Ecuador: Immersion and Insight

Recently, my niece Katherine asked about my visit to Ecuador this past summer. She’s in the process of choosing a country to study abroad in. Katherine wants to pick one that’ll help her understand the concept of social justice better. I took the opportunity to ask myself: What was my experience in Ecuador; what had I learned? In one respect, the experience was familiar and comfortable. I was with my partner Steph, who can make me feel at home anywhere in the world. We lived in a large house with a middle class family who fed us delicious meals. We were driven to and from Spanish class and our volunteer sites. There were 2-hour siestas when I’d eat a big lunch and then sit down to complete a Spanish lesson on Life wasn’t hard.

It was a contrast to the day-to-day lives of the families we tried to provide mental health services to. Through volunteering at four non-profit sites, we came to know children who spent most of their day on the street selling fruit and water; mothers and wives living in fear with men who beat them and within a society slow to protect them; and many families who struggled to find adequate food, water, and shelter.

I felt pretentious sitting across from these families with psychological skills and perspective to offer. Each day, dozens wanted to meet with us. We only had a few hours to try to provide them something of value. And in some ways we did. We recorded snapshots of their lives that would be used by healthcare providers long after we returned to the U.S. We listened to their pain and their hope, holding each for them as best we could. We valued their story and strained at times to find the empathy that would convey our understanding of their experience. We learned about ourselves, our shared humanity and relative privilege.

Yet, for all that we did, we did very little. It was a lesson in the limitations of using any one intervention.

The children and families we served in Ecuador would benefit from psychological services, no doubt. But they also deserve broader access to healthcare, education, and workforce development. This requires more than a few psychology students gathering data and providing brief treatment for five weeks. We need educators, healthcare professionals, lawyers, and social entrepreneurs to volunteer their time in service of the Ecuadorian people. When we bring an inter-disciplinary team of professionals to the table, our impact will be tremendous.

The fate of those I met in Ecuador is not static. Their lives and the world they will know are directly connected to the decisions we make about how we spend our time and money.

You can make a difference. To learn how, send an email to Jonnie Gonzales and plan to visit Guayaquil, Ecuador for your next vacation or study-abroad program: Hope this helps Katherine!