In 2016 Bethan and a fellow student of Occupational Therapy, (OT) travelled to Ecuador to work in a centre for disabled children. They would be able to support the local staff in providing care for children at the day centre, as well as having the opportunity to work alongside a qualified local occupational therapist.
Bethan’s review not only summarises the activities and routines of her project, but provides a detailed appraisal of the overall volunteer experience in historic Quito, Ecuador
“Prior to departure to Ecuador I was very impressed by the time dedication from Outreach International. This was spent ensuring that I was suited for the project & also to answer all my questions I had (I had lots!). This was reassuring that I was suited to the project & in telling me everything I need to know.
During my time on the occupational therapy project I was living with a host who was also my in-country coordinator for Ecuador, Monika. I would go as far to say that the best part of the experience was staying with a family & other volunteers. For one this allowed me to immerse myself in the culture of the country & really start to understand both the things that Ecuador did/has which first world countries like the UK could learn from/had lost & the things which made Ecuador arguably a third world country & needed improvement.
I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of conversations I had with other volunteers in the house regarding cultural differences, opinions on politics, ethnic diversity, gender differences – I could go on. It was also really interesting to discuss their projects & experiences. Whilst my project was in a newer area of Quito, other volunteers were in poorer areas & the differences in resources were quite significant.
Everyone wants to see Ecuador as much as possible whilst they are here & although I came with a friend, having larger groups to explore Baños, Mindo, Papallacta etc. with was much better. I met a lot more volunteers through being connected to the Spanish school where I had lessons for the first week & was less than a two minute walk from Monika’s. The school was fantastic in organising activities like cocktail making & cooking classes (both $3), along with two days a week free salsa lessons which were really fun.
On arrival my friend & I were picked up from the airport by Monika. Included in our Outreach payment was a day trip with Monika (including lunch out) & a welcome meal in our first week. Monika was very helpful in giving us information as & when we needed it & to answer any questions about getting to & from sights in Quito & Ecuador. She is very well traveled in Ecuador so knows a lot. During our stay she spoke a mixture of Spanish & English. Hearing the Spanish you pick up more & more of the language but for those who don’t understand or have limited Spanish her English is very good. We received a walk for ordination purposes & were taken to our project & introduced to the staff there.
It is safe to say I arrived in Quito with no Spanish as I had only self-taught myself in the few months before departing. I found this limiting in my experience in communicating with staff members on my project & it took longer to find my footing of understanding how I could be most useful to them.
The children I was working with on my project were age 2 to 5 years old with learning & physical disabilities in the kindergarten. I found learning key words like eat, drink, here, where, please etc. was useful in communicating. However, with most of the children communication was mainly on a non-verbal basis & the children responded best to this.
My project was also split with spending time in the Occupational Therapy department as well. Communication with the children was more difficult here as many of the children had a high level of Spanish. The OT was very helpful in explaining tasks for the children & often we would take over as they often saw more than one child at a time. We progressed to initiating the sessions & running them ourselves at times after a few days.
This was possible using our initiative & knowledge from our one year of university studies of Occupational Therapy. I alternated between the OT & kindergarten with my friend. In the kindergarten the day was relatively structured in that the children would be in chairs for breakfast, often stay there for an activity, have a snack & then play time which sometimes had an activity & then lunch.
After that the children would sleep & the OT finished for the day so we worked from half eight to about one. I assisted or created activities in the kindergarten which helped sensory integration (e.g. playing with foam, coloured paper, beans, bubbles etc.), bilateral integration (e.g. tracing lines, practising tearing paper etc.), gross-motor movements (e.g. practising crawling, pushing & pulling Lego apart) & hand-eye coordination (e.g. staking cups).
A lot of these activities fit into more than one category but I find it easier to lay it out like this. I think the kindergarten benefited most from having me as a volunteer due to my availability to spend one-to-one time with the children. This was additional to the time I was able to free up staff & also in assisting general care, especially in meal times when really the majority of the children needed one-to-one support or simply encouragement in this.
I had the luxury of time which meant I could assist some of the children who without support could not maintain their own balance & so could not walk independently. It is nothing against the staff working there who have time pressures & multiple children to care for, but I was able to walk with the children & sit supporting them & engaging them in activities. Additionally, some of the children did not engage in play independently but would with assisted attention.
It’s suprising how tiring volunteering was with the altitude, so the finishing time worked well with us. It also allowed us to have lunch at Monika’s & explore what we wanted to see in Quito if we were not too tired. Most of the other volunteers also finished for a late lunch.
If anyone does attend the OT department then they really need materials such as paper, play dough (really need!), pens (especially thick ones & thick pencils), tippex, paint (needs to not irritate skin as the OTs use for children painting with their fingers as well), glue (the runny type not stick) & paintbrushes (easily ruined by children).
I found I enjoyed the trip more going with a friend as we were able to discuss what to do in the project, although we choose to alternate between the kindergarten & the OT department. It also meant we could assist each other on our Spanish & we had the beginnings of a group for day trips.
I feel going on your own would be okay as there are plenty of other volunteers usually & Monika really does welcome you into her family & family events. The people from Ecuador really do love an excuse to celebrate, shown in us celebrating American Independence Day which was amusing in that the British people in the house were the ones who decided to help make the American flag cake!
Everyone we came across was warm & friendly which really made it an enjoyable month. From speaking to other volunteers as well, shorter than a month is too little time to really get into your project. Longer than a month can enable you to really get stuck in but has other complications like feelings of cultural shock as the “honeymoon” phase of being on holiday wears off & that sometimes the volunteers in the house will change & they may want to do things you’ve already done etc.
I would have liked to of spent a bit longer than a month however university holiday times really wouldn’t have accommodated this. In having three packed weekends I managed to do everything I wanted to do. Monika & her house keeper Paula & helper Maria were very good at accommodating for me being vegetarian during the trip. I really enjoyed trying all their different foods especially the juices & fruits. For meat eaters no unusual foods like guinea pigs (which are common in Ecuador) were served.
Regarding budgeting, I converted £350 which got $515 on my exchange rate. If you purchase items from the supermarket expect to pay a lot (by a lot, I’m a student & spending $10 on 6 peppers & ingredients to fill them is quite a lot). Generally, items in Ecuador are expensive if they are imported but market items are good value for money (remember to bargain), buses are cheap ($4.20 for a three hour ride to Baños single) & accommodation in hostels is cheap (they do vary & sometimes the really really cheap you’re not advised to go to but we stayed two nights in Baños with a pool in bunk beds & en-suite for $7.50 each a night. When we looked at Mindo accommodation it was more expensive like $10 to $14 each person at cheapest.
With finding how to get places & booking things you can do it all on arrival if you are with Monika, it was really easy. Some places like Baños you can just turn up. During my time I did one weekend trip to Baños & two weekends with two day trips on each. I also had afternoons doing trips in Quito to the church’s in old town or the botanical gardens etc.
Only one of the day trips I booked through the Spanish school, as most you can do independently for cheaper but it depends how confident you are & whether you have a group. Day trip tours in the Spanish school costs $45 to $50. My budget covered all this. I also went out on an evening four times & brought about $100 of soveniers.
The buses inside Quito are all 25 cents one way wherever you are going. Having low change is very useful. We struggled to get rid of the $50 notes we had. Top tip to others would be go to the supermarket to buy something & try & spend them there but they struggle to but managed each time.
Getting a Spanish phone from the school was useful & was $40 of which $30 was a refundable deposit & we just topped up $3 each. This would only be useful if someone else gets a phone though. I hope that the information about budgeting is useful for other volunteers heading to Ecuador!
In summary, I would definitely recommend volunteering for others thinking about it. It was an incredible experience which was a brilliant insight into the culture – I was able to immerse myself into.
I really enjoyed my project & felt I made a valued contribution whilst I was there. I learned a lot about a different way of living & both the positive aspects of Ecuador, which I felt the UK could learn from, & the negatives/need improvements aspects.
Along with this I really valued the unique experience I was able to have due to the many conversations sharing opinions & life experiences with volunteers from the UK, America, Germany, Australia, Denmark & I think the list goes on. I feel like I’ve grown more in my understanding & appreciation of different ways of living, in different cultures, & I hope I can take this forward in my future career.
I loved every day I spent in Ecuador & it really is a beautiful country. I was really upset to leave Monika & her family, the country, volunteers I’ve met there, friends from the project & others who live in Quito & the project itself. You’re always sad to leave a holiday destination you’ve enjoyed but this was something different. I saw some amazing sights & got to know such fantastic people”.