Before coming to Ecuador to intern in the Amazon, I had no experience working for an NGO nor had I ever done any real long term work for a non-profit organization. Sure, I had volunteered. I was the treasurer of the biggest club in my high school. We worked with the homeless population. I volunteered at elementary schools in Nicaragua and Guatemala and in bioconservation in Costa Rica. However, in all my experiences I always felt as if something important was missing. I was there, bearing witness to the devastation of the longstanding hemispheric imbalance of North and South – an imbalance which has put the South through a downward spiral, resulting in economic dependence, depleted resources, and erosion of culture. My past volunteer experiences were positive because I learned more than I could have ever imagined and walked away with a completely changed perspective of the world we all share. Yet, outside of gaining insight and providing temporary support, I did not leave feeling I had left a permanent impact. I did not provide much long term support to the people where I was volunteering. I helped the stressed out teacher by splitting the class in two so she could focus on the kids that needed more attention. I helped out the tired and relentlessly dedicated turtle conservationists, who had their first break from nightly seven hour patrols because we were able to take over their duties for a week. However, these were short term, small drops of positive impact, and although certainly worthy, did not provide longstanding benefits to the organizations which is what I was yearning to learn how to do.
Although my past experiences with volunteering were eye-opening and great in many ways, I walked away troubled that the work I had done would not be of value after I left. As my experience in the Amazon winds down to a bittersweet end, I have had time to reflect on the incredible adventures and meaningful work I have done. From arriving to the shared intern house at eight in the morning after a sleepless night, exhausted, scared and sweaty, to my last days here, the road I traveled did not only serve to benefit my own understanding of the world, but gave me the opportunity to truly make a positive impact.
The first project I was really able to dive into was the complex, and at times difficult, mission to work with guayusa (tea) farmers to organize rotative community funds. I attended dozens of community bank workshops where representatives from different rural communities would meet with each other and Runa staff to develop systems for finance, investment, and problem solving. My favorite part of these workshops was always the end, when a farmer would stand up to express genuine gratitude for how we were able to help them. It was because we worked alongside the farmers, giving them the tools to develop their own means of organization, that these workshops were so effective. Instead of throwing money at them or initiating our own projects, we helped to implement a method of community investment that was sustainable, even once we were gone and our work was done. I always left those meetings with a feeling of fulfillment, and an understanding that to have the positive impact that I had desired when I was in Costa Rica the month before, you must start small.
Working face to face with guayusa farmers and seeing measurable progress being made in real time was impressive and something I had not thought possible before. I came down to Ecuador with the dream of being a part of big change, as do many hopeful humanitarians across the world. However, what I realized is that the most effective thing someone can do is to work directly with individuals. To be inquisitive and creative about how to provide a service that allows them to create their own solution. As a Foundation Runa intern, that is exactly what I was able to do on a daily basis.
During my time at Runa, I built many deep and meaningful relationships with people from all different backgrounds. I had the opportunity to live with an Ecuadorian family for over half of my internship, which was more immersive and rewarding than anything I have ever done. The two places in the world I can say I truly feel at home is where I grew up, in Portland Oregon, and with my host family in San Pablo, Ecuador. In San Pablo I was able to see and experience first hand Amazonian life and culture. I encountered some of the difficulties that come with living in rural Ecuador, but most of all, I became absorbed in what I consider one of the most beautiful, vibrant, relaxed and friendly cultures in the world. As I get ready to say goodbye to my host family, I can be sure that I left behind a positive impact, as I am leaving as a friend, brother, son and cousin.
The Amazon is a tremendously special place that quickly works its way into your heart. I have acquired an entirely new appreciation for the endless beauty and abundance of nature, and for the importance of exploration and exchange of different cultural perspectives. I would do it all over again if I could. In a few days I will return home, but the trajectory of my life will forever be profoundly affected by my Amazonian internship and life experience. I urge anyone who feels a calling to be a part of an organization that works with locals to make a positive impact, a calling for adventure and learning, a calling to be a part of the difference you wish to make, to consider doing an internship in the Amazon.