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Working at A Women’s Shelter in Cuenca

By Mina

After only two months, I already know wholeheartedly that I am living to the fullest, and learning so unbelievably much. Even after such little time here in Cuenca, I feel like part of the family at home, part of the foundation at work, and part of the city as a whole.

I am working five days a week at a center providing a safe haven for women and children escaping violence. In the past week alone, I´ve taken care of a 15-day-old baby, taught a class while holding a 1-and-a-half-year-old, taught English classes both to a group of women and to many groups of kids between 5 and 14, helped with Spanish homework, taught kids math, and put them to bed.

We provide the women with housing, food, resources, job training and opportunities, and legal and psychological support. The women learn job skills as they tend the garden, cook meals, do laundry, and take classes. I teach English classes to the women and hold their kids so they can sneak away to use the bathroom. It is inspiring to be surrounded by such strong and driven people, and from so many parts of the world. Right now there are women here from Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and of course all different parts of Ecuador.

On my very first day here, over dinner one of the women began crying as she recounted her journey, talking the most about how much she missed her daughter, who was now over seven hundred miles away with no possible way to contact her.

The kids are my focus: I make sure they eat at lunch, do not fight, and (for the little ones) do not fall and break some part of their body. In the afternoons I teach a classroom of kids, helping with homework and supplemental activities. We instructors challenge them with activities and personalized worksheets, give them emotional support, and unconditional love. One night, a seven-year-old boy from Venezuela crawled over to me on all fours and nudged my shoulder with his head, meowing. I stroked his hair and smiled. As I petted his kitten self, I allowed myself to hope that this was helping him heal from all he’d been through.

I know firsthand (from being in a dual-immersion program throughout elementary school) how intuitively and deeply you can learn a language when you’re still learning about the world as a whole, which makes teaching English classes to the younger children feel like a full circle. I love that each day is so different, but there is also a sense of structure and knowing what to expect. Every day I am faced with challenges and have to remember how to stay present, work with others, and problem-solve. I feel so supported by my coworkers and all the people here at the foundation.

Service Projects for Kids Who’ve Been Through a Lot

Here in Cuenca, Ecuador, I am volunteering at a center providing a safe haven for women and children escaping violence. We take the children to medical and dental visits, enroll them in school, teach them, feed them, help with homework, connect them with therapists, give emotional support, and potentially most important of all provide them with trusted adults, a safe space, attention, and love. For the women, we of course provide them with safety including housing, food, resources, and also job training, opportunities, and psychological support. We have a garden to tend, meals to cook, laundry to do, classes available, and a fully equipped support system with psychologists, teachers, lawyers, cooks, and childcare specialists.

As I talked to my colleagues, supervisor, and the women and kids themselves about what could be improved upon (service-project-wise), I was overwhelmed. The main improvement everyone asked for was just more people, but second to that more things. More pens, paper, people, glue, scissors, clothes, diapers, toothbrushes, toilet paper, money, shoes, hair ties, almost anything you could think of. It dawned upon me just how important a service project was: if I could help with even a couple of these lacking resources, add another pair of hands to pre-existing projects, or even build a new project stemming from what they had already established, it would be huge.

Another main topic that was less directly controllable, mostly talked about among the adults, was the lack of jobs. It seems to be one of the biggest struggles here in Ecuador in general, not to mention for women, and even more especially difficult for these women who often did not have the opportunities to study a career, or gain any job experience or job training. Many people look to travel to other parts of the world to try and find work, or just start a new life. I thought about what I could actually bring to the table, and realized I had one asset that was not shared by my colleagues: English.

Though most schools teach English to every grade, the other educators are often unable to help the kids with homework for that class. Not to mention, learning the accent from a native speaker is fundamentally different. Also, many of the children at the shelter have been unable to attend school for some time, and it often will be a while longer. At first, I felt so euro-centric in thinking teaching English was worth the time and effort for these women and children, but in talking to more and more people I realized that the opportunities speaking English opens for people here are boundless. Both in terms of study-abroad opportunities and visa applications, but also in jobs in the tourism industry, education, and cultural exchanges. This drew me to my first service project: teaching English classes.

I now plan, gather the resources for, and teach English classes to multiple different groups of kids throughout the week. I remember how I myself learned Spanish at such a young age, which made the process 100x easier, and how grateful I am that I learned the language. It feels full circle to now get the opportunity to teach very young students my first language. I also do the same for some of the women living in the shelter, hoping it will open up more job opportunities for them, and also give them more freedom to travel if they wish to.

However, in my day-to-day activities at my internship, I mostly focus on the kids. So I wanted to do something specifically for them. After talking extensively with my supervisor and coworkers, I realized that (beyond more people) one of the few things we were lacking was external motivation to help the kids complete their homework. I decided to design a rewards system including card and board games to help motivate their kids, continue to develop their social and logical skills even after they finish their homework, and keep them happily engaged so the professors can focus on the students who still need homework help. I am now working on implementing the project and ensuring it comes to fruition. Throughout the process, the positive feedback I have received from every staff member, woman, and kid who I have worked with on this project has reaffirmed how a seemingly simple project can have much larger effects than one would think.

Even more than my service project, my day-to-day life here at the shelter has made me believe in the importance of volunteering. Every day I learn so much and am forced to grow as both a volunteer and a person, and am hopefully able to provide help where it is needed. Even if I am only helping relieve some of the stress of the people living here and the foundation’s staff, that alone makes me smile. In volunteering, I directly see, daily, the effects of an extra pair of helping hands.