Posted on: September 9, 2019 | Community Engagement
I am currently living in Quito, Ecuador for the next month, volunteering with a local NGO called UBECI (United to Benefit Ecuadorian Children International). Founded in 1998, UBECI provides child workers with opportunities for social, emotional, and educational development through play-based learning and team building. Each day UBECI volunteers and staff travel to the various markets around Quito, giving child workers a chance to play, learn, and grow with their peers.
Child workers, or street children as they are often called, wake up each day around 4 am and travel to their families stalls or shops at the various markets, selling produce, clothing, and other items. Before my arrival, I was under the impression that these children are simply running around unsupervised while their parents work. Unfortunately, after starting my work with UBECI, I learned that these children are required to work long, tiring hours alongside their family with little to no time to socialize or simply be a kid. At home, many of these children face even more obstacles in addition to extreme poverty such as parents struggling with addiction, neglect, physical abuse, and the pressure of caring for younger siblings.
Despite these challenges, the children are often waiting for us when we arrive, greeting us with hugs and smiles. We start the day by washing hands – teaching hygiene. Next, we move to free play with blocks and puzzles to practice fine motor skills and team building and then we teach them a new song that has an accompanying dance to continue to develop their listening and motor skills. After, we have what they call a “workshop” where the children are separated by age group, 0-3, 4-6, and 7-17 years old, and have a lesson centered on that week’s theme. This week’s theme is setting goals. Most of these child workers have only been exposed to one path in life which is the unfortunate cycle of poverty. The lessons this week included teaching them about different professions in the hopes of boosting their self-esteem and showing that there is endless potential for their futures. We conclude the morning program with a small snack and farewell to the volunteers and staff, teaching manners and affection. The kids return to their families vending stalls and a new group who may have had to work the morning shift comes to join us after our lunch break.
My first day in the market I left with a knot in my stomach, a bittersweet mix of fulfillment and sadness. Even on our bus rides to and from the markets, young children hop on at each stop trying to sell you gum, candy, and snacks. For some reason today, it invoked an extremely emotional response for me. It is devastating to see that their childhood is nonexistent. When I was their age, all I had to worry about was colors, numbers, shapes, and recess- not cleaning and selling food and other products to ensure my family survives. It is truly humbling to see the lives of these children and their families live. Within one week I have already learned so much from them and am grateful to have the opportunity to be working with an organization with such an important mission as UBECI.