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Me to We in Ecuador: An adventure in volunteerism

VAWN HIMMELSBACH, Chic Savvy Travels VAWN HIMMELSBACH, Chic Savvy Travels

In July, I had an opportunity to tag along with a group from Aimia to volunteer on a Me to We trip in Ecuador. Over the course of a week, these seven volunteers (who were hand-selected by Free the Children) helped to build a school in the village of Bella Vista Baja, deep in the Amazon. This region is home to thousands of indigenous people affected by severe poverty, limited access to education and health care, and limited authority over agricultural land.

Aimia, a loyalty management company that owns Aeroplan, encourages its employees to volunteer and give back, not only within their own community but also within communities in developing nations. The company provides each of its employees with a paid “common good” day where they can volunteer with an organization they connect with — and offers opportunities to apply for volunteer trips like this one. Aeroplan members can also donate miles to various causes; to date, 385 million member miles have been donated, and Aeroplan has contributed close to 100 million miles.

CST talks to volunteer Cheryl Venus, project manager of operations effectiveness for Aimia, about why she chose to spend a week binding re-bar and hand-mixing cement — and how this experience has changed her.


What motivated you to apply to go on this trip?
Living and working in Toronto can really remove you from even thinking about the day-to-day life of those living in developing nations. Understanding and giving back to people in other parts of the world has always been an interest of mine, which I haven’t made enough time for in my life recently. This was a great opportunity to experience the world, bring perspective to my life, give back to others, and for me to personally grow.

Was there a reason you wanted to go to Ecuador?
I had never been to South America before and was having problems really imagining what life was like there, especially deep in the Amazon. I knew I would be removed from everything that I know in my day-to-day life, but was excited for the adventure.

Have you ever done anything like this before?
I actually spent six weeks building two classrooms in rural Tanzania in 2006. After studying cultural anthropology in university I realized that I needed to experience what life was like in other parts of the world before I jumped into my office career. I would never have imagined that I would have an opportunity to experience anything like it while working for a loyalty company.

Why were you chosen to go on this trip?
Recently I’ve only been able to make monetary contributions to organizations working with these communities, but I was able to express that I prefer interacting with the people in these communities myself.


What types of volunteer activities did you take part in?
Each day of the trip we were able to work with the community at Bella Vista. The Aimia group was helping to cut, form and bind re-bar, which would maintain the strength and shape necessary for pillars that the raised foundation of the school would be laid upon. We also had the opportunity to experience the back-breaking task of mixing cement by hand, which would be poured over the re-bar to create the pillars. I can honestly say that I have a lot of respect for builders in regions where they do not have the machinery to help with the heavy and hard labour.

Was there anything that surprised you about life in the Amazon?
The noises! You realized you were never alone in the Amazon with all of the life that surrounded you.

What was the most challenging aspect of this trip?
The most challenging aspect of the trip for me was wrapping my head around the fact that the people in the community had so little, yet were so content with life. It was hard for me to even grasp that their only ‘clean’ (ground filtered) water source was a hose that came out of the ground in the middle of the playground, and that the one and only toilet — not flushing though, and more of an outhouse then anything — belonged to the wealthiest family in the community.

What was the highlight of your trip?
The highlight was working with the people in the community. They were happy to have us there, and happy to work with us to show us how to build a school that would stand up to the harsh Amazon landscape and be useful to the community for years to come. We were able to connect with them, even with the language barriers we faced. They even started joking with the men in our Aimia group when they learned that they helped to cook and clean back home, calling them ‘girly men.’ Another favourite was meeting the manager of a cacao farm who walked us through the long process of getting cacao ready for export for what seems like little monetary return.

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Was there anything you learned about yourself on this trip?
I learned that I am happy getting back to life with only the basics. I don’t need a smartphone, car, fancy dinners or even to speak the language to really feel connected to a community. Being surrounded with good, honest people is what makes up a community and that is something I don’t pay nearly enough attention to in my Toronto life.

How did you feel you were able to give back to the community?
We were able to contribute to the ability for the children in the community to have a safe, secure place to learn. I know that the cost to go on the trip is what will ultimately fund the fact that by the time Me to We is finished in the Bella Vista community they will have sustainable health care, education, agriculture, income, clean water and sanitation. These people deserve at least those basic things in their lives.

What did you take away from this trip?
This trip reminded me that there are different ways of working together as a community. The idea of the ‘minga,’ which is a Quechua word that means coming together for the greater good of the community, expresses a simple concept that we should adopt into our own lives. These communities prove that no matter how little each individual has, if we work together we are able achieve large community projects.

To find out more about Aimia’s trip to Ecuador, check out their blog post.

Date Added: October 8, 2014 | Comments (1)

1 Comment »

This sounds amazing, such a big lesson for such a short trip! Those people will never forget what you volunteers have done for them – and vice versa I bet.

Comment by Avalon Waterways — April 20, 2015 @ 9:24 am

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