What began as a student service trip turned into a deeper mission…

In the Summer of 2010, I traveled to Cuenca, Ecuador with a group of students on a University of Maryland Alternative Break community service trip. My peers and I were a group of like-minded, service-oriented college kids looking to make some sort of positive change in the world without any real idea of how that change was to come about.

Upon arriving in Ecuador, however, we had our questions answered. Words cannot describe our time at the Arturo Quesada School in Ayaloma, Ecuador. Some of my peers painted and cleaned; others worked in the classrooms. No matter the task, our focus was on the kids. Every day our relationships with the children grew and grew until by the end of the trip, each of us had our one or two kids whom we were ready to adopt into our own families. For such an impoverished and physically degraded community, Ayaloma boasts some of the most positive, caring, and learned individuals I have ever met. The residents of Ayaloma warmly embraced us with open arms and we eagerly embraced them in return. Needless to say, our last day at the school was an emotional one.

I felt sad and yet hopeful when I returned home. I missed Ecuador – the school, the children, the culture. The 10 days we spent there were not enough bring about significant changes to the education of the students whom we worked with. My work in Ecuador was not done and I knew it was only a matter of time before I began making plans for a return trip. And so began the development of “Bilingual Backpacks.”

When I worked at the Arturo Quesada School, I was struck by the barrenness of the classrooms. They lack color and do not promote a fun atmosphere. Each and every school day runs on pencils and paper. Although the students and teachers seem to succeed in such a lackluster environment, studies have shown that most of the children that I worked with will not receive any schooling beyond the age of 12.

Bilingual Backpacks runs on two tracts. The first is a simple one – to enliven the classroom experience for the children. I’d like to give every single child at the Arturo Quesada School a backpack full of school supplies to both broaden their learning potential and put smiles on their faces. The more creative the lessons, the more engaged students will become, and the better chance students will consider schooling in the future.

What makes each backpack “bilingual” is the inclusion of a Spanish-English children’s book. The children I worked with have an amazing desire to learn. Putting books into their hands will spur better reading habits, promote reading at home, and ultimately curb low literacy rates, not to mention unite Spanish and English-speaking cultures.

Ultimately, I’d like to leave the students with something more long-term and sustainable than simple school supplies, which is why I’d like to return to Ecuador with my peers to implement meaningful enrichment activities, although what those activities might entail are still a work in progress.

It is hard to say why I have become so attached to this project. Sure, I am appalled by the educational statistics of Ecuador’s indigenous community and even more appalled by some of the conditions in which the students live, work, and play. But perhaps this project is my excuse to play another pick-up game of soccer with the children while having the Andes Mountains as my backdrop.

I realize now that this project is both in part for the children and in part for me. While in Ecuador, my happiness hinged on their happiness, and that connection remains the same through the development of this project. There is a broader world beyond College Park, and although I am often a victim of the stress that comes with college life, working on this project puts into perspective just how pointless my worrying can be. My advice to anyone: see the world! Only then will you find what you are looking for.

–Tim Ghazzawi

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