For the past month, I have been in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on a volunteer trip. My reasons for going initially were relatively selfish; I never studied abroad in my undergrad, and as my master’s degree in Spanish draws to a close, I realized that living abroad was something I needed to do in order to successfully earn a spot in a PhD program (or at the very least qualify myself to be a community college Spanish instructor). So, after exhaustive research I finally found a program that fit my requirements. I prepared to leave my home for a month and immerse myself in another culture and in the language I was dedicating myself to studying. What I did not anticipate, however, was that I would discover a cause that I truly believed in and a foundation that truly makes a difference. This foundation is known as United to Benefit Ecuadorian Children, International (UBECI).
I planned my trip initially through the New Zealand-based volunteer placement organization, International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ). IVHQ partners with local non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in various countries to provide international volunteers to help out with numerous projects. They have dozens of
destinations and different potential projects. As a student of Spanish who had not yet lived abroad, I focused my search on the Spanish-speaking world and decided on Quito, Ecuador both because it was extremely cost-effective and also because they had multiple programs that would benefit me, among them working with street children, NGO support, and teaching English. Because I was already a volunteer for a non-profit in my area known as Michigan Youth in Government, I decided on NGO support where I thought I could be most useful in this role.
I could go on for hours about my experiences learning about the culture of Quito, and of Ecuador in general, as well as detailing my travels during my free days, but that is not that is not the purpose of this article. Rather, I would like to highlight the time I spent with my organization. IVHQ, upon accepting me to their program, placed me with their in-country partner Volunteer Connection Ecuador (VCE), who receives incoming international volunteers (be they from IVHQ or elsewhere) and then in turn sends them out to their chosen projects. As an NGO support volunteer, the volunteers who chose the street children work and I were sent to work with UBECI.
UBECI, as its full name suggests, is an organization that seeks to improve the lives of underprivileged children in Ecuador, especially in the poorer neighborhoods of Quito. Specifically, its efforts are focused on the children of the markets, or ferias, in and around Quito who, because of the economic situation of their families, are often forced to help their parents sell their wares in order to earn enough money to get by. This is a type of child labor that one does not often think about; or at least, something that an individual from a privileged society such as myself don’t often think about. As opposed to the exploitation of children in industry that often comes to mind, this type of child labor arises out of necessity, caused social and economic inequality. To put this in perspective, Ecuador’s high poverty rate mostly affects indigenous (~14.4% of the population), mestizo (~71.9% of the population) and rural-dwelling peoples. This equates to a rate of 70% of non-urban dwellers being affected by poverty, while the wealthiest 20% (which includes most of the white minority) earn more than half of the income for the entire country.
As already stated, this situation results in many children in Quito, and in broader Ecuador, finding themselves obligated to work alongside their parents, which often comes at the expense of their education. UBECI seeks to provide these children an
alternative. UBECI seeks to reduce their work hours by bringing enjoyment to their lives. The UBECI staff and the international volunteers who support them go to the markets where these children can be found and provide recreation, homework help, and valuable life lessons to the children to aid in their development and to support their education. This takes many forms; games and songs are designed to aid the children in each stage of their development (up through age 17), and each bimester (which spans a two-month period) has its own unique focus. Multiple campaigns are woven into these to provide for the children in all aspects of their life. For example, the incoming July-August bimester will see a shift to the Summer Project, which continues to engage children academically to maintain their interest in school, as well as into the Health and Weight Campaign for the children.
The ultimate goal of UBECI is to keep these kids in school, keep them healthy, and help them overcome obstacles such as poverty, poor home lives, and much more besides. Through all this, the organization seeks to help these children enroll in universities, break the cycle of poverty, and help even out the incredible economic disparity in their community. In short, they seek to give these children the chance that they otherwise would not have. Being a small organization with only five staff members (including the executive director), UBECI relies heavily on its volunteers
to help on the ground. These volunteers help in many different ways. The volunteers in the Street Children, School Support, and Summer Program projects go with the staff members to the markets each day to help with the groundwork and implementation of each facet. The NGO Support volunteers, meanwhile, remain in the office and help with the preparation for each of the aforementioned projects, help with data entry, and finally help in the search for grants and financing. Being a small organization, UBECI struggles to find the financing it needs to keep itself running. The NGO Support Project volunteers supplement their time with one day per week in the market with the rest of the volunteers.
Having been a volunteer in the NGO Support project, responsible in large part for the seeking of grant opportunities and financial support, I’ve seen and experienced the difficulty in finding the resources needed to keep running. I’ve been to the markets, helped implement the organization’s projects, and I’ve seen the need these children have, as well as the good UBECI can do. I came to Ecuador seeking to improve my fluency in Spanish and to pad my resume for PhD program admissions, but I instead discovered an organization that I believe in, and a cause that serves an incredible need in the community and makes a huge difference.
Do you want to get involved with UBECI? If so, there are many ways that you can help improve the lives of the children of Ecuador. You can donate to UBECI via their Global Giving campaign, by going to the UBECI website, or if you’re a business or organization who would like to supply a large donation, by contacting the executive director Enrique Salvatierra directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. UBECI accepts both monetary donations, as well as donations of school supplies, vitamins, and other things needed to support the children they work with. Don’t have money to spare, but still want to be involved? Consider volunteering with UBECI! You can plan your trip through IVHQ, as I did, or go through UBECI directly. Either way you do it, VCE will coordinate your lodging and meals. No matter who you get involved, your support will bolster a program that improves the lives of hundreds of children in a community that desperately needs it.