Written by Stephanie Graham
As a TV News Producer, I have gotten to do some really cool things in my life and meet lots of interesting people. However, one thing I’ve always wanted to do is a service trip. Service has always been an important part of my life. I am a volunteer at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, I am a mentor with Best Buddies Wisconsin, and I volunteer at several local theaters.
When I graduated from college I thought about doing AmeriCorps, but then I got a job, and the years have gotten away from me ever since. I feel like we all just get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we sometimes forget the things that are really important to us.
A couple years ago I was lucky enough to find a wonderful organization called Rotaract Milwaukee. I was instantly attracted to the organization’s commitment to international and local service. Each year Rotaract tries to send some members on an international service trip. This year we chose Quito, Ecuador. I have to admit, I never really thought about visiting Ecuador. However, now that I’ve been there, all I want to do is go back!!
My fellow Rotaractor Janine planned the trip, and did a great job pulling it together. The trip was months in the making, and was a great success! The focus of the trip was to help the staff and students at the Refugio de las Seunos, which is located in the Barrio of San Juan, high in the mountains of Ecuador. The Refugio is a place where children ranging in age from 5 to 17 can come after school and learn various life skills, eat a nutritious meal, and just hang out. Many of the children have very challenging home lives, so the Refugio, which means “refuge” in English, is a place where they can feel safe, and just be kids.
The Refugio is currently undergoing some renovations, thanks in part to the Quito Rotary. Janine and I, along with our leader Susette, and fellow volunteers Daniel and Tom, helped to clean, organize, and paint sections of the Refugio. However, the most valuable gifts had nothing to do with manual labor. A hug, a laugh, or a shoulder to lean on—those are the gestures that mattered most to the kids.
I know very little Spanish, which made logistics a little tough at times, but when it came to communicating with the kids—it basically didn’t matter. A hug, a smile—those gestures said more than words ever could. These kids have tough lives. Many have been abused, and all of them are very poor, but the Refugio is a place where they can get away and just be kids. One of the main goals of the trip was to have the students bake chocolate chip cookies for the first time. They had so much fun making the batter and mixing in the chocolate chips—and of course eating the cookies at the end of the day!
Ecuador is a beautiful country, full of majestic volcanoes, hot springs, Equatorial tourist sites, and other gorgeous landmarks which we got to see. We also got to sample some of the local fare, like empanadas, several varieties of corn, pork, river fish, cuy (guinea pig!!!), fresh juices and vegetables, and various soups. Our tour guides Guillermo and Washington were so nice and showed us how to make the most of our trip. We are now Facebook friends with them! But while the tourist attractions were cool, it’s the shining spirits of the people that really stood out. They don’t have much, but they were so kind and generous—it truly was a lesson of humility, and how frivolous our society can be. To say it put things in perspective is an understatement.
I definitely plan to keep in touch with the Refugio, and hope to “adopt” one of the children named Sarah. She was so sweet, and we bonded immediately. I think about her and the kids every day.
As a Special Projects News Producer, I do have the chance to put together stories that inspire and sometimes help bring about change. However, nothing I do at work will ever quite compare to the feeling I had while in Ecuador. I look forward to embarking on future service trips, and using my experience to help others back here at home as well.