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Volunteer in Ecuador
Senior Travel

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Magazine Cover for Latin America 2013

Ecuador's Volunteer Opportunities for "Grown Ups"

Eco-Focus to Social Service for the Mature Traveler

Volunteer with the Villa Tica Daycare with LEAD Adventures
Norma from Britain and young Fernando get acquainted at the Villa Tica Daycare in Quito. ©Photo courtesy of LEAD Adventures.

From the capital, Quito, to the edge of Ecuador's Amazon region, I shared a 6-hour car trip with Daniel Fludgate, an inspiring British police officer who dedicates a month's holiday each year to volunteering in some part of the world. For his 2010 vacation, he had chosen a wild animal rescue center run by an Ecuadorian family. On an entirely different mission, I was roaming the country to research a variety of volunteer opportunities, particularly those suitable for independent adult travelers from about 35 years to senior-hood.

It is not hard to identify volunteer needs in many developing countries like Ecuador. However, there is always a challenge in finding in-country organizations and projects with a track record of efficiently matching the willing individual volunteer with creative, reliable service projects, while making all living and working arrangements, and shepherding volunteers through their chosen experience from arrival to departure. To help me with my research, I was fortunate to discover Quito-based LEAD Adventures, whose dedicated staff carry out these tall orders year round. While the majority of their clients are still young people, they are measuring a rapidly growing clientele among adult travelers as well.

Launched in 2004 by Ecuadorian Enrique Torres, following his years of university study and investment banking work in the U.S., LEAD Adventures' ever-expanding menu of carefully-researched programs has hosted over 2,000 participants in conservation, social service, sports development, and education. Best of all, the LEAD team does understand and respect the needs and interests of older participants, offering alternatives and customization to what they call their Grown Up clients. I'll share stories about two of my own experiences to illustrate projects with a recognized appeal to older travelers.

Wildlife in the Amazon

When Daniel and I arrived at Yanacocha Animal Rescue Center in late afternoon, we were welcomed by Inge Marks, the center's volunteer coordinator from Holland, then escorted to our respective 3-bed cabins (one for males and one for females with a bathroom and shower cabin in between). German Flores and his son Jorge soon arrived on the cabin porch to make sure we were comfortable. Living on this vast jungle property themselves, the Flores family wants every volunteer to feel like an honored guest in their home and country. In 2009 German retired from a career as Director of Education for his province; now he is clearly comfortable in radically different work clothes, perpetually wearing gumboots and carrying a machete. Jorge has a degree in agronomy specializing in medicinal plants and is Director of the center. Both are passionate about their mission of animal rescue, rehabilitation and re-introduction to the wild where possible. Both recognize that international volunteers are what make their mission possible.

A volunteer Chilean veteranarian feeds a baby coati in Ecuador
A volunteer Chilean veteranarian feeds a baby coati dropped off at the Yanacocha Animal Rescue Center.
©Photo courtesy of Alison Gardner.

As we toured many acres of well-maintained buildings and jungle-setting enclosures, we met a Chilean veterinarian, Tatiana, patiently feeding an abandoned new-born coati with a tiny milk bottle. She had read about Yanacocha on the Internet and flown north to volunteer for two months. Another participant, Australian Alex Wilson, had heard about the rescue center from friends while he was on leave traveling in South America. He decided to donate a couple of weeks of his time. Now after 10 days he was quite the pro preparing quantities of fruit and vegetables for each rescued critter twice a day, and delivering buckets and wheelbarrows of specialized menus to each enclosure. We were soon pressed into chopping service ourselves (the animals come first) and later into helping with dinner preparation in the well-equipped volunteer kitchen and outdoor dining area.

Volunteers feeding animals in Ecuador
Alex from Australia maneuvers the wheelbarrow, Daniel from Britain and Sandra from Ecuador carry food buckets, while animal feeding twice daily at the Yanacocha Animal Rescue Center. ©Photo courtesy of Alison Gardner.

Volunteer Projects in Ecuador with Lead Adventures

While in Ecuador, I personally researched the following options and interviewed many adult volunteers (age 35 and up) who had much longer experiences of each project than my own limited time allowed.

Animal Rescue Centers are a privately-funded operations for rescued and confiscated wild animals indigenous to Ecuador in the Andes lake and Amazon regions. The goal is to return them to their natural environment if at all possible 

Daycare Centers in Quito supports 100 children (6 months to 5 years old) of teenage and single mothers, as well as children of financially-destitute families. New volunteer initiatives are now under way to help some families of the daycare children to repair their neighborhood accommodations. Another daycare in Quito supports 40 to 50 pre-school children of trash dump-working families, located right at the dump site.

Galapagos Adventures is an enriching land-based introduction to three key islands, combining well-planned conservation volunteer days and educational vacation days during two or three week programs. A different way to visit the Galapagos at a fraction of the more common cruise option.


Volunteers feeding animals in Ecuador
Nine women from Britain joined forces for a three-week Galapagos Islands volunteer and adventure program, among LEAD Adventures most popular itineraries. ©Photo courtesy of Trudie Udell.

Humanitarian Work in Quito

Returning to the 10,000-foot elevations of Quito a couple of days later, my focus switched from animals to people with the Villa Tica Street Children Daycare. Its goal is to help pre-school children of single and teen working mothers, and to offer support to impoverished families in the neighborhood. On the street, you can't miss the three-storey whitewashed building with black and white cows dancing all over it. Inside, colorful murals decorate every wall of the secure interior courtyard full of playground equipment and each nursery and classroom, divided by age from six months to five years.

Yes, I said classrooms. This is much more than a safe haven and a babysitting service for the 100 lucky children to merely tread water in their formative years. Besides receiving health programs not otherwise available to them, donated clothes and the only nutritional meals of their day, there are creative educational programs, especially for the three, four and five year olds. These are planned by accredited Ecuadorian pre-school teachers and delivered with the helping hands and loving support of many international volunteers. Villa Tica has achieved a great deal since it was started by three Dutch women who came to Ecuador as volunteers themselves in 2002 and stayed to establish this inspiring charity which began operations in 2004.

Visiting each room to talk with teachers, children and volunteers, I was treated to an animated sing-a-long of "head and shoulders, knees and toes" in English by the class of four-year-olds. To my astonishment, the Ecuadorian teacher then proudly encouraged me to talk to the twenty children in English rather than in Spanish! Clearly, they had not just memorized a catchy song. Even at such a young age and within the impoverished circumstances of their daily lives, they were being given the confidence to embrace a language that may one day be a stepping stone out of the grinding poverty of earlier family generations. That is daycare with vision!

Said older British volunteer, Norma Harris, "Villa Tica is a place with hope and inspiration, with happiness and sadness. From my four weeks volunteering there, I have many happy memories of the children—the devils and the angels alike."

For More Info

With a population of 12 million, Ecuador www.ecuadortouristboard.com/ is one of the more stable, secure countries in South America. Unique in its geological diversity as well as its plant and animal bio-diversity, Ecuador hosts four different worlds: the high volcanic Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, the tropical Pacific coast and the temperate micro-climate of the Galapagos Islands. Volunteer opportunities abound in all four Ecuadorian worlds.

LEAD Adventures, www.lead-adventures.com, coordinates a creative and ever-expanding menu of Ecuador volunteer opportunities on the mainland and in the Galapagos Islands. Very reasonable prices vary from project to project usually include a comprehensive orientation at LEAD's Quito office, many meals, airport transfers, travel insurance for direct bookings (not through agencies), 24-hour-a-day emergency support, and organization of Spanish classes in some locations. Volunteer accommodations vary from on-site dormitory-style in the country to hostels and homestays in the city, all carefully selected for reliability. Many city-based options may be customized with regard to choice of accommodations and other support services. Check out the Grown Ups webpages and the Family Volunteering options. 

Recommended guidebook: The Rough Guide to Ecuador (Rough Guides) by Harry Adès and Melissa Graham (Fourth edition, 2010).

Editor's Note: Please see www.TransitionsAbroad.com's section on Volunteering in Ecuador for yet more opportunities.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

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