Off the beaten path in Ecuador, students connect to the past and build a future

College at Florham students volunteered in the rainforest village of Yunganza, Ecuador for two weeks over winter break. Putting finishing touches on the new community center are students (L to R) Gina Giurastante, Gina Partite, Ashley Vieira, Meghan Barrios and Antoinette Merola. (Photographs by Jas Verem)

By Kenna Caprio

Deep in the rainforests of Ecuador, 15 students and two staff members from Fairleigh Dickinson University spent two weeks this January with the indigenous Shuar people, members of an Amazonian tribe. In the mornings, the group built and painted a community center in Yunganza, and in the afternoons, taught English songs, vocabulary and stories to schoolchildren in Limon.

“Service trips, at their heart, regardless of whatever physical work students perform, are about the opportunity to explore a new culture and ways of life. That in turn sheds light on the way that students live their own lives. That also then gives students the ability to think outside the box and eventually find ways to solve some of the larger world’s problems,” says Anne Miksza, a study abroad specialist in the Office of Global Learning. She facilitated the coordination of the trip through Connecticut nonprofit Friendship Ambassadors Foundation and served as one of the two staff chaperones alongside College at Florham Dean of Students Jas Verem.

For many of the Florham students traveling to Ecuador, this trip was their first experience beyond the borders of the United States. But student leaders and seniors Gina Giurastante and Angel Menendez — both also active in the Student Government Association — previously traveled to Manzanillo, Costa Rica in 2013 to renovate a local school.

“Trips like these allow for a lot of self-reflection regarding what we have compared to those who have less,” says Menendez. “By the end of the trip, everyone was saying that the Shuar live it right. They have perfect weather, they dance and they work hard.”

While in Yunganza, the FDU volunteers worked hard, too. Previous groups from other universities completed most of the hard labor on the community center, so the students, Miksza and Verem concentrated on final construction and beautification projects. Students leveled the ground in front of the building to prevent water runoff, built steps, moved dirt and laid rocks to prepare the outside areas. They painted pillars and bricks.

Students Craig Fleming, Ryan Barth-Dwyer and Antoinette Merola created a mural in the center’s bathroom. “It really brightens up the place,” says Menendez. The nature scene features a Shuar man with a waterfall pouring from his mouth, a tree balancing a snake, bird and flower, and a blazing sun.

The community center will serve as a museum in part, as a place to “preserve the Shuar culture and encourage cross-cultural work,” says Miksza.

On the main floor of the community center, there’s space for traditional dances and performances while the downstairs rooms will house Shuar art, in particular handmade jewelry.

“The Shuar people are so connected to their history and culture,” says Giurastante. “It makes you realize that there’s more to life than working and getting a paycheck.”

Upon arrival, the Shuar people embraced the FDU volunteers through a traditional welcome dance, singling out Verem and Menendez specifically. “The dance/intimidation is to see how you handle it. They put spears in your face to test your character,” says Menendez. The Shuar shared a traditional juice with FDU volunteers and then the children continued the welcome dance. “Interacting with the children brought us much closer to the community,” says Giurastante.

FDU volunteers participated in the official grand opening of the community center, toward the end of the two-week service trip. Dressed in blue cloth, with beads around their waists, the female students “used their bodies as tambourines” and shook their hips to celebrate says Giurastante. “The men wore skirts and beads across their chest. We enjoyed a feast of yucca, pork and white potatoes, presented on palm leaves instead of dishes.”

During the celebration, Shuar natives presented gifts to the students and staff. Over the course of the trip, FDU volunteers handed out branded FDU T-shirts, polos, lanyards, flashlights and water bottles. To reciprocate, the Shuar offered a gift of jewelry —headbands with beads for the men, and earrings, a bracelet or a necklace for the women, says Giurastante. “They’ll always carry that in their hearts and so will we,” she adds.

Scenes from an alternative spring break adventure include (Clockwise from L to R): Members of the FDU group visit a local kindergarten in Limon, Ecuador; Anne Miksza and Samantha Fano paint the community center; students frolic with Shuar children in the local river; the community center mural depicts a Shuar man and rainforest inhabitants; and Ashley Vieira, Nathalie Nieves, Carolina Mussenden and Gina Giurastante make crafts with Shuar children.

At the school in Limon, the children opting to learn English ranged in age from 4-19 years old. FDU students split the Ecuadorian students into groups, according to age, and matched their lessons accordingly. Both Giurastante and Menendez worked with 9-year-olds.

“We taught them songs like ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.’ From there, we taught them colors, months and numbers,” says Menendez. “Other people with older groups would write a paragraph on the board and go through it with the students. They got the most questions.”

Keeping the students’ attention for two hours proved difficult some days, so FDU volunteers split the practice into playtime and work time, bonding with the students over the sports equipment Verem thought to pack. “Jas brought two soccer balls, two basketballs and two American footballs. They liked the American football most, wanting to run the ball and yell ‘Hike,’” says Menendez. In the end, the Ecuadorian children settled for just tossing the pigskin around.

A special moment with the local children came near the end of the trip, as they joined hands with the FDU students and led them to the river for a swim. And earlier in the trip, students participated in a waterfall ceremony. “The Shuar leader recited hymns and swatted the air with branches, to clear our minds before we entered the waterfall,” says Menendez.

“Escape your personal bubble. Go and see a different culture. Realize that the world is a lot bigger than you really think,” says Menendez. “I’m one generation removed from the people we went to help. My parents attended up to the fifth grade in El Salvador. It hit me hard in Ecuador, working at the site and teaching at the school.” 

Giurastante, Menendez, Verem and Miksza all encourage students to sign up for future trips and expand their horizons.

“This is the fifth year we’ve run an alternative winter break trip,” says Verem.

FDU is unique in offering winter break excursions, while spring break service trips, which both the College at Florham and Metropolitan Campus run, are “traditional for most colleges,” he says. Previous winter service trips included jaunts to Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Next year’s alternative winter break locale is still to be determined, but Florham students have already signed up for the 2014 spring break trip to Peoria, Arizona with Habitat for Humanity.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

FDU Office of Public Relations

   (Metropolitan Campus Office)
Dickinson Hall, Room 3365, H-DH3-14, Teaneck, NJ 07666

Dina Schipper,
Director of Public Relations
Fax: 201-692-7019

Kenna Caprio,
Communications Writer
Fax: 201-692-7019

Helen Grill,
Senior General Clerk
Fax: 201-692-7019

FDU Office of Public Relations

   (College at Florham Office)
Public Relations Building, M-PR1-01, Madison, NJ 08450

Scott Giglio,
Assistant Director of Public Relations
Fax: 973-443-8671

Daniel Landau,
Public Relations Assistant
Fax: 973-443-8671