Katharine and Dan Harris have recently returned from doing a Stride placement in Ecuador. Here, Katharine looks at some of their work with children at risk, working with Niños con Destino.
‘Childhood is for study and play, not for work’. That’s the slogan of Niños con Destino (Children with a Future), the foundation where we worked. Based in a market town called Sangolquí, near Quito, Ecuador, the project aims to eradicate child labour through a combination of educational support, practical help, social work, promotion of children’s rights and workshops for parents. As many children are sent from rural indigenous communities to work in the cities, the foundation also works in three rural areas in the sierra and jungle regions of Ecuador, to combat child labour from the other end.
We saw and heard about child labour in Ecuador first-hand. We spent a couple of months at the beginning of 2016 in the rural town of Alausí and among the surrounding Quichua communities. While there, schoolchildren told us that they worked on the land or cared for animals when they weren’t studying, and would have to leave school to work if a family member was ill.
In Sangolquí, we knew children who were originally from these remote communities and had been sent alone by their family to earn money in the city. They could be doing anything from selling on the streets, working on construction sites, or shining shoes, to recycling, shop-keeping, mechanics or domestic service.
Road to freedom
Niños con Destino tries to help the children by providing a holistic approach to bring transformation in their lives. These include a reading club, homework support, daily devotionals, a nutritious lunch, fun days, and trips to places that the children would not normally go to (the planetarium, national parks, swimming pool, etc). It also provides parents’ workshops, covering issues that affect many families, such as employment, values, alcoholism, health and hygiene, discipline.
Here are some examples of the sorts of things we were involved with.
Early on, we identified dental care as a key issue, as we noticed the children have huge holes in their molars and some have rotting front teeth.
Dental products are outrageously expensive in Ecuador, so aren’t affordable for many large families. So when my parents visited, they brought 40 toothbrushes and tubes of toothpastes. I invited small groups at a time to participate in a ‘dental care chat’ where we discussed diet and how to brush teeth. The foundation also received a donation of mouthwashes, which we gave to each family. After the chat, I got the children to practise brushing their teeth – for some of the younger ones, this was their first time using a toothbrush!
We also sent a letter home for the parents, to let them know about the toothbrushes and highlight their responsibility to teach their children to care for their teeth.
Niños con Destino seeks to provide educational support to the children who come along, focusing particularly on aspects not covered by the Ecuadorian school system. So, during the week, I taught a life-skills course. The course had evangelistic and practical elements. We always started with a devotional, often related to the life skill we’d be covering. For example, when we learned about leadership, the devotional focused on Jesus’ example as a leader. The children who attended the classes received the devotionals with enthusiasm and some commented on how important it was to them.
The classes sought to develop independent and critical thinking, leadership and teamwork, creativity and innovation, logical thinking and responsibility. These were taught through a combination of group discussions, independent learning, games and team activities. The kids embraced the lesson style, as it was so different to school classes.
The most practical element was the computing and programming: most of the children didn’t receive any IT instruction at school. Many of the IT activities built on the lessons in life skills. As well as Windows programmes, we used a children’s programming software called Scratch, which allows children to create their own animations using basic programming – perfect for teaching logical thinking and creativity.
I felt privileged to teach such a great group of children and teenagers. They participated well, were keen to learn and soaked up what I taught them.
In the run-up to Easter, we decided to make an Easter garden with the children, to help them understand and remember the Easter story. They loved planting and watering the garden, and each day we covered a different part of the story: Palm Sunday, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Cross and the Empty Tomb. The garden remains as a reminder to them, and recently we received a message from our colleague at the project, saying that the children are still caring for the garden.
It has been such a privilege and honour to give a little bit of input into these kids’ lives. They face daily challenges, but there are also so many joys and blessings. They have people fighting their battles with them: they know they’re not alone and have a safe place to come and chat, eat, learn from the Bible, study and play. It’s been heart-wrenching yet amazing to work with them.