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Voluntourism: On the ground with Aimia and Me to We in Ecuador

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

I’d always been a little skeptical of “voluntours.”

A few years ago I met a woman who was working for a not-for-profit organization in El Salvador and she shared (over a few beers) her many frustrations. Money was being used to build infrastructure that local communities didn’t use, or the dynamic created a dependency on foreign money and volunteers.

So I was intrigued when I was invited to join a group of employees from Aimia (a loyalty management company that owns Aeroplan) on a volunteer trip to Ecuador with Me to We, part of international charity Free the Children.

Ecuador1Aside from supporting various charitable causes, Aimia takes it one step further by sending employees on voluntours — and even better, the company pays for the time off work, rather than forcing employees to use their vacation days. (Seriously, why don’t more companies do this?)

But, would our group actually be making any difference on the ground, where it really counts?

Lauren Ott, manager of executive projects with Free the Children, told me they consult with the local community not once, but six times before agreeing to a project. The community must come up with the idea and commit to 10 per cent, whether in the form of money or other resources. That means they’re building something they actually need — and they have a stake in the project.

It took two days to get there. We flew from Toronto to Mexico City to Panama City to Quito … went through customs at midnight … caught a few hours of sleep before an eight-hour bus ride that wound up and over the Andes and dropped into the Amazon Basin. Thankfully I’m not prone to motion sickness.

Ecuador2After half an hour on a motorized canoe, we arrived at Minga Eco Lodge. “Minga” is a word that doesn’t have a direct translation in the English language. Probably because it doesn’t really exist in North America: If I bellowed out the door of my condo, how likely would it be that all my neighbours would drop everything and swing by to help me with whatever task needed to be done?

Well, that’s essentially what a minga is: coming together for the communal good. And yes, in Ecuador people actually do this.

From Minga Eco Lodge we traveled by motorized canoe each day to the village of Bella Vista Baja, where our rubber boots squished through the muck and we had to make due with one toilet. Oh — and no cell coverage or electricity or running water.

But this is where I learned the true meaning of a minga.

We were helping the community build a school. This takes six to eight months — and we were only there for a week. But other volunteers would come and go, like us. The community was in charge of the project; we were there to help with whatever they happened to need help with at that moment in time.

Ecuador3

And that week it happened to be re-bar.

Considering I thought “re-bar” was an after-hours club, I was worried I’d actually be more of a hindrance than help. The guys could saw through a piece of re-bar in, seemingly, two seconds, while I sawed away for a good 10 minutes, my muscles on fire.

But our efforts helped — at least in some small way — to build what will be the foundation of a new school. It wasn’t about how fast we could saw through re-bar. It was simply the fact we were there, and had traveled so far, to be part of this minga. That seemed to mean a lot to the people of Bella Vista Baja.

The point being, it was their minga. It’s their project, their school and their future. Not all voluntour opportunities are created equal. The sign of an effective charitable organization is one that helps to build a self-sustaining community — and then takes its leave.Ecuador4


Date Added: October 22, 2014 | Comments (0)

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