ASEA Advancing Life Foundation: Bringing Hope to Ecuador

For the past year and a half, the ASEA Advancing Life Foundation has partnered with Choice Humanitarian to bring not only a vocational school but also hope for a better future to the Intag region of Ecuador. This lush region is home to a large community of Ecuadorians, 87% of which live at the poverty line and only 40% of which have a high school education, creating a need for stronger economic opportunities in the area.

The vocational center – the Intacara Center – will service an estimated 1,500 families and will teach skills in masonry, carpentry, cooking, tourism and more to those reaching for a better life. When it is complete, the education the school offers will serve as a barrier against the cycles of poverty and abuse prevalent in the area.

The ASEA Advancing Life Foundation made its fourth expedition down to Ecuador in July of this year to continue the construction of the vocational school. This year’s trip included 46 participants and 40 hours of construction time, all of which were dedicated to one dream-fueling project.

The Mission

“Walking down that path leading up to the school on the first day and coming around the corner and seeing this beautiful Intacara Center in front of me, my legs started shaking, my heart was pumping so hard, and I was overcome with pride.” Said Shawn Burke, an ASEA associate who completed his second expedition this year. “I was blown away with the work that had been done and the progress that had been made.”

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This year, the expedition team’s main tasks pertained to constructing the workshop which will be used to teach auto-mechanical skills. The team spent four to five hours a day constructing brick walls, digging drainage trenches, pouring sidewalks, and completing the perimeter fence. Other tasks included preparing roof panels, moving boulders to make way for trenches, and pushing bricks up steep hills. This year’s expedition brought the project to 20% completion.

“These youngsters will be able to benefit greatly from the school that we helped build.” Said Chris Draught, an ASEA employee and expedition participant. “They have so much more potential for a bright future because of the Intacara school.”

The people of the Intag region were also present and actively helping with the construction. Everyone from high school students to mothers with babies on their backs came out to do their part. Their participation in the construction is vital because it helps the community build a bond with the school and realize that the Intacara center will be for everyone seeking education, not just those who are considered privileged.

“I was so motivated to work as hard as I could. The team was small in numbers, but the electricity in the air was immeasurable.” Said Burke. “Everyone put their full heart, sweat, and soul into this project every single day. No one let up and it was so powerful watching and working with some of the most motivated people I have ever worked with.”

Between now and the next Advancing Life Expedition, the interior of the workshop will be completed and the ground will be levelled for the next building. Most importantly, the school will have their first students start in the first half of 2019.

When the land for the school was first purchased, KimMarie Larsen, ASEA managing director of events, and Charles Funke, ASEA CEO, visited the site and met with local officials. Upon meeting them, one official said, “Do you understand, what you are doing for these people? You are allowing them to finally dream.”

The People

This year’s participants ranged in age from 14 to 67 and had countless opportunities to interact with those living in the region, 44% of which depend solely on agriculture.

“One evening, we were able to play soccer with some of the children—they were so excited to have us there.” Said Draught. “They were so happy with just a few possessions and toys. It helped me see that you don’t need to have the latest and greatest to be happy, and it actually gave me the desire to spend more quality time with my own kids.”

Due to the limited number of entertaining activities in the area, the region is currently battling a trend of alcoholism. To combat this and give people something to do, Choice Humanitarian created a band comprised of local community members and hired an instructor to teach them once a week. The band performed for the community for the first time during the team’s expedition—It was immediately apparent the musicians took pride in their work and music. The band has hopes of one day including stringed instruments and becoming a symphony.

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One example of the band’s impact on the community is the story of its trombone player. According to Larsen, “When I was there the two times before last year, [the trombone player] was sitting on the street corner drinking. He was the town drunk. This year, I did not see him once until the night they were performing. He was practicing his instrument, and he was very sober. He was playing and singing. It was exciting to see that in such a short time his life had changed because he now has a purpose. And that is just a sneak peek of what the school is going to do… All of the sudden these people have gone from having no hope and being stuck in this rut of doing their daily routine; but now there is hope.”

The School

The vocational center will include an administrative building, a workshop, a few bungalows, and a cultural building. The Technical University of the North, a non-profit public higher education institution located in the town of Ibarra, recently signed a five-year contract with Choice Humanitarian to provide instructors and administrative employees to the school. Because it is a government sanctioned and certified school, those who attend the Intacara Center will receive an official certification in the vocations offered there. The available vocations will include auto-mechanics, tourism, carpentry, cooking, masonry and more.

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The enthusiasm for this education opportunity is palpable throughout the community. According to Larsen, “I was speaking with one gentleman and I asked him which skills he was going to learn. He said, ‘I’m going to learn all of them.’”

The Advancing Life Foundation will continue to support the school through funding and other avenues even after the school’s construction is complete. Expedition participants have even expressed interest in supporting a scholarship fund for future students. But for now, completing the school’s construction is the number one priority.

“The work we are doing there is real, and the people of those communities are counting on us to fulfill our commitment to this project.” Said Funke. ASEA’s CEO. “The satisfaction of knowing that we are helping to build something that will positively impact the lives of people for generations to come far outweighs any sacrifice required to attend an expedition.”

If you are interested in supporting the Intacara Center construction or attending a future expedition, please visit AdvancingLife.org for more info.

Continue reading “ASEA Advancing Life Foundation: Bringing Hope to Ecuador”

Progress in Ecuador: Another Successful Expedition

The Excursion Before the Expedition

Rainstorms welcomed the Advancing Life Foundation’s second group of expedition volunteers as they arrived in Ecuador to continue work on the vocational school.

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Ecuador - 2017 August

The group arrived on a Friday and spent Saturday exploring the town of Otavalo with a trip to the Center of the Earth Museum and a craft market.
The drizzle continued on Sunday as expeditioners drove through the cloud forest to Pucara to meet their host families. They were welcomed with a beautiful cultural celebration with dancing and a candid explanation of what the vocational school will mean to the community.

“Some of the families that live near the job site said they loved to look for the bus every morning to see us coming to work, to see those that are making their dreams of education come true,” said Advancing Life Foundation board chair KimMarie Larsen.

The villagers shared some good news during the welcome reception, too. “The Inta – Cara Center’s reach is being expanded to another area, which means it is now available for almost 30,000 people,” KimMarie said.
Tackling the Job

Hearing that their efforts were going to reach even more people than initially anticipated boosted our volunteers’ excitement and made the labor easier to prepare for, even if it might rain the whole time. To everyone’s surprise, Monday rolled in as the storm rolled out. Call it a coincidence or a blessing, but everyone was relieved to be avoiding a muddy workweek.

volunteers move rocks

Volunteers started digging trenches and moving bricks and rocks. After a hard day of hands-on work, our group welcomed the opportunity to take a break and visit the neighbors, who taught everyone how they grow and harvest coffee. It’s inspiring to see how hard the villagers work just to enjoy the same luxuries we so often take for granted.

ASEA Marketing Manager Hannah Mangum loved interacting with the locals. “We went to a home where the mother, who was my exact same age, took us around their property and walked us through a normal day of life for them,” she shared, “It was really eye-opening to see how they live; how it differs from my normal, day-to-day life.”
Foundations Poured and Moments Shared

On Tuesday, work on the perimeter of the school continued. Expeditioners mixed cement and built the foundation to the front and side fence. Just like the first expedition, the group had the opportunity to work with a group of high school kids from a neighboring community. These boys are tough and resilient, hoping to someday benefit from what the vocational school has to offer.

Advancing Life Volunteers and local villagers pour cement

The afternoon and evening on Tuesday were spent with villagers teaching women about women’s health, playing soccer with the men, and ASEA Associate Andreas Hammer teaching the children how to play tennis.

The best parts of the trip were unrelated to sightseeing. The best moments seemed to be the small, genuine ones. Not forced and unplanned. “The impromptu soccer game that we got together on one of the evenings was a much more meaningful experience than any of the sights we saw in Quito,” ASEA’s legal counsel Ben Tyler shared. “I’ll always have a special feeling for the rural people of Ecuador.”

Work Rewarded with Warmth

The back-breaking physical labor continued Wednesday but was rewarded with a much-needed dip in the hot springs later that night—the first hot water the volunteers had access to since arriving in the village.

It was hard leaving the school on Thursday after all the progress the volunteers made. With some of the first bricks laid on the front fence on the property, their work on the school for this expedition concluded.

Ben brought his son along for the expedition, who was especially sad to be finished working. “I was worried he would get bored or frustrated with the amount of work,” Ben said. “When we came back from the village after five days of working, my son turned to me and said that he was bored with sightseeing and wanted to go back to the village.”
Expressing a Sense of Accomplishment

With their hard work behind them for the week, it was time to celebrate! What better way to do so than celebrating the 116th anniversary of a community called Plaza Gutiérrez. The experience in this area was unlike any other.

Plaza Plaza Gutiérrez is home to many indigenous people of Ecuador. Volunteers sat down with the villagers to learn some of the skills that have helped keep their community thriving, like making thread from the Agave plant to crochet bags, place mats, hats, and carpets.

Hannah described what it was like getting to know the people in Plaza Gutiérrez: “Life is simple. They don’t have much, but they are as happy as can be.”

And what better way to end the night than another evening of dancing! Maybe one of the best things about being immersed in a new culture is some of their quirky traditions, like when the villagers of Plaza started singing The Crazy Cow! Picture it: one person holds a makeshift frame above his head that is lit on fire, and as it burns they dance like a crazy cow to the song.

Sights and Sounds as Souvenirs

On the drive back to the hosts’ homes, the clouds stitched together like a blanket tucking in the sky. Flickers of light started illuminating the jungle. Lightening bugs were putting on a magical show as our volunteers reflected on their beautiful adventure.

“You can travel, you can visit, you can even talk with people in a different culture or area of the world,” says Ben, “but until you have lived and worked and sacrificed alongside someone working toward a common goal, you haven’t really understood what it is like to really be a part of a community.”

Friday, our group of selfless volunteers prepared to say goodbye to the beautiful land and culture of Ecuador with some last-minute sightseeing. Even in the presence of some of the most incredible sights in the world, none of it compared to the actual service project itself.

Ben explained why he thinks this is: “Spending time working and sacrificing for a group of people has a way of linking you to them that transcends any other experience.”

Progress in Ecuador: Expedition Update

After much fundraising and preparation, 30 selfless humanitarians set off to Quito, Ecuador with the Advancing Life Foundation and CHOICE Humanitarian to build a vocational school for the struggling Intag region. The trip was more than a year and a half in the making.

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Ecuador - 2017 July Expedition

With a mixture of excitement and anticipation, the group spent their first day learning about Ecuador with a trip to its namesake, the equator, and a large handmade craft market. In the evening, to fully appreciate the country’s diverse scenery, the group turned in near a lake overlooking the Imbabura volcano for the first night.

Day two ushered in a busy itinerary where guests would meet their host families, experience the culture in welcome performances from local villagers, and shake hands with government officials. The dancing and laughter was the beginning of a weeklong bond between volunteers and villagers.

ASEA Triple Diamond Paul Taira works to build a fence during the Advancing Life Expedition to EcuadorAs the sun rose on day three, the hard work of building the vocational school began. The task at hand for our first expedition group was building a 100-meter (328-foot) fence along the perimeter of the school. The work was grueling and required everyone to be in tune with one another to get things done in a short time. All the while, our volunteers stayed focused and humble as they worked alongside locals.

Michael Auras from ASEA’s European office shared, “Working next to an 84-year-old man and a group of young boys showed me how grateful locals of all ages are for the vision of the Advancing Life Foundation and the way the vocational school will improve things in Ecuador for generations to come.”

Senior Men in Quito

Some of these young boys, ninth-grade students, drove from a school over an hour away to help with the project, with the hopes that one day they might have the opportunity to attend the vocational school and take their education further than they ever thought possible.

As work on the fence progressed, so did volunteers’ relationships with the people they were working with. 9th grade boys from Quito
“The interaction was not always easy,” expressed Michael, “but we shared signs and gestures of encouragement, appreciation, love, sympathy, and support. When communicating with these wonderful people, a smile and a hug was the purest expression of unity and sympathy—no words, just understanding on a higher level.”

Participants also had opportunities outside of building to interact with the community. Women and girls of the surrounding towns gathered for some education on feminine hygiene, and they were supplied with reusable personal-care packs. Little girl from Quito

Sandy Mott from ASEA U.S. corporate office loved this experience. “We painted finger nails, jumped rope, laughed and learned,” she said. “It was so sweet to see how quickly they trusted us and wanted to get to know us. Even without speaking Spanish, we made a significant connection!”

On day four, CHOICE Humanitarian arranged a special celebration for the elderly in the community, which turned out to be quite the side-splitting experience. Just picture Sandy and one of the seniors trying to pop a balloon sandwiched between their bellies as they danced!

Sandy Mott Dances with a senior from Quito during a game.

Between the dancing and the games, volunteers and the locals were grinning ear to ear. Each senior was given a special gift as a token of appreciation and gratitude for their stewardship in Quito. Hugs and laughter were exchanged freely as the music carried the night away.

Kim Larsen, chair of the Advancing Life Foundation, said, “It’s humbling to know that, because of the advantages we’ve had, we are able to broaden horizons through the donation of time and resources. We can’t even grasp the importance of this one school and how it will continue to empower and create change for these people here.”

Kim believes that this center will be the model for other rural vocational centers in rural areas of Ecuador. She explained, “We have peaked the interest by many levels of government who will keep a close eye on the impact of this school.”

The work continued on the perimeter fence. Brick loads were hauled from place to place, large rocks were moved and removed, hills were summited, and trenches dug.
women haul rocks up a steep slope during the Advancing Life Expedition in Ecuador
As the volunteers labored away with the diligent villagers, Michael observed, “They are a powerful people, with a capacity beyond what they can imagine themselves. But when we worked hard along with them, it was amazing how easy they caught fire, were interested, were inspired, and how they started to look beyond what was their perceived horizon.”

Experiences like this have a way of bonding people together and refocusing their perspectives. Michael, for instance, walked away knowing, “it only takes one person; it only takes a very small effort and a simple act of kindness to give hope to others.”

ASEA volunteers with CHOICE Humanitarian and villagers from Quito, Ecuador who helped build the fence.

ASEA and The Advancing Life Foundation would like to extend a special thank-you to CHOICE Humanitarian, our volunteers, and all of our generous donors who made this trip possible. The second group of volunteers for this expedition leaves soon, and we can’t wait to continue the progress that’s already been achieved with our dear friends in Quito.

Making a Difference

All around the world, the ASEA Advancing Life Foundation is helping to break cycles of poverty, abuse, and suffering. We’re doing it through small-scale local service days, large-scale disaster relief, and on-site building projects.

After Advancing Life’s first humanitarian expedition to Mexico, associates and corporate continued to band together. We raised $20,000 in two days for earthquake relief in Ecuador. In the last year, the foundation has facilitated several local ‘Have an Impact, Make a Difference’ days, a concept that took hold after ASEA Founder Tyler Norton introduced it at Convention. Envision Conferences became the hub for these days of service, with attendees in Dallas, Mexico, and Europe raising funds and doing service for local charities. Corporate employees also joined together to benefit their local communities.

“The Advancing Life Foundation is something that we’re very humbled by, that we have the opportunity to reach out to so many people in so many different parts of the world,” said ASEA CEO Charles Funke.

Now Advancing Life is well underway with its next major expedition. We’re heading to rural Ecuador with CHOICE Humanitarian to build a vocational school, the first of its kind in Ecuador. Interest in the project is high enough that two separate groups of self-funded volunteers will head out in July and August of 2017.

The Intag region, where the school will be built, is a remote farming and mining community in the Andes mountains with roughly 17,000 residents. Few get the education they need. As high as 90 percent of college-age youth are not attending school simply because the area doesn’t have educational institutions.

This need matches Advancing Life’s elected focus for its next major project. “We felt strongly about doing something dealing with education this year,” said Advancing Life Chair KimMarie Larsen.

Once completed, the vocational school will provide immediate opportunities for higher learning. Graduates’ skill sets will allow them to benefit their communities while giving them long-term, self-sufficiency—estimates suggest incomes will increase by as much as two or three times.

To date, the Advancing Life Foundation has raised $86,698 of the needed $100,000. ASEA associates across the nation have donated thousands of dollars from team challenge fundraisers, and individual donations continue.

“Every dollar helps create change,” Larsen concluded. “We are extremely grateful for all donations, regardless of size. We invite everyone to be part of this change.”