Expats In Ecuador Give Back To The Community
Like most of the other 200 North Americans living in the area, Laurie Miller and Larry Evans were smitten by the charm of Vilcabamba from the first time they saw it. Tucked into an emerald valley in southern Ecuador, 40 miles from the Peruvian border, Vilcabamba is renowned for its picturesque landscape, great weather, and easygoing rural lifestyle.
Often called the “Valley of Longevity,” because of the claim that it is home to an exceptionally large number of elderly residents, some researchers say that Vilcabamba does indeed possess special, almost magical, qualities that promote healthy living and long life. Adding to the allure is its sheer remoteness, which has earned it another title: “The end of the world.”
Although Miller and Evans were attracted to Vilcabamba for all the usual reasons and had many friends in the growing expat community, they knew they wanted a deeper involvement in the larger community.
“The people here welcomed us with open arms and enriched our lives. This is our home now, and we felt we needed to give something back,” says Evans, who relocated to Vilcabamba from Los Angeles in 2002.
Miller and Evans worked on a number of community projects over the years, but, in 2010, they decided to organize their efforts into a more coherent structure. The result was the One World Vilcabamba Foundation, established with the help of their friend Paúl Leon.
The foundation’s major work is teaching English to Ecuadorians, who range in age from school children to older adults. To date, the project has provided free instruction to more than 400 students.
Classes of 25 students are taught by eight native-English-speaking teachers at the Colegio Nacional Vilcabamba, with younger students attending class at 5 in the afternoon and adults at 6. The basic program includes three months of classroom instruction, plus extra study for school children during holidays. The foundation offers nine levels of instruction in all, and students who complete the entire three-year program graduate with advanced speaking and writing skills.
One World, however, is about more than simply teaching English, says Evans. “The English instruction is the centerpiece of the program but we are also interested in seeing the new communications skills improve our students’ lives and improve the community in general.”
In addition to offering English classes, One World provides low-cost Spanish instruction to English-speaking expats, support for local teachers and schools, including a traveling library of English-language books, programs to train farmers in sustainable agricultural practices, and efforts to promote the native culture.
“Our goal is to provide a framework that allows people to be successful at whatever they want to do and, at the same time, to build a better community,” says Miller. “We also want to build a healthy relationship between the local population and the foreign expats of Vilcabamba.”
Miller and Evans see the results of their efforts when local carpenters, craftspeople and gardeners are employed by expats. A number of expat homes, in fact, have been built by graduates of the language program.
“Being able to speak English opens doors that would otherwise be closed,” says Evans.
One of the projects Miller and Evans are most proud of is an ongoing series of community work days, called mingas. The mingas have assisted in tree planting, organic gardening, and community clean-up projects. “These help make people proud of where they live,” says Miller.
One World’s efforts are appreciated by local government and educators, including Adálber Gaona, chairman of the Vilcabamba town council. “The contribution of the foreigners has been very valuable to us, both socially and educationally,” he says, adding that English-language skills learned in the classroom lead to new employment options. Like Miller, he believes that building personal relationships between Vilcabamba’s local population and expats is one of One World’s greatest successes.
One World marked its third anniversary in February, and the number of students continues to grow. “We’re very pleased with the progress we’ve made and look forward to the future,” Evans says. He adds: “Best of all, we know that we are involved in the community. We feel at home.”
For more information about the One World Vilcabamba Foundation and how to contribute to its efforts, see here.
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