Canadian family escapes the ‘good life bubble’ to take a six month sabbatical in Ecuador and Cuenca

Mar 17, 2012 | 0 comments

The author, Janet Greidanus, has been travelling to Ecuador annually for the past 10 years as a team member of Operation Esperanza (see, a humanitarian mission led by her husband, Dr. Thomas Greidanus. Operation Esperanza provides free hip and knee replacement surgery for poor adult Ecuadoreans, surgery for children with dislocated hips and club feet, and dental care to students in rural schools.

Just over a year ago, the earthquake in Japan forced the Wilson family of to stay put in a boat on the ocean eight kilometres offshore from the Galapagos Islands.

Abby Wilson, 11, wrote in her journal: "Today we had to stay on the boat because there was an earthquake in Japan, so we stayed in the middle of the ocean in case of a tsunami wave. I thought our day was ruined and that it would be boring, but no. We saw two killer whales and hundreds of dolphins. There were hundreds jumping right by our boat. I have to say it was the best day in my life!"

At a recent Sunday workshop at the library in the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert, Nick and Kendra Wilson and their four children, Kaden, 14, Abby, Noah, 9, and Ethan, 7, were introduced as "brave people." The librarian who presented the family wasn’t referring to tsunami scare, or the family’s other close calls during a six-month sojourn in Ecuador in 2011. She described the Wilsons as brave people simply because they had the courage to leave the security and predictability of their comfortable lives in St. Albert, for the insecurity and uncertainty of living in South America.

Why would a couple with four children make such a move? Many reasons — and not just for a great travel adventure.

"We felt that the kids were living the St. Albert life, in a bubble, full of stuff, and so extremely lucky, but not really knowing it," recalls Kendra. "We really wanted them to learn to appreciate the life they had in Canada, and the best way was to show them."

Nick and Kendra decided to immerse themselves and their children in a different culture for an extended period, to witness first-hand the needs of those less fortunate and to volunteer their services wherever they could. Once the couple moved beyond dreams and words to action, Nick admits the endeavour did be-come daunting.

The couple spent four months deciding where to go and for how long, as well as making arrangements regarding work and school and housing abroad. "When choosing a place, we literally spent countless hours, starting with a list of priorities and one big atlas," says Kendra. They finally settled on Ecuador.

"Ecuadoreans are friendly and very family-oriented. Ecuador is relatively safe and a cheap place to live and visit, except for the Galapagos," Nick says.

Ecuador is also easy to get to. Nick went on a five-day scouting trip and confirmed that the city of Cuenca was a good city, relatively safe place for the family to live.

Kendra found a physiotherapist to replace her at work. Nick quit his job as president of the Edmonton Oil Kings, trusting he would find work when he returned. The plan was to home-school the children every morning, when possible.

Thanks to today’s technology, Noah was able to Skype with his class regularly. His classmates in St. Albert would gather in front of the computer to hear his stories and ask questions, and Noah could stay in touch with what was going on in his classroom.

When the Wilson children returned to St. Albert, they just slipped into the same desks they had vacated six months previously and carried on if they had never been gone.

The family sabbatical began with learning Spanish together during the first weeks. Because of their background as French-immersion students, the children quickly picked up the new language. Finding volunteer tasks that included the whole family wasn’t easy, but a few excellent opportunities came their way.

It was in Cuenca, Ecuador, where my husband and I first met the Wilsons. They had been in the country for two months when, by searching websites for volunteer opportunities, they discovered that Operation Esperanza, a humanitarian medical and dental team originating in Edmonton, of all places, would soon be arriving in Cuenca. They were waiting for us in the hotel lobby when we checked in, eager to volunteer in whatever way they could.

As a physiotherapist, Kendra volunteered for a week with Operation Esperanza while some of the children volunteered with the dental team at poor rural schools. Abby sterilized dental instruments and Kaden engaged the children in soccer and other activities.

In the town of Riobamba, the Wilsons spent time with a priest who provides shelter for homeless children and schooling on weekends for children who work in the fields during the week. An entry in the family blog describes the experience of volunteering at a school.

"We volunteered at a poor rural community school called Escuela Katitawa with about 24 children, ages three to 12 years. They were being taught both Spanish and Quechua (an indigenous language), as well as English.

"Our family also taught a class together called Intercambio where we taught the kids all about Canada. Noah joined his age group and did a little school work too!"

The Wilsons have been back in St. Albert for approximately nine months now. Were the goals of their family sabbatical realized? Their answer is a resounding "yes!"

Nick and Kendra recall the many "teaching moments," that helped their children grow. "Some very concerned and astonished looks have been seen on the faces of the kids at variable moments in time, but all good teaching moments," the parents wrote in one blog post.

For Noah, exposure to different food was a great learning experience. He hadn’t expected that people would actually eat guinea pig (cuy), for example, or that Ecuadoreans eat rice with every meal, even breakfast.

"By the end," Noah says, "we’d say (when ordering a meal), ’No rice, please!’ " He gained a greater appreciation of the safeguards in place at his school in St. Albert.

"The schools were not safe like ours," says Noah, describing high ledges with no railings from which children could fall. When asked if he thought he was brave, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes.

"We had to be brave to prevent people from stealing stuff and we were brave to leave home," he says. He doesn’t mention all those wild dogs he was so frightened of — that he encountered on a daily basis.

Kaden recalls the culture shock he experienced when first arriving in Quito, and how "scared" he had been as he looked out the window of the van that drove them to their destination on that first night.

He admits he had taken life in St. Albert for granted. But not anymore. What did he learn about himself during those six months? Kaden says he is more willing to try new things and learned that it’s best not to judge what something is going to be like until you’ve done it. He also learned that he loves travelling.

Ethan says he enjoyed the ice cream in Ecuador and eating guinea pig. His parents say that he woke up enthusiastically every morning and was the most keen of everyone to see what the day would hold.

Abby says she realizes more now that "we are really privileged." Abby likes to help people.

"We can change the world by helping," she says, "and I want to help more." Since her family’s sabbatical Abby has made bracelets that she sold at the St. Albert Farmers Market, the proceeds of which she donated to Operation Esperanza.

Like her siblings, she was scared that first night in Ecuador, looking out at all the people and dogs in the streets. She thinks they were brave to leave home, their friends, and school, but that it was worth it.

If this story has you thinking about your own family sabbatical abroad, Nick and Kendra Wilson are encouraging. They maintain that with good planning, it is possible to finance and orchestrate a family sabbatical. The most difficult part, they say, is taking that leap of faith.

Plan your family escape
Here are some questions Kendra and Nick Wilson pondered before deciding to take a sabbatical from Canadian life:

• How can we provide our children with a sense of a bigger world when the only world they know is the one they’re living in?

• When friends and neighbours all appear to have the same abundance of material goods, how can we teach our children that not everyone lives like they do?

• How, how can we raise our children to becomeinformed and tolerant world citizens who appreciate different cultures and languages?

The Wilsons estimate their six months in Ecuador, including flights, but not including their Galapagos excursion, cost about $22,000 or about $133 per day for six. Ecuador remains a very cheap place to live as it recovers from economic struggles in the last decades. Rent from their St. Albert home helped offset expenses they still had at home while they were away.

To learn more about the Wilsons’ sabbatical and see photographs, visit the family website

Credit: By Janet Greidanus, The Calgary Herald,; photo caption: Nick and Kendra Wilson and their four children, Abby, 11, Ethan, 7, Noah, 9 and Kaden, 14.


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