A moment when the world changes: Cuenca expats give Cajas mountain schools tools for the future

Jan 29, 2022 | 11 comments

Helpers for Carhuita and Huahualcay: Pedro Morocho (right) and Jacqlen Cumba express their thanks to (l to r) Ric Shellhammer, Bob Itami, Roger Theodos, Phyllis Theodos, and Esteban Arévalo.

By John Keeble

Every now and again, if you are lucky, you experience a moment when you can see the world changing and you know the future will never be quite the same.

Just such a moment happened in the Cajas Mountains as a disparate group of good people came together for an hour in efforts to give poor mountain children new life options.

A desk tied to a motorcyle and its rider for a hazardous  ride to Carhuita school

The catalyst was a consignment of eight laptops, two desks and other useful items including footballs handed over by Cuenca expats to people from the tiny villages of Carhuita and Huahualcay, which are so remote that they make Patul seem easy to reach.

“We feel part of society now,” said school President Jacqlen Cumba, who had travelled with one of the teachers, Pedro Morocho, by motorcycle over some 15 kilometres of perilous mountain trails to meet expats Roger and Phyllis Theodos, their expat helpers, and the project liaison link, Cajas hiking guide Esteban Arévalo.

“We don’t have medicine, we don’t have technology, we don’t even have a road, but now we do not feel forgotten and we hope we can go forward in many ways,” she added.

Phyllis Theodos and “our ambassador” Esteban Arévalo (left) help Huahualcay men pack the computers for mule transport

Roger Theodos, who founded Friends of the Campo with his wife Phyllis to help those in need, told them: “This is a way that we can give back something for the incredible gifts we have received in Ecuador – the beauty of the country and the people themselves.”

The equipment, along with educational supplies sent earlier, will be used by the 23 children, aged between five and 11, in the two village schools. Each school has just one room and one teacher and the children, 11 in one and 12 in the other, are taught together. All the gifts were specified by the teachers and enthusiastically welcomed by the children and the community.

Handing over of the equipment also marked the start of a new phase of fundraising and providing more help for the mountain children and, through that, their communities. There is a GoFundMe page available for those who want to contribute.

School President Jacqlen Cumba and teacher Pedro Morocho with Phyllis Theodos (centre)

The meeting, at the Patul trailhead just off the road from Cuenca to Guayaquil, was a fascinating and happy juxtaposition of people, lifestyles, animals and means of travel. It was a moment when vastly different lifestyles and opportunities touched and the past and the future were open to see.

From the villages, the men of Huahualcay rode more than five hours through the rain to reach the meeting point; and Cumba and Morocho made a perilous motorcycle trip along with another villager from Carhuita.

Long-time Cuenca expats Ric Shellhammer and Bob Itami joined Roger and Phyllis and arrived with Arévalo in modern vehicles capable of crossing most terrain but which had been stopped by appalling weather and landslides on earlier attempts to reach the villages on another route.

Pedro Morocho, Jacqlen Cumba and Esteban Arévalo secure the load

The technology and one desk were moved from Shellhammer’s truck to mules for Huahualcay, and – watched by the amazed expats – the other desk was tied onto a motorcycle and its rider for Carhuita.

Morocho, whose wife Fanny is the other teacher for the two schools, said before riding back to the village: “These tools will give the children more access to knowledge. They will take them from notebooks to computers and help their skills to grow.

“The children are changing [from traditional mountain life] and this is a huge motivation for them. They can see they have options for their futures.”

Cumba added: “Everyone in our villages is very happy – especially the children. Even the parents will use the computers.”

Although both villages want the internet, this has proved to be too difficult at the moment. Even maintaining the computers will be a challenge.

Getting the mule ready for the long walk back to the villages. (Photo: Bob Itami)

Education requirements in Ecuador are specified at a national level and all the Friends of the Campo gifts have met the requirements for each age group.

“The kids are the future and, in the mountains, they need help,” said Arévalo, who, as child, went with his father when he taught in remote Cajas schools and his mother at her school in Giron.

“These kids do not have anything. One classroom, one teacher for all of the kids. The trails to their villages are not passable for most of the year to anyone but local people.

The mule team sets off

“It is a nice, quiet life for those who love to live like that, but the kids can have a different future if they have education. They can choose their futures.”

Roger and Phyllis Theodos started Friends of the Campo in 2020 with the help of Arévalo. Other expats and Ecuadorians helped with donations and with packing about 200 Christmas gift bags of food and treats for families at the Cajas villages of Miguir, Rio Blanco and Cochapamba, as well as isolated families in the Guagualzhumi area. Video

Jacqlen Cumba and Pedro Morocho start the long journey back

“We wanted to move on from helping with gifts to giving resources to enable the people to develop skills that would last,” said Roger Theodos. “We elected to focus on education. Eventually we found the two very small communities at Carhuita and Huahualcay.”

They consulted the communities and the teachers, through Arévalo, to see what they needed for the schools. The first consignment contained the government-stipulated school supplies, right down to how many HB pencils, for each child. The second contained the computers and desks.

Cajas children with Roger and Phyllis Theodos, whose Friends of the Campo distributed about 200 Christmas bags (Photo: Friends of the Campo)

“They were thrilled with the school supplies,” said Phyllis Theodos. “I don’t think they had ever had them before.

“We sourced the most affordable computers in the U.S. and returning expats brought them here. When we had the eight computers in Cuenca, a tech guy came in and installed the Spanish language software and, as specified by the teachers, a suite of word processing and other educational programs. We also bought mouses, flash drives, and chairs.”

Roger Theodos added: “A host of volunteers have made the project possible – we could not have done it without their help and financial contributions.

“Esteban plays a critical role in connecting and translating. He is our ambassador to the people in these remote villages. We hope to connect more with the people but they are so remote that it is very difficult to get out to see them.”

The next phase of the project is now being planned – a key question is whether to focus on Carhuita and Huahualcay or to widen the focus slightly to take in more schools and communities.

If you want to be involved, you can donate through the project’s GoFundMe page.

Photos by John Keeble


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