When I walked into the Guardería it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the low light. The facility is a giant cement box with 4 “classrooms” partitioned off at shoulder level with wood and cane walls. If I hadn’t known, it would have taken me a moment to realize it was a place for children. But then a little cannonball of energy came sprinting out of the dark and wrapped herself around my knees. She grabbed my hands and pulled me down to her level so she could give me a hug that made her seem bigger then her tiny 4-year-old body seemed capable of. “¿Como te llamas niña?” “¡Tatiana!” she announced. I introduced her to Ella, the new volunteer I had brought from the Spanish school, and the two of them immediately collapsed to the cement floor to play like they’d know each-other for years.
Once my eyes had adjusted better to the light, I could make out that the kids and staff had covered the walls with all the colorful paintings. They had infused the dark drab room with love. A group of little boys surrounded me, all talking at the same time, vying for my attention and demanding I take photos of them. How could I say no to such adorable little models?
The Guardaría gets a small stipend from the government in order to help the free daycare center provide breakfast and lunch to the children of the village of Manglaralto who go there. The women who run the place all work for free. The reason for the depressing lack of lighting is because the upper floor of the building used to have tenants who had run an electricity bill of a few hundred dollars and then disappeared without paying. Unable to pay it off themselves, the women and children have been left in semi-darkness with the only the little bit of natural light coming in from tiny “windows”, actually just slits in the cement walls, and a few light bulbs that the firehouse next-door has run over for them. As ridiculous as this setup was to me, it has not seemed to dampen the spirits of the kids, whose smiles and energy seem to be a power source of their own.
Betsy, the young woman who runs the daycare, took me on a tour through the partitioned off sections, divided by age group. Each “room” was covered in the kids artwork, and a small bookshelf with a few tattered picture books and art supplies. We had brought 2 bags of toys and books with us, as well as several meters of carpet to cover the cement floor in the room for the 0-1 year olds so that the babies wouldn’t have to crawl around on cold cement. The kids grabbed the new toys and the staff cooed over the popup books. I took pictures so that the next time a potential volunteer asks me why I want them to pay a donation to volunteer, I can show them. Yes, the donation of their time is so valuable to a small place like this, but a little bit of money for them means giving something to the daycare that will last long after they leave.
I go into the tiny kitchen/closet to introduce myself to the women making breakfast for the kids. They are warm and friendly, and after moments we discover all our connections and we’re like old friends. One of the beauties of living in a little village is that even when you meet new people, there’s usually only one degree of separation at most. They give me a hot cup of colada morada, a sweet drink made from berries, pineapple, cinnamon, cloves, and thickened with cornstarch, we joke around about latino men, and they demand to know when I’m going to get married and settle down. I laugh. “No sé señoras, mi mamá quiere saber lo mismo.”
I’ve explained my clients that volunteering at a daycare may not seem as impressive as volunteering at a clinic or building houses. It may not seem like such a big deal if you’re describing what you did in Ecuador to fellow backpackers in a hostel, but a free daycare means that the women in a poor community like Manglaralto have the opportunity to work outside home and contribute to the family income, or pursue an education. Two free meals a day for your children in a part of the world where making $400 a month is a great job, can help a family in more ways then a lot of people can realize. Volunteering here is not an insignificant contribution. It’s kind of a big deal. And did I mention how friggin adorable the kids are? Maybe you need another picture: