Saturday, August 30, 2008

¨Gracias a Dios, trabajando...¨

Walking to catch the bus earlier this week, i passed by Gabriel´s house and shouted hola to him. He was in his home making leather products, which is what he does for a living. He came outside and we chatted for a few. He asked how i´m doing and how things are going for me. Muy bien. I asked how he´s doing, and he replied, ¨Gracias a Dios, trabajando...¨. Thanks to God, i´m working. So with gratitude that i am working while many people around me aren´t as fortunate, i´ll share with y´all what work has been like.

Monday-Thursday mornings i´m out of the house by 7:30 and hop on a yellow bus 2 blocks away to head into Guayaquil with my community-mate Kasia. For 25 cents (USD), a 40 minute busride takes us out of Duran, across 2 bridges, and into Guayaquil. We run across a total of 16 lanes of ecua-traffic (far more chaos than you´ll ever see in the states) and down a block to the school we work at, Centro Educativo Santiago Apostol. We start out by ´tutoring´ streetkids who have scholarships to other schools they attend in the afternoons. This really means that we sit down in the cafeteria and ask them what homework they have, if its english we try to help, and if not we just ask questions about what they´re doing. From 8:40 on Kasia and i help out in separate classes until 12:10 when we leave. i´m with 12-15yr old girls that have been working on the streets and are behind in education. They´re fiesty and aggressive and loud and shout ¨senorita, ayudameeeeee¨ in whiny spanish that the ecuadorian teachers struggle to understand, forget me understanding it. They´re used to playing by their own rules. They remind me of what most middle school girls were like back when i was that age. They paint their nails with white-out, want to know if i have a boyfriend, ask how much my earrings cost, play with hula hoops during recess.

I´m a teachers assistant which means i´m supposed to be another teacher to them, another authority figure, but they see me as a new friend, somene new that they can walk all over, especially since my spanish is iffy and theirs is incomprehensible. The teacher i work with, Elizabeth, is really great and knows that the girls cheat on quizzes when she leaves the room and is really making an effort to have them see me as an authority figure / teacher that they have to listen to and respect. I also work with another teacher Naty who didn´t show up for class once, might be younger than me, and has only been working there a few months. Classroom control? Whats that? But lets remember this is Ecuador, not the USA, and things are run very differently here. Time is very fluid, which is a nice way of saying that schedules arent really followed and things dont start ¨on time¨ as a US American would expect ¨on time¨ to mean. Homework often means copying verbatim pages from textbooks, even if you can´t read and dont understand what you´re copying. But this is their system, and i am not here to change it or ´improve´ it. I´m here to serve as best i can and as authentically as i can, within this system.

Its hard. How do I serve these kids? What do they need from me? What do i need to learn from them? I wear a polo shirt that says Rostro de Cristo on it. How do i be the face of Christ here? How on earth do i gain their respect? Will they ever see me as a teacher? Do i even see myself as a teacher? [Note: i know that several teachers/professors/student teachers are reading this blog. i welcome any and all advice regarding how to actually be a teacher.]

Its hard. They´re studying social studies. But this is Ecua-social studies, duh. So Maria Fernanda asked me what natural resources come from La Sierra (region in Ecuador). And i have to say ¨i don´t know. did you pay attention in class this morning? i know the teacher taught this to you.¨ So here i am trying to gain some sort of authority and validity in my position yet have to say ´i dont know´ when the girls ask me a question. Nor do i know how to explain the difference, in spanish remember, between arachnids and crustaceans when the time for Natural Sciences rolls around.

Its hard and the system is frustrating but i dont feel frustrated and i dont feel depleted. Its a fruitful challenge and i get more and more confident in it as time goes on. I think the girls are warming up to me.

So thats my morning. I cross 16 lanes of traffic again and take the yellow bus back to the house in AJS, have a quick something for lunch, and by 1:40 i´m back on a bus heading to 28 de Agosto, an invasion community in Duran located in a former trash dump. Another 40 minutes on a bus, this time looking out the window at acres and acres of cane houses, muddy swamps, burning trash, laundry hanging outside to dry, small children running around and playing in dirt with chickens and stray dogs alongside them.

Monday-Friday, Kasia, Danny and I open Manos Abiertas at 2:30. We´re located in a small school building (classrooms have roofs, but its mostly uncovered) on a residental dirt road. The kids see us get off the bus and either yell our names or ¨las gringas! las gringas!¨ to let the other kids know we´ve arrived. At 2:30, we let in kids that have homework and one of us helps them in a quiet room. They ask us for red and blue pens because they need to copy their textbooks in these colors, or erasers when it needs to be done in pencil. Kids that dont have homework stay outside and play with a soccerball that often gets kicked into a gutter area of trash/standing water. They sit on our laps and talk to us and argue with each other and they´re just kids. At 3:00 we struggle to get them to lineup at the door and greet each of us as they enter with a handshake and a promise to be well-behaved (easier said than done.) We start with the Our Father and split up the little kids from the big kids to do educational activities that will reinforce what they learn in school and also improve their critical thinking skills (which are nearly non-existant). At 4:00 they have recess, which means a high-energy soccer game with kids of all sizes and ages, or begging me to make them paper airplanes, or constantly reminding them that only 4 kids are allowed on the swingset at one time. At 4:45 we gather them together and have a talk or skit about the theme of the week! We spend one week talking to the kids about 7 themes: Respect, Responsibility, Trustworthiness, Kindness, Spirituality, Citizenship, and Justice. We do our best to make it pertinent to their lives and accessible and understandable to kids ages 3-13. Yea, thats tough. At 5:00 we pray again and each kid gets a piece of bread, a banana, and a glass of uncontaminated water before they head home to....who knows. Violence? Domestic abuse? Hunger? Nothing?

Its hard and exhausting and so energizing and so life giving. The kids are so great and so sweet and so affectionate and so loving, and also so easily set off and so fragile and sooooooo not wanting to follow the rules. But we do what we can. We try to give them structure, a safe place to have fun, a quiet place to do their homework, and three hearts to love them as best we can. The days are long and tiring and i smell like sweat and trash and dirty children at the end of every day and i love it.

Gracias a Dios, trabajando.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Walking Home

I´m in Ecuador. How on earth did i get here?

Two days ago i came to this cyber cafe (internet access for 50c/hr), did the email thing for an hour, and decided it was time to head home (just 2 blocks away) to start preparing dinner. I left the cyber realizing that this was the first time i was outside of the gates of our Rostro de Cristo home alone - big deal! I´m officially one of those frighteningly cool international volunteers that knows her way around a remote, unheard-of impoverished city. As i walked down the road i saw Gabriel ahead--one of our neighbors, a 70something man who makes gorgeous leather products in his cement home and loves talking to volunteers and retreatants about international news and the dynamics of love. He spotted me too and shouted ¨¡hola chica! ¿como estas?¨ I stopped, did the kiss on the cheek thing, and chatted with him for a moment (yes, in Spanish!). He was on his way to do some shopping (presumably buying just enough food for dinner at the store on the corner) and commented on the beautiful weather. We said ciao and I continued down the road thinking ¨wow, i´m in Ecuador, outside the gates by myself, and i walk down the road and i know someone...and we stopped to chat... damn...thats pretty cool...¨

Then i see a group of kids ahead, some sitting on the sidewalk and others playing soccer in the middle of the road, as all Ecuakids do, and they saw me and started shouting ¨¡Elisa! ¡Elisa!¨ I went over and did the kiss on the cheek thing again and said hello to all of them, patted them on the head, got in the way of the soccer game, and continued on my way, again thinking ¨wow, not only do I know an old man walking down the street in Ecuador, a group of kids eagerly shouts my name and wants to say hi...thats really cool...¨

I turn the corner and arrive back at the house and the guard Omar opens the gate for me and asks if i was at the cyber, and i said yes, writing to my parents and my friends. I had it in my mind that i was going to go upstairs and see what was up for dinner and veg out, but i realized no, here in Ecuador you obviously stop and converse frequently with neighbors, as i just learned. He asked me what i studied in school, so after warning Omar that i studied French for 10 years and my Spanish is no good, we spent like 15 minutes talking about how interesting it is that Ecuadorians follow many religions (relatively speaking. the country is about 85% Roman Catholic by name, the rest is mosly Evangelical), but in Pakistan, everyone follows Islam! Omar thinks this is fascinating. From here the conversation turned to issues of women in Islam, headcoverings, etc. I think he finds it oppressive but in my extremely limited Spanish i said something like ´but also some women choose because for security and faith and prayer´. Who wouldda thought that i´d be referencing my Islam in America class in the urban slums of Ecuador. I obviously couldn´t do justice to my thoughts about the subject in Spanish, but I tried. We also talked about peace and meditation in Buddhism, and finally Omar´s favorite celebrity biographies. This was my very first successful conversation in Spanish. How unsurprising that it was about world religions. I was elated.

I´m in Ecuador. I know a leatherworker walking down the road on his way to do some shopping. I know children who attend the neighborhood after-school program called Valdivia. They shout my name and want me to play with them. I talk to the guard about my passions.

As a community bonding activity last week, the 12 volunteers made each other name tags for our bedroom doors. Amy made mine, and on it she drew a litte hill with a seed planted and a flower growing up from it. I decided that i´m going to keep it growing. Every time I feel that i had a significant growth moment or experience, i´ll draw a little more of the plant growing up from the seed. I wonder how big it will get. This day was the first new growth on the plant.

I start work Monday. We finally chose our work sites yesterday. In the mornings i´ll be a tutor / teacher´s assistant in a program called Centro de Solidaridad de Santiago Apostol. It gives an education streetkids who are seriously behind in their schooling because they dropped out to work to help their families. Founded by the Christian Life Movement (mainly in Latin America but also present in the US) , it takes a Catholic and holistic approach to ending child labor. The school even makes Mass and Reconciliation available in the building regularly. Love it. I´ll be working in the girls program. Who would have ever thought i´d end up here? Me? In an educational setting? No way. I have no idea what i´m getting into, i have no idea why i think i´ll be of any good service here, i have no idea what skills and talents lay buried inside me that might be of use to these kids, i have no idea what i´m doing. But i´m thrilled and excited and trusting.

In the afternoons i´ll be co-running an after-school program called Manos Abiertas (Open Hands) with two other RdC volunteers. It´s in a section of the city called 28 de Agosto, and its a ¨former¨ trash dump (many people/companies still dump there). People are living in cane houses along dirt roads with no running water and extremely difficult access to healthcare. Out of all three after-school programs run by RdC, these kids have the most discipline challenges, least formal education, and generally the shittiest situations overall. But they´re beautiful and energetic and i´ll be blessed to work with them. Once i start working i´ll have more to share about this. Again, i have no idea why anyone would think i´ll be any good at this, but i´m thrilled.

I´m in Ecuador. And i love it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Thoughts from Orientation

Orientation at John Carroll Univ. in Cleveland has been....overwhelming and empowering mostly. Days began at 7:30am with morning prayer, are filled with sessions, workshops, presentations, and the like, and end around 9:30pm with evening prayer. The days have been long and grueling but i can't imagine heading to Ecuador without this background. We've been given information/wisdom on things like ignatian spirituality, teaching techniques, counseling techniques, self-care, mental health, conscientization (great word), reality of developing countries, social justice, intentional christian community, self-awareness, and my favorite, theological reflection. It's been a loooot to process and reflect on and work through, but its been so wonderful to begin these conversations with my Rostro community and all the Jesuit Volunteers International, with whom we've had our orientation.

During orientation, the Rostro de Cristo staff (Patrick Rombalski: executive director, former Fairfield U res life employee; Helen Rombalski: program director, former Fairfield U grad student; Dan Kiers: assistant director, former RdC volunteer) helped us get in the groove of the volunteer experience. Through several presentations and intense conversations, we came to a deeper understanding of the RdC mission and vision ( . We're not going to solve problems. We cannot fix anything. That's not our role. We're there to listen and to learn, to share ourselves and embrace others. We will absolutely not give out any money or resources to individuals, because this begins to build a dependency between the people and the program. And the point is to empower them, so that someday they will not need RdC to be in their community. We will direct them to social workers, to other services that can meet any immediate or emergency needs. And equally importantly, we host 27 retreat/immersion groups from the US to experience the lives of the poor, and in turn work to transform those 300+ students every year so that they might form the rest of their lives to upholding social justice, to asking why things are like this, to ask the big questions. It's too much to explain now, but as the year goes on these values will become more and more clear on this blog, i hope.
I'll be living in Antonio Jose de Sucre, which you can learn about on Rostro's website. This is my community: Lauren (from PA), Kasia (from OR), Karen ( of those Midwestern states), and Melissa (from Minnesota, and...engaged!). They're all really great girls, our personalities mesh well and things have been smooth so far. We're all still trying to get to know each other better, but once we move into our house I'm sure things will start to get more adventurous. The other 7 volunteers will be living in el Arbolito. They are Gina (from OH), Tracy (from OH), Danny (from WI), Andrew (from Fairfield, CT!), Carolyn (from Philly), Amy (from MA), and Colie (from WI). They're all great too and its been really fun bonding as a large community.

Now for some more exciting news...One of my favorite reflective moments during this orientation was about the Eucharist as a model for this year of service, insofar as being present to community, to myself, and to those i serve. We talk about the Real Presence. Anytime you go to a Catholic church, God is always Really Present in the tabernacle. Drop on by at any time and God is there to listen. What a great model for being really present to life in Ecuador. These reflective thoughts were sparked by Howard Gray, S.J., also known as the most incredible Jesuit around, who is a JCU professor/administrator. He accompanied us on a 3-day silent retreat that took place earlier this week, which was also a peaceful and fruitful journey of solitude and self-awareness. Anyway, Fr. Gray served as a spiritual director so i took the opportunity to pick his brain about the resurrection of the body, which has been very interesting to me lately. And in the 30 minutes that he poured out wisdom and genius that i just drooled over, he said something to the effect that after death the totality of the reality of ourselves will be in union with the totality of the reality of God (love the language here). And what a beautiful thing that the totality of the reality of Jesus is already present to us in the Real Presence.

There have been many other fruitful conversations, prayers, and presentations, but i can't possibly share it all.

Ecuador monday.