molly Friend about hosting a Youth Ambassador – it was a wonderful experience for our family and we had the chance to visit Marilin, our ambassador, and meet her family during this trip, but that’s another story…) and her mother, Martina.

I noticed some very visible changes from my time in the field in the 90’s – an internet hot spot in a local pulperia (town store), a woman in indigenous garb talking on a cell phone, but my eyes were really opened by the changes I saw in the work.

As I met the volunteers, Avery, Brett and Melissa, they toured me around their community and described their volunteer work. Conversation continued over a festive, impromptu lunch of cuy – one example of generosity that has not changed when special guests arrive… Rather than entering the community with specific pre-planned projects, they came armed with health education guidebooks with thematic dinamicas and lesson plans focusing on children and teens with separate activities recommended for each, leading energetic and entertaining lessons for children and teens of varying ages throughout the week.

Meanwhile, the volunteers invested significant time in conversation with the community leaders and members, alongside of Plan, to determine how they could best collaborate with the community on an initiative that the community members themselves believed would truly make a significant, positive difference in their health and welfare. The collaborators decided to initiate a micro-empresa project to build local artesania industry over the course of three years, with local youth leaders contributing to the ongoing development of the industry and AMIGOS committing to return with volunteers until the three years were complete and the micro-enterprise was up and running. Ultimately, the majority of the artesania would be created by women of the community and they would run the businesses.

During my brief visit, a fundamental change I saw is that the projects are now community-driven rather than AMIGOS or partner agency driven, while within the parameters of what both agencies are able to support. In my view, this is a huge step in empowering communities and continuing progress toward sustainable change, and I must say I am impressed by how AMIGOS continues to evolve to foster change in Latin American communities and among young volunteers now across the Americas.

The language has changed… Volunteer = Participant; Router Leader = Project Supervisor; Field Staff = Project Staff, etc. and the projects and relationships with partner agencies has evolved. Staff, volunteers and community members have a completely different access to technology. The mission and strategic plans have been adjusted to keep pace with the changing environment of international development and youth exchange programs, but the AMIGOS spirit of friendship, partnership and collaboration to improve community health remain constant.

 

-Joe Crownover, Learning Advisor, Environment & Behavioral Safety, Shell Oil
Volunteer, Azuay, Ecuador, 1990
Supervisor, Costa Rica, 1991
Project Director, Tungurahua, Ecuador, 1992
Regional Director South America, 1992-1994
Director of Latin American Programs, 1994-2000
Houston Chapter Board member and Training Chair, 2000-2002
Donor and avid fan of AMIGOS – Forever!

Lauren Kelley

Lauren Kelley

Lauren is part of our outreach team and loves to hear stories from past participants. Be sure to tell her all about your favorite sights, foods, and experiences from Latin America.
Lauren Kelley