I applied to become the leader of my school’s Global Outreach (GO!) project to Quito, Ecuador, on a whim — a whim that took into account neither the fact that I would be responsible for the lives of nine other people in a foreign country, nor any concern that I had never even traveled outside of the state without parental assistance. This whim, however, was connected to an intense desire to serve. The added bonus being the opportunity to help the people in whose culture I had been raised.
As I would later share with my guinea pigs (the endearing title I gave to my team), though I was not born there, Ecuador had always been my motherland. I grew up with the my mother’s stories of living with papito Nicanor in the farmlands of el campo, what my mom would describe as a place filled with poverty disguised by beautiful fields and mountains. I had visited the ceviche vendors on the beach of Esmeraldas with my grandmother, milked a cow on my great-grandfather’s farm in Ricaurte, and even hopelessly rooted for Ecuador’s soccer team during the 2006 FIFA World Cup in the streets of Guayaquil. So, when I got the call, I was excited not only to volunteer alongside my fellow schoolmates, but also to return home.
The doubts, which I had completely overlooked with my original impulse to apply, resurfaced when it was time to depart from the airport. After a series of bad omens that included a snowstorm, a flight cancellation and an epic battle between a flight attendant and Mama G (the nickname bestowed upon me by my guinea pigs), I was beginning to curse the whim that had placed me on this path. While my team embarked on their journey to Quito with nervous excitement, I was overcome with a sense of impending doom — a feeling I later understood to be the bewildering anticipation of facing the reality of the stories of my mother’s youth.
Although I had experienced the humbling awareness of my own privilege on other service projects, a new feeling came over me as I walked down the jagged and muddy steps of our first house visit. All I could see was mami: my mom who walked barefoot to school, had to dig through the garbage when there wasn’t enough to eat, and risked her life coming to the United States in order to escape the hardships of her home.
In truth, my mom was raised six hours away from the capital and likely had never seen Quito until much later in her life. Yet, there I was, invaded by thoughts of my mother in the motherland. The observation was the first of many recurring thoughts surrounding my mom. I thought of her while I played with Miguel, an energetic boy who fell in love with my camera; and throughout my makeover overseen by Ginger, a teenager able to train to be a beautician thanks to the Working Boys’ Center.
Yet, never was my mother’s presence as strong as when we visited la sierra, an area in Quito similar to the Cuencan campo of my mom’s childhood. The Working Boys’ Center’s volunteer coordinator, Sister Judy, scheduled a visit to the kids’ family homes. It was easy to delude oneself about the real-life problems occurring in Quito when playing tag with the kids within the four walls of the WBC complex, but that day we were forced to stare poverty in the face. Although I had experienced the humbling awareness of my own privilege on other service projects, a new feeling came over me as I walked down the jagged and muddy steps of our first house visit. The same “impending doom” sensation from the first day of the trip overwhelmed me. All I could see was mami: my mom who walked barefoot to school, had to dig through the garbage when there wasn’t enough to eat, and risked her life coming to the United States in order to escape the hardships of her home. I found pieces of her everywhere.
In the solitude of my own room, I confronted the day’s revelations with a combination of tears, words and prayer. Fits of crying released my frustration over everything I had realized. At the forefront of these realizations was the fact that there had been no one there to help my mother. While I rejoiced in the WBC’s ability to feed their families three times a day, six days a week, that fact only served to harden the blow of realizing my own provider had never been provided for. In response to my pain, I began to write a most likely illegible and incoherent letter to my mom. Though I doubted I could fully capture the heartbreak I felt at encountering the reality of her childhood and adolescence, I needed to thank her for her strength, apologize for my past acts of disobedience, and tell her how much I loved her. While I knew there weren’t enough “I love you’s” in the world to convey the respect, admiration and affection I had for my mom, I sealed the envelope with a hope that she would understand.
A knock on my door signaled that it was time to begin living in the moment instead of paying visits to the past, but before I led the reflection of the day with my team, I had to say a prayer of gratitude for my mother. She had me at 19 and sacrificed her own dreams so mine could have a chance to flourish. My “mama dearest” had overcome what many around me in Quito were facing, and I thanked God for teaching me resiliency through her example. Furthermore, though her own lack of resources tore at me inside, I thanked God for places like the Working Boys’ Center, where people dedicated their time and effort to lifting up people like my mother.
It was this prayer that re-fanned the flame of service which I had taken with me to Ecuador. While I was not under the illusion that I could save the world, I was encouraged to try and set it on fire with the same flame that burned within me.