Expats help to rebuild the chapel and community center in coastal village

Apr 27, 2017

By Christopher Lux

It’s been a year since so many people on Ecuador’s coast lost so much — family members, friends, and neighbors. There was also the loss of housing, stores, hotels, and work places.

Structural losses in the community of Rio Canoa, just inland from the earthquake epicenter, were relatively minor. That was because the homes of most residents were made of bamboo and held up well during the quake. The only brick and mortar structure for miles around was the village chapel. It collapsed.

The chapel was more than just a Sunday destination for Christian worship. In a country where more than eighty percent of the people are Catholic and in a community with only one central building, the chapel served as the community center — the hub for almost all civic activity.

The people of Rio Canoa also lost drinking water and food supplies — the little bit it had access to before the earthquake. They were without electricity for almost two weeks. And the one road leading into the community was destroyed, covered by landslides.

The remains of the Rio Canoa chapel after the earthquake.

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Like many small communities on the north coast, Rio Canoa has been largely overlooked during the earthquake recovery effort. Organizations like Cruz Roja and Catholic Relief Services are swamped, and have concentrated their work in larger population centers.

Fortunately for the community, a small group of expats heard about the situation in Rio Canoa and wanted to help. They recognized the importance of the chapel to the people and set out to help rebuild it.

The first three volunteers were Roger Lurie and Jerry and Ursula Strauss. Jack Abercrombie, an American with Ecuadorian citizenship, joined the project later.

At the time of the earthquake, Abercrombie was at home in Cumbaya, just east of Quito. Though he felt the earthquake, he did not feel the impact like those who suffered so much on the coast. Abercrombie — also known as “Journeyman Jack” — makes a living relocating people. He offers everything from pre-trip planning to pet moving for foreigners moving to Ecuador. The earthquake hit on Saturday night, April 16. On the Monday after the earthquake, Abercrombie had prepaid arrangements to help clients move to Cuenca.

The exterior of the chapel today.

After taking his clients to Cuenca, Abercrombie headed over El Cajas Mountains to Guayaquil, where he loaded up his truck with some of the donated food and water collected in locations around the city.

When Abercrombie arrived on the coast, he heard about the community of Rio Canoa, the other expats who were helping there, and headed north to the small Manabí Province village. He stayed there for 44 days, helping to collect money and rebuilding the chapel, before heading back to Cumbaya.

“They were fairly passed over and ignored to a large degree,” he says. “Becoming a dual citizen back in April 2014, I felt it my duty to my new country and countrymen to help.” Along with the other three expats, he made it a mission to raise money to rebuild the chapel.

Interior of the rebuilt chapel.

Where the chapel had stood, only a concrete slab and rebar remained after the quake. Bricks were scattered around the site and the wooden pews and altar were placed under pieces of metal to protect them from the weather. Banana trees and livestock surrounded the chapel space, while dogs and chickens roamed freely.

Once the expats had collected $5,000, Abercrombie made arrangements for the purchase of construction supplies from Ferretería (a nearby hardware store). With help from the expats, the people of the community then went to work, erecting the walls and roof before rainy season arrived.

Today, the chapel is about halfway complete, but it still lacks doors, windows, tile, stucco, and interior and exterior paint.

Unemployment remains very high in the area around Rio Canoa. Many of the residents who had moved to the beach for employment in tourism businesses, came home after the earthquake because they lost their houses. Their jobs of cooking, waiting, and cleaning were suddenly gone. Tents and tarps were erected to make room for the returning family members who had become refugees.

The three expats who helped rebuild the chapel had served in the U.S. Peace Corps and spent three decades living and volunteering in Ecuador. Of those three, one has passed away and the other two face medical issues that prevent them from continuing their work.

Abercrombie is now determined to raise more money to finish the chapel. He continues to return regularly to Rio Canoa to help wherever he can, staying with a local family. “The Zambrano family has adopted me,” he says. “They are proud, honest and hardworking, and very dirt poor. They don’t ask for much nor expect much. I always let them know I am still in their corner, working to put them back on their feet and back in their chapel.”

Those who would like to contribute to the chapel rebuilding fund can contact Jack Abercrombie at journeymanjack.com@gmail.com. Funds can also be deposited directly into the bank account of the project coordinator in Rio Canoa:

Banco Pichincha,
Account name: Jose Julio Tobar
Cuenta Coriente No.: 31661491-04

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