By Tom Larsen
Six years ago, an old youth hostal on a dirt road in the hills outside of Cuenca began its second life as a shelter for abused women and their children. Under the auspices of the Fundación Casa Maria Amor the site has been transformed into a refuge where these women can not only escape the violence of their past but learn new skills and continue their education.
Using local building materials — much of it recycled — and thousands of hours of volunteer labor the site now includes living quarters, learning pods for the children, a playground, sport fields and a central building equipped with a full kitchen and dining area. The facility has been christened Huana Wasi—House of Light in Kichwa.
The shelter itself was funded by a charitable group known as Carita Austria. Constructed six years ago, it allowed the women to move from their overcrowded building downtown to this more secure site. The downtown location, which they inhabited for eleven years, is now the home of Mujeres con Ėxito, which provides job training and support for the women.
Realizing a need to make their facility self-sufficient and to teach the next generation the importance of sustainability, the foundation partnered with the University of Cuenca and the Tomebamba Rotary Club on an ambitious project. With the assistance of Ernesto Lovato, retired from his position as Director of Planning for Parks and Landscaping for the City of Cuenca, the two-hectare (approximately five acre) site now boasts a greenhouse, a small solar array, an efficient composting system and an ingenious filtration system that treats liquid waste from the bathrooms and the kitchen before releasing it into the nearby river.
I had the opportunity to tour the facility recently. The occasion? A delegation from Rotary International District 5170, Cupertino California was visiting. Through its Global Giving Initiative, Rotary is providing a $48,000 grant for improvements to the facility, one of the largest monetary grants that Rotary has provided in Ecuador. The University will administer the grant and oversee the disbursement of funds.
District 5170 Governor Orrin Mahoney explained that in order to apply for a global grant, both the international partner, in this case the Cupertino chapter, and the local partner in the area to benefit, in this case Rotary Tomebamba, must undergo a rigorous process to ensure accountability and ability to deliver on their proposal.
The proposed project must comply with Rotary’s established goals. Their website: https://www.rotary.org/es/about-rotary/rotary-foundation lists six “Areas of Focus”, and this particular grant appears to fit nearly all of them. The club decided to focus on the sustainability aspect, so this grant will provide improvements to the water filtration system and the greenhouse, plus an expanded garden. In addition to the obvious benefits of such improvements, working in the garden provides a therapeutic outlet for the women.
Mahoney also explained that in order to apply for a grant the international partner must have one or more “champions” who will shepherd the project from beginning to end. Enter Irmgard (Irma) LaFrentz. A native of Germany, Irma operated a highly successful international public relations agency in the Silicon Valley and was an active member of the Cupertino club for the last eleven years. Through her position as youth counselor for the club’s exchange student program, Irma fostered a friendship with Carolina, a young student from Gualaceo, and her family. When she retired in 2016, Irma moved to Cuenca and immediately became active in fundraising efforts for Casa Maria Amor and Mujeres con Ėxito, a partner organization which teaches the women life skills.
Gabriela Alvarado from Tomebamba Rotary wrote the grant application. With the help of Dana Stern, a member of the Cupertino club, the fourteen-month process was completed, and the grant was awarded. Dana was part of the visiting delegation and presented additional cash gifts to both organizations, collected from Rotary members.
The grant provides much-needed improvements to the sustainability of the site, but it does not address the ongoing day-to-day needs of the program. Casa Mara Amor/Mujeres con Ėxito is holding a fundraiser to provide school uniforms, shoes and supplies to the fifty children that currently call Casa Maria Amor home. The cost per student is $95.00. If you are interested in donating and/or joining their mailing list to receive quarterly newsletters and periodic emails so you can follow their progress, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Larsen is a Cuenca expat author. Read his new short mystery “Aliento del Diablo” set in Cuenca, in the upcoming September/October Issue of “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine” or follow him on Amazon