Over the top of the school’s locked gate, tumultuous sounds of children shouting and laughing spilled out then up and down the dusty rock-strewn road as I pressed the buzzer for the fourth time. “I hear Jhon laughing,” I told Edie. The blaze of a late morning Andean sun sent heat waves rippling off the small concrete steps where we waited. It was late February, 2016, a gorgeous day in the rural countryside south of Cuenca.
I hitched up my photo backpack, readjusting its heavy load after walking to the school from the bus stop. Insects buzzed nearby, giving their attention to bright blue and orange flowers planted near the fence. The gate flew open. Its hinges complained loudly as a couple of kids placed strain on them,riding the metal frame as it swung inward. Moments later, I was inundated with hugs and kisses when a tsunami of little arms and legs swept over Edie and me. It was recess and time for snacks at the rural school. Almost every time, this was the way that our arrival at CETAP Lucy unfolded.
Nearby, I spotted Rocio Illescas visiting with a parent. Rocio is the Program Coordinator of the school. There is not a more selfless person in Ecuador. She has made her life one of giving to others and their needs. Although she wears many hats, here at the school she is in charge of everything and the children … they are her charges. A moment later, I bend to kiss her check. The kids are wrestling the burden of my heavy backpack from me. They’re eager to give me a hand with my camera gear and see what I might have brought them that day.
Minutes later, Junior and I were working out some math problems near the entryway. A light breeze carried in the wonderful smells of the countryside. The low murmur of human voices mixed with the sounds of the country carried on the breeze as other volunteers, like myself, instructed the children in various subjects. Shortly, I’d be lending a hand with some science homework. Art is an important component of the curriculum. Often, the art that the children crafted was sold in town at extranjero oriented events.
The little ones leave around lunch. At that time, Rocio, Edie, another volunteer and myself would have almuerzo a short walk down the dirt road. Returning to the school a half-hour later, we prepared for the older children that came for lessons in the afternoons. Edie and I usually had enough chupettes to cover everyone in the morning and the afternoon. It’s her and my portable “go to goodie”. We’ve a reputation for handing them out wherever we go. Other volunteers also brought various snacks for the kiddos.
The afternoon is filled with exchanges in Spanish and English since the children are taught both languages in school. We study together learning more about math, language and science. Best of all, we learn more about each other and our respective lands and cultures. Cultural bridges are built on the foundation of respect and understanding for all the people of the world. This attitude is fostered by Rocio and her staff at CETAP Lucy. In the late afternoon, the children grab their backpacks, meeting parents at the gate or taking off alone. They walk down the dirt road to their individual casas which are scattered throughout the valley.
Edie and I arrived in Ecuador with the intent to give, to pay something back for the many blessings we’ve received in our lives. One of the first opportunities we had to give back was at this school. We were pretty pumped about the chance to share our time. But, I always felt as if I was the recipient of gifts from those I intended to give to. The scope of the gifts I received were far beyond my ability to repay. The more I tried to help here and there, the stronger the feeling became. The gifts were given freely and were of a rather emotional nature. That is certainly the way I received them. I allowed the gifts to instruct me; they carried the heavy weight of humility. Who doesn’t need more of that, I thought.
I love the children at CETAP Lucy. I wanted to make something that could help them. The innocence of their sweet faces had captured my heart. In return, I had decided to capture them with my camera, indelibly inscribing their images onto a variety of mediums and sweeping them into the world of forever. I wanted to show the children at the school, focused on their lessons and having fun too. Their story was going to be heard. I knew that from the day I first darkened the doorway there, and I knew I would be the one telling it. In this type setting, the most effective way to communicate people and their situation to others is via environmental portraits. I wanted to reveal a tiny cross section of their humanness to you in hopes that you, too, could come to know the wonderfulness of working with children, especially those whose needs are so great. Shooting when possible, I began the work at hand of creating the children’s portraits. I made many photographs while I was teaching at the school CETAP Lucy and from those, I’ve assembled a small collection containing nine of my favorite images. I’m showing them to you here.
CETAP Lucy is a place that serves underprivileged rural children. It’s located a few miles east of Cuenca, easily and quickly accessible via a city bus. That was the method of transportation I used while giving my time there. CETAP has trained teachers, speech therapists and a psychologist. These professionals work with volunteers administering after school and pre-school programs. The instruction is aimed at a complete and continuing integration of the child into society. This instruction not only addresses the schooling of language, math and the sciences but also emphasizes the development of pre-work skills and personal hygiene.
I’m not someone who asks for anything. However, I am a person who makes it a habit to use my camera as a humanitarian tool to create awareness of those whose needs and suffering are much greater than mine has ever been or likely, will ever be. It’s a gift I’ve been blessed with and I’m compelled to share it. No one places a strong lamp under the table where its light can’t be seen. I could tell you so much more about their little lives and their heart rending situations but I’ve written what’s appropriate for this forum and their situation. If after studying the environmental photographs I’ve created and reading my words you find yourself wanting to know more, Ms. Rocio Illescas, the Program Coordinator of CETAP Lucy, would be so appreciative to receive your inquiry. Here’s her email address:firstname.lastname@example.org
Give her a little time to answer, she’s busy helping all those wonderful children. Although I’ve never done this, I personally thank you for reading my article today, creating awareness of the children and protecting and fostering their innocence is my goal. Will you please join me in celebrating and protecting these young lives?