Cuenca’s GRACE Foundation continues to support Venezuelan refugees in its new location
By Stephen Vargha
Fundación GRACE began the second leg of its journey to help migrants in Cuenca. On January 26, the five-year-old non-profit organization had an open house for its new location on Av. Ordóñez Lasso.
“The landlord of our old place raised our rent to $1,120 per month,” said Karla Sánchez, Executive Director of Fundación GRACE. “It was and old house that needed lots of repairs monthly.”
Paying less for rent at Edificio Astudillo e Hijos will give the organization more flexibility to help Venezuelans who fled their country.
“It will give us a more professional look,” said Sánchez. “We are waiting on medical permission from the Health Ministry as they need to inspect our new facility.”
Sánchez hopes to be completely open within two weeks to help the numerous Venezuelans in Cuenca. Nearly eight million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, most of them to other Latin American countries, according to United Nations figures.
Driven by hyperinflation, violence, food shortages, and a lack of medicine stemming from recent years of political turmoil, Venezuela has lost almost a fifth of its people. How many of these refugees end up in Cuenca is unknown.
Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado recently said to expect a huge increase in the number of Venezuelan migrants if her country’s dictatorship fails to hold free elections as scheduled this year.
Machado told the Miami Herald last week that leaders across South and North America are “playing with fire” if they fail to put pressure on Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro to hold free elections date this year, as required by the Venezuelan constitution. Maduro has been in power since 2013.
As a 501(c)(3) organization and a registered Non-Governmental Organizations Fundación, Sánchez has greatly expanded Fundación GRACE’s services to Venezuelans. One way is through the volunteers she has recruited.
“I have been at GRACE for three weeks and I love being here,” said Luna Neyers.
Neyers is a student at University Colleges Leuven-Limburg, in the Flemish region of Belgium. She is part of a contingency of Belgian students volunteering in Ecuador.
“I put bags of clothes for donations, helped distribute baked goods, and gave an English lesson when the instructor was sick,” said Neyers. “I even helped organize things at the new location.”
“I always wanted to help the refugee population,” said Kay Willis. “At GRACE, I help with grants research on U.S. databases, and I help write GoFundMe pages.”
Willis recently graduated from Monmouth University with a master’s degree in social work and married a Cuencano.
“I plan to continue to help GRACE,” said Willis.
It is definitely a global effort at Fundación GRACE. Jeeneer Angulo is originally from Costa Rica. He got his B.A. in Business Administration and was an anesthesia technician in New Jersey for 10 years. He is currently a law student at Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja.
“I need to develop a program, so I started a cyberbullying workshop last year at GRACE,” said Angulo. “Unfortunately, 75 percent of the cyberbullying victims are women, so I have taught them and children to how to use the Internet and how to filter.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) said bullying children is a major public health concern. Children subjected to cyberbullying were more likely to skip school, perform less well on tests, and suffer anxiety, fear, and emotional distress. Some instances of cyberbullying have triggered suicide among children.
Angulo has taught the staff at Fundación GRACE about cyberbullying as well as Boy Scout leaders. Venezuelans are a big portion of the people he is teaching about what should be taught as a life skill.
“We give a person a driver’s license, but give one a phone without privacy,” said Angulo. “The Internet is a necessity for school age children. And most Venezuelans can’t get into Ecuadorian schools, so the Internet is a must.”
For the last three years, Angulo has volunteered at Fundación GRACE.
“I do believe in sharing the knowledge to move society forward,” said Angulo.
Even the Venezuelans are giving back to an organization that helped them. One young Venezuelan man did all of the sheetrock and painting at Fundación GRACE’s new location.
The young man, who has lived in Cuenca for seven years, told the gathering at the open house, “I am very proud to be here. GRACE has helped my family with medicines and healthcare.”
Renting office space means there is always a need for money for Fundación GRACE.
“Last year, Fundación GRACE got a very generous donation for projects of its choice,” said Luke Groeneweg. “Today, GRACE has two large buildings in Guayas province for organic vanilla.”
Groeneweg is Sánchez’s husband. He is in charge of the operation at the coast that is helping many with jobs and money. Approximately 80 percent of the employees are women.
“The initiative will help fuel educational projects for an underserved area of Ecuador,” said Groeneweg. “And it will help fund GRACE for years to come.”
But more money is needed for the vanilla initiative as Fundación GRACE needs to construct a third building for the high demand for its high-quality vanilla.
“I plan to invest in the vanilla project they’re doing!!,” said Christine Hanks. “Luke said each dollar donated to that project grows exponentially a bunch of times!”
Hanks and her husband, Nate, recently moved to Cuenca from western North Carolina. They are thrilled to contribute and help their new homeland.
“We’re excited that they will many services provided to the Ecuadorian workers, who work there,” said Hanks. “Luke said each building produces about 1 ton of vanilla for $500,000. He said five-star chefs come there to source the vanilla as well as the U.S. and Europe. It’s exciting.”
Eighty percent of Fundación GRACE’s clients are single-mother families, so it offers general medical help, psychological support, gynecological services (no birthing of babies), and dentistry. Fundación GRACE also distributes food and clothing. In five years, they have assisted 18,000 individuals.
“Where people charge $60 or $70 for healthcare, we charge only 10 dollars, if they can afford it,” said Sánchez. “One Venezuelan woman said GRACE feels like home, especially because she gets healthcare and psychological help.”
Healthcare at Fundación GRACE is not just for Venezuelans as it is offered at a discount rate to expats who are financially strapped. “Just give us a call to make an appointment,” said Sánchez.
Fundación GRACE has high aspirations. Beyond its art workshops, Sánchez hopes to start classical music lessons for the Venezuelan children and to create a youth orchestra.
“We just want to give the Venezuelan a chance to be your neighbor,” said Sánchez. “People can donate on our website. The money goes to the U.S., where they send it all to us. All donations are tax deductible.”
Fundación GRACE, Edificio Astudillo e Hijos #207, #208, and #210, Av. Ordóñez Lasso 3-24 y Los Cipreses, Cuenca, 095-920-4786, firstname.lastname@example.org, https://www.giverefugeesachance.org/
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and photos by him.