While in Quito, myself and 7 other Canisius College students lived and worked primarily at the Working Boys Center. Jesuits founded this amazing place with the purpose of breaking the cycle of poverty through education. Not only does the center provide basic needs, like three meals a day and showering facilities, and serve as a school much like the ones we are used to, but it also teaches vocational skills, basic living skills, and provides students time to go out and earn money during the day. It was shocking to see little 8 year-old boys go out into dangerous streets for half a day to shine shoes, but it was also very necessary. Some of these children bring in 60% of the family income. These children were what made the trip most meaningful. In such a short time, and despite huge language barriers, I became attached to several of the youngest Ecuadorians I met. The resiliency and kind-hearted nature of so many of the people I encountered left me with countless stories. But I’d like to leave you one that touched my heart and hopefully will touch yours, too.
After a week working with children in classes, painting, cleaning, and doing anything we could to help out around the center, we journeyed out into a much more rural part of the country, up higher into the mountains. We were to participate in a minga. A minga is a South American tradition, meaning the coming together of a community to work for the betterment of all. My Canisius College group served as a family and were graciously welcomed into the home of an Ecuadorian family needing help with their home. Their cement home consisted of only several rooms and was modestly decorated with trinkets and a large painting of Spongebob Squarepants (anything and everything American is incredibly popular). The ten of us squeezed into their living room/kitchen as the Ecuadorian mother bustled around, feeding us hard-boiled egg from the chickens out back, coffee, and homemade rolls. She would not even think of letting us begin a day’s work without feeding us. (This is also part of the minga tradition; those who do the helping are always fed by those receiving the help.) This woman and her son treated us so lovingly after only a few minutes and some broken Spanish. I couldn’t help but to have this thought run through my mind: How many Americans do you know that would welcome strangers into their home (one’s who don’t even speak the same language), feed them, and work side by side with them on an immense project with total and complete trust and faith that the job will be done well?
After we finished our meal, we walked outside to see the project at hand. To put it simply, we had to move dirt. A lot of dirt. There were no modern machines to help us carve away at the side of a mountain so the family could build a new home for extended family to live; there were shovels and wheelbarrows. And at approximately 11,000 feet above sea level, hard work becomes a whole lot harder. I must say, however, that this was the most rewarding day of grueling manual labor I have ever done in my life. From breakfast until dinnertime we hauled away over 150 wheelbarrows full of dirt in the process of leveling out a plot of land. The family decided that they would give the dirt to others who needed it and use it to improve the potholes in the local road (I remember chuckling at this—thinking that everyone in Bristol can relate to having potholes in their dirt driveways, parking lots, and roads). Older women kept bringing us out cups of water or something that tasted like orange soda mixed with Tang. A little four-year old girl who lived down the road kept running over to look at the strange white people working with her neighbors and giggle at us. Eventually I coaxed her over and gave her a marble I’d found in the dirt. I will never forget how she beamed up at me and jumped up into my arms.
We returned for dinner that night, coated with dirt and aching from head to toe. But in the following days of sore limbs and blisters, each twinge of back pain reminded us of what it means to live and work side by side with other human beings in complete solidarity. We weren’t just handing them handfuls of money, telling them to fix their own problems; we were working with them. We were able to have a small glimpse into their lives, what troubles they face and what brings them joy… even if it is as simple as a dirt-covered marble.
“You will find, as you look back on your life, that the moments that stand out are the moments when you have done things for others.” –Henry Drummond
”Solidarity Stories” is a nationwide web reflection for students, faculty, and staff, at Jesuit universities and high schools. It is intended to be an opportunity to share and learn about the impact of domestic and international immersion experiences from Ignatian family members near and far. To submit a reflection visit: https://www.ignatiansolidarity.net/solidarity-stories/