Linnea Menin - 2015 Program Participant

Volunteers hanging out with llamas on a weekend trip

What made you choose Ecuador as a volunteer abroad destination?

When I was deciding where to go for my gap year, I realized that I only had enough money to fly to one country. Since I was going to be in the same country for six months, I looked for one that had a lot of geographical variety so there would be plenty to explore. Ecuador was perfect for this because it is comprised of four totally different environmental regions; the Andes highlands, the Amazon Rainforest, the Pacific coast, and the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador is also a small country with a really good public transportation system, which made traveling within it fairly easy and inexpensive.

During my research for this trip, I found Ecuador to be one of the safest countries in South America, which was very important to me considering I was an inexperienced traveler and a young woman traveling virtually alone. I also really wanted to perfect my Spanish. I had taken four years of the language is high school, but I wanted to be able to actually communicate with Spanish speakers in person, something that only an immersive experience would give me. 

Volunteers, their host families, and staff members celebrating Fiestas de Quito at the Volunteer Connection Ecuador (VCE) office.

Why did you select IVHQ over other volunteer abroad organizations? 

IVHQ was by far the most reasonably priced of all the organizations I looked into, which was a really important factor for me, considering that I paid for the trip with money I earned. They also had many types of volunteer programs available in a huge range of countries.

IVHQ’s website looked very professional and well put together, which made a really good impression, and there were lots of rave reviews from people who had taken part in their programs. I also really liked how flexible IVHQ was in the length of their programs. The fact that you can volunteer anywhere from two weeks to six months for many of the placements means that I will probably use IVHQ again when I want to travel for a shorter period of time.

What were your housing arrangements like in Quito? What was the best part about it? 

I was incredibly lucky when it came to my housing arrangements in Quito. I could not have been placed with a kinder or more welcoming host family. My host mom and her two sons, ages eleven and nine, were so friendly, affectionate, and helpful that I felt at home almost immediately. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the boys really enjoyed hanging out with the volunteers, despite the age and language differences. We had a lot of fun battling with foam swords, and they were always inviting us to watch movies with them. It just so happened that we had a mutual love of The Avengers, so this worked out very well.

My host mom was really helpful while I was learning Spanish because she was always happy to have a conversation with me so I could practice. She obviously has had a lot of practice speaking to volunteers for whom spanish is not their first language because she talks very slowly and clearly, which was immensely helpful during the first few months. I got so attached to my host family that I went back and visited them three more times during my trip, long after my time with the Street Children program in Quito was over.

Describe a day in the life of your program.

On a normal day in the Street Children program, I would wake up between 7 and 7:30 a.m. My host mom would normally provide oatmeal, fruit, bread, and tea for breakfast. I would leave the house around 8 a.m. with the rest of my housemates in order to catch the bus to the Volunteer Connection Ecuador (VCE) office about 15 minutes away. By 8:30 am I was at the local placement organization’s office (UBECI) office where all the volunteers met each morning in order to receive instructions before leaving for the markets around 9 a.m.

I was also taking Spanish lessons, so instead of taking the bus to that day’s market with the majority of the volunteers, I would walk across the street to the VCE office after the meeting ended. I then had three hours of lessons with my teacher Luis, starting around 9:30 a.m. When my lessons finished at 12:30 p.m. I would go and get lunch from one of the restaurants close to the offices before taking the bus to the market to meet up with the rest of the volunteers. I usually arrived at the market around 1:30 p.m.

While we waited for all the kids to arrive for the afternoon program, we had about 45 minutes of play time during which the children could read, play with blocks, or kick a soccer ball around. As they arrived, we helped the children wash their hands with soap and bowls of water set off to the side.

After about an hour of play time, we would gather into a circle to sing songs and play games like tiburon, the spanish version of fishy, fishy cross my ocean, to get the kids moving. After about a half hour of this we would begin the activity of the week. Each week had a different theme and corresponding activity. For example, if the theme of the week was gender equality, we might have the kids looking through magazines to find pictures of men doing women’s jobs and vice versa to cut out and paste into a collage. The children were split into three groups; babies to three year olds, four to seven year olds, and seven to eleven year olds. Older kids, usually 12 and up, would often split into another group and get help with their homework from some of the volunteers.

Linnea helping one of the children in the program to wash her hands

The activities would vary slightly between groups based on the skills the children possessed, and the skills they needed to learn. For example, the youngest group often did crafts that involved things like putting beads on a string, in order to develop their hand-eye coordination.

If children finished the project early, they were usually given a coloring page and some crayons. After about an hour and a half, we would start to wrap things up. When it was time to go, the kids would form a line and sing a goodbye song before receiving a sticker. Finally, we would head back to the offices on the bus and then I would make my way back to my host mom's house. We would usually eat dinner between 7 and 8 p.m., which gave us time to take a nap, work on our spanish homework, and just chill out after an exhausting, but satisfying day.

What was your favorite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule of volunteering?

 I really enjoyed exploring Quito with the other volunteers. I made some amazing friends during my time with this program, and it was really cool to experience a new country with them. The volunteers came from all over the world, so it was also great to meet people from different countries and learn about their cultures. 

What makes the IVHQ program in Quito unique?

For one thing, when they say the program is in Quito, they really mean it. The markets we went to were located in the city, not in the suburbs like many of the other volunteer programs I looked into. This made it really easy and accesible to explore Quito on the weekends and also gave me a feel for what it is like to live in the heart of a bustling city. I have lived in the same small town my whole life, so this was something I had never experienced before.

What are the top reasons you’d want to go back to Ecuador?

I would definitely want to go back to Ecuador to visit some of the amazing friends I made while I was there, as well as my host family. I really connected with many of the staff members working in the local offices, and on the program with us. It would also be very interesting to visit the markets again and see how the children I worked with in the program have grown and developed since I last saw them.

Would you recommend this IVHQ program working with the market street children in Quito to others?

 Absolutely, I loved the Street Children program because I could see the difference I was making in the lives of the children we worked with. I feel like IVHQ worked very well with the local volunteer organizations like UBECI, and all the staff were very supportive and helpful to the volunteers.