Thursday, December 12, 2013


The last two months have been a real whirlwind down here in the valley- 12 fall break volunteers, 2,500 recycled plastic bottles, 1 completed plastic bottle green house, 2 thanksgivings, 2 heavenly days at Secret Garden Cotopaxi and now...3 weeks of well deserved vacation.

Our second quarterly retreat was held at the tucked away, cozy hostel known as Secret Garden, located directly at the base of Cotopaxi.  Complete with mist laden fields of horses and llamas, long winding trails, waterfalls, delicious food served three times daily, and even a baby cow that thinks it's a dog- it's definitely one of the most memorable locations we've been to thus far in Ecuador.  After heavy talks of leadership and community development on our first day there, led by our fearless leader Heather K, we played a riveting game of Ecuadorean Jeopardy.  The next day we took a so-called "stroll" to see a waterfall- about a 45 minute walk.  Led by a British-Guatemalan in shorts and rubber boots, we, the program directors of Manna Project International Ecuador, our dog, three other dogs, and a baby cow headed out for what turned out to be a death-defying rock-face scaling, rapid wading haul up to see a (albeit beautiful) regular sized waterfall.
It was definitely a team-building kind of hike.

Secret Garden- Cotopaxi AKA heaven

It's slow going when you're hiking with a hungry baby cow.

Photographical proof that llamas are real.

Aside from the necessary clerical work required for one to take a three week long vacation, it should be smooth sailing from here on out for the PD's of Ecuador.  Excited to see our families and to jet set off to every known location in the western hemisphere- we have already started packing our bags, but with heavy hearts to leave the valley and our beloved community.  Though we shall return in January post-haste and with renewed ambition and excitement to continue the work we're doing.  Until then!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Construction is Finished! Vandy Break Group Completes the Greenhouse

Thanksgiving has come and gone and with it our wonderful group of short-term volunteers from Vanderbilt University. As I mentioned in my last post, the fall break group was here to help out in the Environmental Health Program by constructing a plastic bottle greenhouse on the roof of the library. The idea for a plastic bottle greenhouse “sprouted” from our new recycling program in the library.  As community members continued to donate plastic bottles, we wanted to demonstrate other ways in which recyclable materials such as plastic bottles can be reused instead of tossed in the trash. Once the group arrived the greenhouse went up quickly, with only a few minor bumps in the road. By Saturday it was complete with planting boxes and a new composting bin, for the scrapes let over from Adult Cooking and Nutrition.  After our holiday break we will have a planting party to show off the greenhouse to our community and get some herbs and vegetables in the ground for our cooking classes! 

Check out these photos of their hard work and fun adventures here in Quito and the Valley:

Our wonderful Vanderbilt group (plus their awesome leaders) 

Our Vandy group leaders, Lauren and Roo, at the Bascilica 

Group at the top of the Teleferico

Sorting bottles 

Making the compost bin 

The FINISHED product! 
While the group was here they also helped out in other various Manna programs! Many enjoyed getting involved in our other education programs, such as teaching English and nutrition. Here is an account from volunteer Lauren Pak about her participation in various Manna programs as well as work with partner organizations like ESPE:

"As Manna’s Thanksgiving Service Participants, we had the unique opportunity to participate in a variety of community development programs.  We were excited to get involved in various education programs, specifically nutrition and English literacy. Here are some of our collective experiences:

Pre-school:  Not only were the kids a joy to work with, it was a wonderful experience to interact with small children.  Since some individuals didn’t know how to speak Spanish, it was lovely to see how communication and interactions can occur through physical touch as found with the preschoolers.  Language learning starts and is the most effective at a young age.  A good foundation is necessary for any kind of learning, and it was wonderful to see how Manna was working to build a strong starting point for the future.  It was interesting to see hear from the preschool teacher as well that some kids didn’t know their colors in Spanish but knew the vocabulary words in English.  As shown, primary education has an enormous impact in child development.   

Some of the vols spending time at the local pre-school 

Elementary: The elementary school was an eye-opening experience.  The children were very sweet.  They all clapped and were so excited to see new faces.  A sad realization was the fact that these classrooms were overpopulated and that there was a disparity between the learning levels of the children.  The problem lies in the fact that there are no extra classes to help those either being left behind in their academics or programs for those who are needing more stimulation.  

Helping out in nutrition class 

University: Since we are college students ourselves, it was interesting to see the community dynamics of the local Ecuadorian university and how it was similar and different from our own experience in the United States.  It was humbling to see with how much tenacity the students worked to learn English.  Some students were in their early 30s and came back to school to learn, others were married to native English speakers and wanted to learn how to communicate more effectively, and others had dreams of starting their own company in the United States and were hoping to cultivate heir English skills.  Overall, it was inspiring to see how motivated these students were to learn English in order achieve success." 

Headed to ESPE, the local university, to chat with English students 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Que Viva La Reina!

Not even hail storms and power outages could keep the people of Rumiloma away from the election of the Queen of Rumiloma last Friday. After making friends with the new town President, Luis Ñacata, Manna Project was invited to participate in this important event and I was invited to sit on the judging board! I must admit that although I have been living here for 2 and a half years I have never had the privilege of participating in a queen election and I really had no idea what to expect. I definitely didn't expect to be sitting at the judging table from 7pm to 12:30am but hey... this is Ecuador!

The 11 candidates for Reina de Rumiloma were judged on their casual wear, a traditional outfit, formal wear, their overall presentation and their answer to one important question about the future of their town. The coolest part for me was seeing all the familiar faces of community members and library regulars cheering on their favorite queens. Since Rumiloma is not a very big place, it seemed like all the candidates were sisters, cousins, daughters, friends, and neighbors of someone that I knew from the community center. The highlight for me was seeing Isaac, a library regular and one of my personal favorites, accompany his older sister on stage and dance behind her wearing a "traditional outfit" of one of Ecuador's Amazonian tribes.

The candidates were asked questions about personal values and role models and also about important topics such as how to tackle bullying and alcoholism in their community. The winner will serve as an ambassador and representative of Rumiloma at important events during the next year. She is to also serve as a role model for the community. I am hoping we can get her to make an appearance at our library 5th anniversary party in March!

Unfortunately the photos didn't come out great... the lighting was borrowed via extension cords from the next block over and the weather was dark and rainy. Here are a few anyways:

 All of Rumiloma came out to see who would be their future reina
 Not sure the Incans really dressed like that...
 A DJ kept us entertained while the girls changed outfits
 The beautiful candidates in their formal wear
The fate of Rumiloma rests on my shoulders! Thats me in the middle judging away

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

To Drill or Not

Check out this great article written by Maddie Gootman, one of our Fall Break volunteers from Vanderbilt. I am so proud of her for taking some of the issues we discussed last week and raising awareness at home! (Article originally posted here)

There is a major battle surrounding a large part of the world’s biodiversity, and many Americans don’t even know it. The Yasuni, a large Amazonian region in Ecuador, is home to substantial oil reserves, and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, wants to tap into this resource and put the money towards social programs, but others fear the cost to the Amazon and to the indigenous peoples who live there.
Because of the complexities of the decision the Ecuadorian people havecalled for a referendum to vote on the drilling issue. However, this choice will have to overcome the drawbacks of freedom of expression and the press in Ecuador. True democratic decisions hinge on the ability for people to communicate their viewpoints, and, given the state of censorship in Ecuador, I fear the livelihoods of Ecuadorians, particularly the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, may be at stake.
Previously, the Ecuadorian government had offered world leaders an opportunity to pay it a portion of the potential benefit of the oil reserves in return for protection of the Yasuni. Enthusiasm for this plan worldwide did not pan out. President Correa decided to end the offer short of its full time span because of what he considered to be lackluster progress on raising the funds to provide the support for what he feels are much-needed social programs. A big drawback to his plan, though, is the environmental and health costs it would have for Ecuador, especially given what past drilling has cost the Amazon.
Despite the lessened flow of information in Ecuador, people still seem to have a variety of opinions on the matter. While I was in Quito, I witnessed an older man protest in the plaza about the damage that drilling for oil does to the land and people. I also met people who were enamored with Correa and trusted him to lead the country (despite accusations ofmanipulating the constitution to allow him a longer term) because of the economic improvements since he took office.
Students in particular seemed to be split on the issue. I had the opportunity to visit with students at ESPE, a college outside of Quito, and I asked them what they thought about the plan to drill in the Yasuni. Some were invested in the president’s plan to use the money from the oil reserves to invest in development for public schools and infrastructure. Others were concerned about protecting the environment, finding sustainable development, and respecting the health and rights of the indigenous people who still live in the Yasuni region of the Amazon.
These students tapped into the complexities of the development versus environment debate that is occurring in Ecuador. Their discussion with me was thoughtful and shows the benefits that the marketplace of ideas can have on difficult decisions such as the future of the Yasuni. But these contrasting opinions definitely do not get equal airtime with the public due to government influence and control on the press, and that is concerning for those who are interested in Ecuador’s democratic process.
After spending time around Quito during the Thanksgiving holiday, I understand much better how torn Ecuador is over this issue; I myself still cannot decide what I think of the plan to sell off parts of the Yasuni to companies (primarily Chinese companies) to drill. But it’s not my decision to make, ultimately. The people who know the issue and area best should make the call: the Ecuadorian people.
Ultimately, democracy and the marketplace of ideas are the best way to determine the future of environmentalism and development in Ecuador, the first nation to include the rights of nature in its constitution. Clearly, environmental protection is important to the people, but development and growth is also essential to their livelihoods. Correa might think he knows best for the people, but he should let them speak and listen to their wishes for their own future.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from Ecuador!

Happy Thanksgiving from the Ecuador Manna Crew! 

We are very excited to be celebrating this Thanksgiving holiday with a group of 12 volunteers from Vanderbilt University! As many of you know, the new Environmental Health program has been working hard to collect bottles and this week our wonderful group of vols is beginning the construction on our plastic bottle greenhouse. They spent the beginning of the week washing, cutting, and separating the bottles and building the frame. Yesterday bottles were finally attached to the roof! Construction is coming along nicely and it has been really fun showing them around Quito and the Valley. Keep posted to get the inside scoop from one of volunteers as the wrap up their work and share their personal experiences from throughout the week!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Women's Charla

Last Thursday the female members of MPIE hosted the second-ever Women's Only charla.  The first charla was centered around the hard-hitting topic of children's nutrition, but this time the topic was a bit more risqué.  The theme was how to talk to your children about sex and sensitive subjects.  Over quinoa apple bread and instant coffee, we the women of the Valley de los Chillos discussed everything from how to talk to your kids about sex, to safe sex methods, to stereotypes in Ecuador involving teenagers and sex, to even religion.  Things got real, but as we all know, the only way to erode negative stereotypes and inaccurate information is to normalize these themes through discussion and positive affirmation!  With quite the variety of beliefs and backgrounds hosted at last week's talk, there was the full gamut of opposing opinions, but I'd say overall the charla was a huge success.  The topic for the third MPIE women's charla is still pending but it's definitely sure to push the envelope of informative discussion as has it's predecessors!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Small Business Development Indiegogo Campaign

Although it may seem that the majority of our time here in Ecuador is spent playing with adorable children and cute puppies, we've have in fact also been working diligently at improving and expanding all of our programs.  Of late, the Small Business Development team has taken on with great ambition the goal of doubling their lending capacity for the upcoming lending cycle to start in January.  In an effort to raise enough money to do this, the SBD team has launched an Indiegogo Campaign with the goal of raising $2,800 in sixty days through in-kind donations.  This would give our humble, yet highly effective, sustainable micro-finance program the opportunity to grant up to twice as many loans (with 7 loan recipients in the current loan cycle) as well as the opportunity to look outside of granting solely to agricultural based small businesses and to perhaps expand their portfolio of loan recipients.  The campaign was officially launched around 8pm EST last night and as of this moment has raised $110- a great start, but we still have a long way to go!  This is a very exciting time for the Small Business Development program in Ecuador so spread the word to everyone you know!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Top 10 Reasons to be a Program Director in Ecuador!

1.    You can’t beat the “office” 
      Our library is located in the heart of the Rumiloma community. We have a soccer field across the street and amazing views of the valley and the surrounding mountains from our kitchen and workout room upstairs. The surrounding community is filled with friendly people, many of whom are regulars at the library.           

   2. Community members and building relationships 
     In Ecuador, people welcome you like family. Neighbors, friends and complete strangers are always looking out for you, offering a helping hand or insisting that they feed you something. Manna PDs are welcome with open arms into many families shortly upon their arrival. It is not uncommon to have a friend from the library over for dinner, jump in on a random pick up basketball game down the street or have a long conversation with the local pizzeria owner.

   3.  Mountains, beaches and the Amazon 
     The Ecuadorian terrain is amazing! At 19, 347 ft, Cotopaxi looms in our backyard and can be seen from most places in Sangolqui. Both the coast and jungle are no more than a 5 to 10 dollar bus ride away. You can go snorkeling off the coast of Manta, climb an active volcano, or visit the Yasuni, regarded as one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.  There are few places in the world that offer the same variety in such a small package!

   4. The KIDS! 
    The kids in the library are chaotic, crazy, filled with so much love and oh so adorable. Everyday they surprise us with something new, and you will often hear "Profe" being yelled from across the street before your legs are embraced in a hug. They love to share and will gladly offer you a piece of whatever snack they are munching on while they tell you all about their day.

   5. Street food

    Have you ever had ceviche? Ají (the BEST sauce around)? Meat on a stick for fifty cents? These tasty Ecuadorian classics can be found on almost any street corner, in any neighborhood. And for the vegetarians among us, fresh fruits and vegetables are found in abundance just about everywhere. It's hard to get bored with the variety of fruits, many of which you've never seen before, and the fresh squeezed juice that will become a staple in your diet.

   6. Cultural Experiences

    Whether it's going out salsa dancing and learning new moves from a perfect stranger, greeting everyone with a kiss on the cheek like family, or riding on a bus with zero personal space, Ecuador will challenge your cultural norms in both big and tiny ways. You will get used to seeing dogs EVERYWHERE and sharing everything, and having people open up to you like you are part of their family the first time they meet you. Honestly, there are too many cultural differences to count but, that's the beauty of moving to a new country.

   7. Traveling 

   It is easy and affordable to travel all over Ecuador by simply jumping on a bus. Here in the Valley we are a day trip away from the edge of the jungle in Tena, massive waterfalls and natural hot springs in Baños, snow capped peaks and the capital city of Quito. On weekends it is easy to head to the beach for some laid back sun time or get on a canoe for a cruz down the Amazon. Not to mention the rest of South America is only a short flight away! Many PDs take trips to near by countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, during their longer holiday breaks. 

   8. Living in the country side, just outside of a major metropolitan city! 

    Living in the Chillos Valley, approximately 40 minutes outside of Quito, offers PDs in Ecuador a truly unique experience. The valley offers a true immersion experience; we are often the only foreigners around and our close proximity to the community allows us to develop very intimate relationships with our neighbors and people we work with. The city of Quito, however, is a cultural hub and affords us all the luxuries of living in a city without actually living there. Say you want to visit the former home of the famous Latin American artist, Guayasamin, or visit the Centro Histroic district for some live music and traditional food, or go watch an American football game if you are feeling a little homesick. All of this can be found in Quito, a 30 cent bus ride away.

   9. Spanish 

   One of the main reasons many PDs come to Latin American is to learn, improve or perfect their Spanish skills. In Ecuador, especially in the mountains, Spanish is spoken without an accent, making it some of the easiest to learn in the world. People here really appreciate foreigners speaking to them in Spanish and are incredibly understanding and helpful when it comes to Spanish speakers of all levels. And with 13 months to practice, PDs have plenty of time to drastically improve their speaking ability.  

    10. Last but not least ... YOUR FELLOW PDS!  

   I think PDs from all sites and years will agree that through Manna you will meet people who you probably never would have met otherwise. Living with 10 people in a new country is an unique experience, one that forms fast friendships, many of which will last long outside of the Manna house. You will find yourself opening up to people in new ways, sharing sometimes difficult, sometimes fun, sometimes ridiculous and always rewarding experiences with your fellow PDs. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ghosts, zombies and profes! Oh my!

Halloween came to Rumiloma last week! The PDs turned the library into a spooky and fun Halloween themed house complete with toilet paper zombies races, bobbing for apples and a haunted house. Kids came dressed in costumes and the PDs took turns painting faces, prizes were given to the best costumes which included one library regular, Joel, who came in full-zombie garb, with ripped clothes and scary face paint. The haunted house was a great success as we converted the Teen Center into a terrifying maze in which local teens and PDs hid behind make-shift walls and jumped out at kids. It was a really fun for us to share some culture from the States and learn a little about Día de Disfuntos or Day of Dead as it is more commonly known as in the States.

PD Abby paints Isaac's face so she can have an evil twin 

Toilet paper zombie races 
Getting ready to bob for that apple! 

Nick and Greg use what little material we have to make the Teen Center into a scary haunted house 
Eyes and worms 
Kids wait outside to enter the HAUNTED HOUSE 
Bobbing for apples can get a little messy,  Mateo helps clean up 

Manna PDs get scary 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Minga: The Aftermath

So as promised in the last post I have provided more photos from our new and improved community center after one very successful minga.  With some very strategic re-arranging of the bookshelves, the health center table and resources, as well as the computers, we have found that our library is being utilized in the way it was always intended and proving to be much more effective.  The resources and books we have in our preventative health care section are now physically accessible and are not only being perused by the adults who visit our center, but even read and checked out of our public lending library.  We have re-arranged the computers we have  and geared them towards a solely educational purpose.  Poco a poco our beloved biblio has transformed into both a fun and educational environment welcoming to both children and adults- a big step forward in the difference we’re making down here in the Chillos Valley!

We flipped the book shelves around to give it more of a library feel.  Also check out our sweet bottle cap curtain!

So feng shui.

Being studious!

Profe Nick's idea of having a "Profe's Choice" section where each week we all recommend a new book to read.  Ingenious!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Rock Climbing Paseo!

PD Nick Capezio recently joined Heather Kryzak and Kirk Turner on a rock climbing paseo with the Teen Center. They had a great time, read what he had to say about the trip!

With all the parents taking English midterms, the kids can get respite in San Fernando at the rock-climbing wall. Past a mother pig and her ten babies, a rainbow trout farm, a rickety bridge and a woman’s farm, the boulder emerges complete with carabineer hooks and climbing pathways. Joshua, a longtime friend of the Manna Program, is a certified mountain guide and in charge of testing the two mountain guide trainees as part of their graduation requirements from the 3 year degree mountain climbing school, the Associacion Ecuatoriana de Guias de Montañas (ASEGUIM). One of these graduation requirements includes a didactic portion- and as such we enlisted 11 library regulars between the ages of 8 and 13 to serve as practice climbers. The two climbing instructors, Stalin and Romel, get their teaching subjects, the students get to learn how to scale a boulder, everybody wins- especially Heather, Kirk and myself as we all get to learn proper climbing technique from some experts and get a break from being at the library.

We started out with some stretches- arm rotations, neck circles and grip exercises- many of the muscles used in rock-climbing are untouched by one’s day-to-day routine, and believe me the next day all of us climbers were made well aware of it. Following this, we learned the basics of carabineer control, the infamous climbing figure eight knots, how to put on a harness, and basic helmet safety. Even myself, as someone who had climbed before, enjoyed the refresher, and the kids were all very attentive. We were then given a basic introduction to the wall, and were allowed to transverse a shorter portion of it to get the muscles ready for higher scaling.

Maintaining limberness is essential pre-bouldering 
Magnesium was given to the kids’ hands, to prevent the slipperiness of perspiration, and the kids lined up on the wall one by one, harnessed and helmeted up- good to go. With us both eager to lend a helping hand, Kirk and I offered to be the belayers- helping keep the kids secure and lending our voices to offer encouragement as the kids scaled the wall.

Kirk using outstanding belaying technique to keep a secure base 
You can see the two climbing paths above 
Every kid got a few chances to scale the two climbing routes, and many of the kids were able to get to the top. A couple of the kids emerged as climbing whizzes, and I think another future paseo would garner even more kids’ attention. After eating our snacks of bananas and chochos with a slosh down of Gatorade, the kids helped take down the wall carabineers and pack up the gear.
The first rule of climbing - never look down 

With some kids initially intimidated by the task of scaling a boulder, not a single kid left without attempting a climb. It’s reassuring to see the group overcome these fears and try their hand at the wall. Revealing the inner climbers and getting them up the wall made for a rewarding experience, as we literally acted as their safety net, keeping them secured as they rose to greater and greater heights. I think the proposition of us keeping the kids secure as they aim for higher ground is a fitting metaphor for our biggest goals in community development. I plan on continuing these roles as the year progresses, whether it is in the classroom or the library- the metaphorical boulders never cease to exist, we just learn how to better confront them.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Children's Nutrition - 100 students in three 6th grade classes!!

Today marked the first day of Children's Nutrition at Chaupitena, teaching the Harvard Healthy Plate in three separate 6th grade classes! Nick, Abby, Cate, Claudia and myself headed to the school bright and early ready to take on over a hundred students and talk about healthy eating habits. When we arrived we found three classrooms full of eager and energetic 11 and 12 year olds. They were excited to have us and took extra care in creating their own 'Healthy Plate' models.

Profe Nico and our third class of the day showing off their healthy plates

Who knows the different parts of the Healthy Plate? 
Each student put lots of care into their own Healthy Plate models (we were impressed when everyone pulled out a compass and protractor to draw perfect circles and portions) 
Students taking a diagnostic exam while Profe Nico supervises from the back of the room 

El Plato Saludable 

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Yesterday was quite an eventful day in the centro down here in the valley!  It had been decided that our community center was in desperate need of a) a good scrubbing and b) a serious makeover.  We invited friends of the community center to participate in our first big "minga" of this year.  A minga in Ecuador is basically a giant cleaning party where all of your friends come and help you clean your house, or in this case your biblio.  We were so pleased at the turn out and couldn't believe how enthusiastic the community was to help us improve our shared space.  There is still much work to be done, however.  Here are some pictures of the progress we've made.  Once the final touches are put on, more pictures of our new and improved community center will follow.  A huge thanks to everyone who came out to help!
Jim attempting to...change a light bulb?  Maybe?

Profe Tay Tay knows her way around a broom.

MPIE: helping communities help us help them.

CAUTION: Men at work.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Meet Luna! The new Ecuador house puppy.

After a few months of consideration and prolonging, we have finally adopted a dog! Our original plan was to adopt through a local shelter with the help of some vet friends. However as fate would have it Luna (the new pup) fell into our hands in a slightly different manner. The Friday before we planned our weekend trip to the shelter to scout dogs, Cate was walking into the biblio when 4 of our regular attendees ran up to her with 2 dogs in their arms. They explained that the had seen a woman bring the dogs to the field across the street, (or cancha as we call) drop them in the grass, and run away. At first we were skeptical because many of the dogs roaming the streets of Ecuador have owners and are let out during the day to do as they please. The kids, however, insisted that the puppies had been abandoned and wanted us to take both of them home with us. Cate reluctant to agree to this, told the kids we were not able to take the dogs, but after Joel brought one of the puppies up to the library, the 4 of us that were there were sold and Luna took her first taxi ride back to the Manna compound.

Little Luna in her new house

Luna's first camioneta ride 
At this point we were not sure we would be able to keep her but we wanted to make sure she wouldn't be out in the streets, at least for the weekend. That night Cate and I gave her her first bath, which was a terrifying experience for all parties involved as Luna tried to crawl into the shelves with all of our shampoo to hide and screamed like a baby being tortured. Later we named her Luna, which with some coincidence was a name that came with it's own theme song by Juanes. Very fitting indeed.

Luna's first hike (she loved it!)
I am now happy to say that she has settled into the house very nicely, although not yet potty trained she still leaves the occasional present around the house for us to find and has taken a liking to socks and toilet paper rolls. Despite this she is definitely finding her way into all of our hearts and becoming a member of the family.