*Por Fin – At Last*

If providing education to the children of the indigenous Wishi Community were easy, it would have been done a long time ago.  The project that we took on was hard.  But this is what makes our success that much more exciting.

Last week 18 children started classes at La Escuela San Luis in the remote Wishi Community.  This is the first time that many of these children have ever seen a classroom, and they enthusiastically walked through the door of their new school with the pride and excitement that comes with the first day of school.

The path that took us to this day was long and challenging, but in the process we have built a strong foundation that will give strength to these children, the school, and the community at large.  The challenges we faced were real, but as promised we worked hard to find the truth, build a strong foundation for the project, and follow through to completion.

The indigenous people in this region have a long history of land troubles.  Few communities hold titles to their land, and many areas have a past of conflict and struggle.  This is one of the most threatened and marginalized communities in the area, and these challenges carried over to the project.  Furthermore, there is serious prejudice and animosity toward the indigenous people, which hinders every effort to work towards the fulfillment of their rights and liberties.  It also meant that our effort to help them move forward was challenged with scathing rumors and attempts to curtail our success.  However, from the start of this project we were guided by the philosophy that there are no problems, only solutions, and in the face of these challenges this philosophy became even more important.

In the last post, we committed to move forward with an eye towards truth, stability, answers and love – and we did just that.  We first spent over a month traveling throughout the country searching for the truth behind the rumors we had heard; building relationships with politicians, organizations, and prominent leaders throughout the region; discovering all the nuanced social and cultural dynamics; and rebuilding the project with a firm foundation of openness, honesty, and respect.  We gained the support of the president of the district, the local mayor, indigenous rights organizations, humanitarian groups, and most importantly the broader Shuar community.  This is just the foundation we needed to ensure the long term success of our project.

What we learned is that our project went far beyond the construction of a schoolhouse – we were by the side of a community who is fighting for legitimacy, respect and recognition, and we were honored to be there to support them.  While working on plans for the construction of the school, we were simultaneously helping them through the process of building the formal backing they needed for the stability of their community.  With the support and backing from local and national leaders, we helped them through the steps to establish their community as a legal entity, with a community based title to the land.  We held meetings in the community with the Federation of Shuar, the President of La Junta Parroquial Sangay, directors of the local land organization Etsa, and more.  We worked with an engineer to create and file an urbanization plan.  We filed documents declaring the members of the community, population, and formal community leaders.  And, we worked with them to apply for a Titulo Global, the ancestral land title giving the community a formal right to live on their land.  These were important steps to guarantee the legitimacy of the school, and these steps – along with the schoolhouse itself – helped the community to gain the recognition, respect, and legitimacy that they have been seeking for years.

Construction of the school began in May, and was completed in less than a month.  We had been planning and preparing for months, and the community had even constructed the entire frame during the time in which we were filing the documents.  We finished extracting and preparing the wood, bought all the necessary supplies, brought enough food in for the build, and began work – with every member of the community doing their part.  The men and adolescents worked from sunrise to sunset, the women ensured that we were all well fed and hydrated, and the children played alongside us and helped where they could.  After weeks of hard work, we had the amazing surprise that La Junta Parroquial, in solidarity and support, donated us roof panels to complete the construction.  We celebrated at the end of May with a big party, with food, dancing and music – friends from communities all around, armadillo soup, yuca and plantains, and plenty of the traditional drink chicha.  It felt like a grand success, but in reality our project had only just begun.

During the next six months, thanks to the heroic work of our project coordinator Ramon, the community was able to gain formal recognition of the school, get approval for a teacher, and enroll all of the students.  They put on all the finishing touches, painted the school, put the door on and got a contribution of desks, chairs and a chalkboard from the municipality.  We believed that our project was finally nearing completion.  The community began preparing for classes to begin, and we believed that classes would start just after Christmas.  Until at the last minute the district told us that as a new school, we would have to wait until the start of the next school year before they would be able to fund a teacher.

These students have not had a school for over three years, and many of them have never been to school at all.  We knew that we could not afford to miss the opportunity to prepare these students over the next nine months, to get them caught up to the extent possible before the next school year begins.  Fortunately, the community believes in our guiding philosophy, that there are no problems, only solutions.  They committed to finding a way to resolve this challenge.  Within weeks, they had put formal requests for support into all local offices, and Ramon contracted his brother-in-law Marcial – a certified bi-lingual Shuar Spanish professor – to give classes in the community.  Thankfully, Marcial was willing to do this without any certainty when, or if, he would be compensated for his work.  Classes began, and we anxiously awaited response from the local officials to see whether they would be willing to pay.  One by one the responses came back – there was no funding available to pay for our teacher.

Marcial continued teaching, and we kept trying to pursue any possible path to pay his salary both in the United States, and in Ecuador.  Each time we heard the same response: we would love to help, but we just do not have the funding.  Each passing day we lost confidence that we would ever be able to solve this final piece to truly complete our mission.  Meanwhile, Marcial was growing tired of teaching uncompensated for his hard work.

During this time it was important to remember that throughout this project we have faced many daunting challenges, and we have maintained faith that we would succeed, and sure enough solutions have arisen like miracles out of what sometimes seems like a hopeless situation.  Last week we experienced yet another miracle.  Owing to the mysteries of coincidence and circumstance, over a cup of coffee and an article in National Geographic, we found a sponsor for our teacher.  The New York Soccer Project, an organization that funds charity projects through the player fees of a NYC soccer league, has generously agreed to pay Marcial through next Fall when the district has committed to take over payments.  This is truly the final piece that we needed, and now the Escuela San Luis is a formally recognized, fully functioning school, with a paid certified bi-lingual teacher at the front of a fully equipped classroom.

The children of the Wishi Community have their school.  Por fin.  At last.

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Making moves – full update coming soon…

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With full support from the mayor, municipality, and the president of the Parroquia (district) we should soon be moving forward.  Everyone in the community is working hard to get all of the land and building documents finalized, and preparing for the build.

Thanks for your continued support and enthusiasm – full update coming soon.

Elizabeth

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community meetings

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*Dificultades, Soluciónes – Challenges, Solutions*

Dear Friends of the Wishi Project,

We have been in Ecuador almost exactly one month, and in this time we have experienced many triumphs and encountered many challenges.  We have made many great contacts, learned a lot, made progress with the community on planning and construction, and laid important groundwork to move forward from this point.  We have also come upon some serious controversies, rumors, complications and roadblocks.  The challenge that we face is to have the strength to celebrate the successes and to overcome the difficulties.  And we are doing just that.

We were welcomed to the community with loving, open arms.  The children have all grown a bit, and learned a lot.  Alcón, who last year could barely hold a pen, wrote his name for me in the sand; Narcisa counted to ten in English; and they all sat around reading aloud from the books we brought for them.  To keep the kids on track, they have had a teacher in the community working with the kids in preparation for their formal school.  Unfortunately, their teacher left after four months because the makeshift school they were using was too small, not well closed in, and flooded badly during the rainy season.  Everyone is excited for that to be a problem of the past.

After a series of meetings in the community, we created a construction schedule, a design for the school, and a concrete list of materials with approximate costs.  We planned a ‘minga’ – a community work project – in which everyone agreed to volunteer their time, building, cooking, and doing anything else that is needed to make the project happen.  Ramón has been working tirelessly to finish the wood extraction, and it is nearly done and looks beautiful.  The community has submitted a formal proposal to the Dirección requesting funding for the professor: a young, enthusiastic woman who is professionally certified and speaks fluent Shuar; and the mayor himself assured me that when the school building is built he will be behind us with desks, chalkboards, uniforms, and anything else we are lacking.

During our time here, we have spent time in other Shuar communities, gotten to know lots of their extended family, participated in a sacred ceremony and attended Ramón’s wedding.  We have met other foreigners who have worked and lived in these communities, and gotten to know many of the locals in the nearby cities.  We have built great relationships with JUNTA, a local organization which works for child rights; COICA, a multi-national indigenous rights organization; the Palora Municipality; and more.  Everyone we have met has been warm and loving, and welcomed us with incredible graciousness and kindness.

Unfortunately, all of these experiences were shrouded and marred by concerns, controversies and challenges.  Many locals shared with us scathing rumors about the character and reputation of Shuar communities.  Questions came up about land rights, land ownership, and the validity of their presence in the area.  We heard stories of Shuar schools being burned by the government with no warning or explanation.  And all of this came to us amidst a controversial local mayorial election which we were told could potentially threaten the school and even our safety.  We got caught in this whirlwind, with new information and claims coming to us every day, and it became increasingly hard to separate facts from fictions, rumors from reality.

Throughout all of this it became important to remember that behind the mystery there is a truth, beneath chaos there is stability, in confusion there are answers, and beyond fear there is love.  The challenge was to not get overwhelmed by all the noise, not to dwell on the problems, and to instead find ways to work dilligently and effectively to find solutions where they exist.

We decided to spend some time away from the area, let the election pass, and wait for the dust to settle to allow us to see things more clearly.  A friend we met in our travels was generous enough to host us and all the volunteers at his beautiful Hostel in Riobamba.  We spent this time speaking with people who better understand the nuances of these communities and the governments, meeting people in various agencies who may help us in the future, and determining a path to move forward with all the formal backing we can get.  Just as importantly, we had some time to relax and clear our heads to discover the right way to move forward.

There are three important things that we must do before we will move forward: ensure the safety of everyone involved; guarantee the legality of the building project; and protect the continued functioning of the school into the future.  We are currently working with COICA, an indigenous rights organization in Quito, to help us arrange all the necessary formal support.  The community has been incredibly helpful and patient throughout all of this, and they are now working to gather all of the documentation from APKIUS, FICSH and CONFENAIE to document their legitimacy.  Ecuador Volunteer continues to be very supportive in all ways, and we are consitently in touch with JUNTA, who will help us follow through with funding for the teacher when the time comes.  This is just a small part of the incredible community of support that we are working with.

We are so lucky to have gained many contacts, both professional and personal, who are helping us navigate this process.  We are moving forward with enthusiasm, but with appropriate caution, to ensure that everything is secure as we advance with the project.

And, we continue forward with an eye toward truth, stability, answers and love.

Sigamos en adelante,
Elizabeth

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Aqui in Quito – Here in Quito

We have arrived in Quito.  I am here with the documentary team, Ashley Bishop and Jim Brassard; Eden´s Rose Foundation Director Greg Sheldon; and Global Student Embassy NE Director Peter Treagan.  We will bring in the New Year here in Quito, meet early next week with Mary Bonilla at the Ecuador Volunteer Foundation, and head into the forest by the end of next week.

In the mean time, the Wishi Community is getting the wood finished, and preparing for our arrival.  We have enlisted a contractor who will carry out the project, and ideally we will start work as soon as we arrive.

We will continue fundraising during these next few months, and as always you can donate through PayPal or by check.  For more details visit wishi.org/donate.  We are $7,000 from our total fundraising goal and since we will not be actively fundraising, we deeply appreciate your support.

Thank you, as always, for your interest in the Wishi Project.

Con cariño,

Elizabeth

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Un Milagro – A Miracle

To the friends of the Wishi Project,

Nine months ago this project was founded.  It was founded based on the humble desire of a community in the middle of the rainforest, and on my impossible belief that this desire could be fulfilled.  Today this dream is becoming a reality.

In one week we will be in Ecuador, beginning our work on the ground to establish a school for the children of the Wishi Community in middle of the rainforest.  This school will give the invaluable gift of education – something that the community has always dreamed of providing for their children, but never had the resources to realize.  There will be a school building with fully equipped classrooms and ample supplies.  There will be a professionally certified bilingual Shuar-Spanish teacher.  There will be a space for the community to gather and share their knowledge and talents that have helped them to survive for centuries.  There will be a formal framework to help them to preserve their rich language, culture, and lifestyle.  And perhaps most importantly, the families will no longer have to decide between staying unified together in the community, or leaving to provide their children with an education.  And all this has happened in just nine short months.  This is nothing short of a miracle.

This dream is being made real because I was not alone in my determination to help my friends in the Wishi Community.  This dream is being made real because of all of you.

In reflecting on all of this I realize that we are capable of manifesting miracles.  This is happening because we came together around a common vision, each of us lending our talents with the belief that we, together, can do this.  And we are doing it.  Each of us is individually talented, capable, and strong, but together we are powerful beyond measure.  Let’s remember that together, all things are possible, and, therefore, in the words of Albert Schwietzer, “let us search and see where we might invest our humanity”.

Here is some insight into what has gone into making this project possible (this is not an exhaustive list, I apologize, I know I have missed many of you)…

Thanks to:

Jane Quinn, for bringing the dream to earth by donating the first $1,000 to the project

Nick Crounse, for media relations assistance and guidance

Diane de Feliz, for inviting me and supporting me in working with her students at Hackett Middle School

Hackett Middle School ESL class, for help with advertising, fundraising, and awareness, and for showing me the amazing things that our young people are capable of

Karen Schupack, for providing guidance and support in all aspects of the project, and for hosting the fundraiser, From Our Community to Yours, at the Albany Art Room

Jessica Charde, for promoting the project through the UAlbany International Education Program

Joe Micancin, for insight and guidance navigating the world of international engagement and exchange

Gary Bowitch, for holding a successful fundraiser at his home and helping to raise awareness about the project

Aubrey Menard, for endless fundraising advice

Erica Van Etten, for her wisdom about the Shuar people and the Ecuadorian legal, political, social systems

Ramon Vargas, for representing the Wishi Community as the project coordinator

Mary Bonilla and the Ecuador Volunteer Foundation, for doing the work on the ground that we couldn’t do from afar

Dan Curtis, for help with graphics and design work

Steve Brooks, for help with building a library

Joel Tirado and Sammy Frumkin, for enthusiasm and insight into the college world

Hannah Walker, for collaboration on the Sketchbook Project

Zach Zirlin, for helping to create the Wishi video

Jeff Quinn and his students at Parson’s, for designing logos and posters for the project

Katie Quinn, for her remarkable work at Medfield Church raising money and collecting school supplies

Maria Grahn-Farley, Hilary Lamishaw, and Kristen Hessler for inviting me to speak to their classes at Albany Law, St. Rose, and UAlbany, respectively

Greg Mortenson, for forging an inspiring path and for his encouraging words

Jim Brassard and Ashley Bishop, for their tireless work in creating a documentary of the project

Jon Poulter, for providing high resolution photos of the community and so much more

Andrew Dean, for hosting a successful fundraising dinner at his home

Victorio Reyes and the Social Justice Center, for providing a comfortable and inspiring place to work

Peter Treagan, for his support through Global Student Embassy

Rachel Woodward, for lending her skills as a writer to many aspects of the project

Mark Brogna at Capital Wine and Spirits for all of his contributions to the project

All of the Lark St. Business owners, for contributing to the gift baskets which were auctioned at the fundraiser

Ambassador Robert Gosende, for fostering the impact of internation service and study on public diplomacy

Greg Sheldon and Kristie Hamilton with the Eden’s Rose Foundation for providing enormous formal and moral support to the Wishi Project

Kerry Quinn, Matt Gray, Casey Gray, Ian Gray, Jackson Gray, Gregor Sayet-Bone, Zia Anger, Tommy Watkins, Kyle Carney, Alix Faguet, Gavi Cohen, Aubrey Menard, Morgan Edwards, Lobo Enoc Gonzalez, Sammy Frumkin, and many others for the day to day encouragement, support, challenge, and foundation that is necessary to fuel this sort of undertaking.

From myself and on behalf of the Wishi Community I say, Thank You.

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Article on UAlbany News page about the Wishi Project

http://www.albany.edu/news/11195.php

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