Con manos abiertas, with open hands, is how my camino or journey began, and it is how I intend to have it continue. This journey began July 12th with a 10-day orientation in Boston.There, I and 10 of my fellow community mates declaredour big Si to spending this next year serving as a volunteer with Rostro de Cristo to accompany the people of Guayaquil and Duran Ecuador. This Gran Si could only be said and felt with open hands to a life-giving, faith-filled, communal journey that no one could predict. Our 10 days in Boston were filled with team-building activities, intercultural training, trauma-informed care and empathic listening training, as well as time for self-reflection and prayer on a 2-day silent retreat. Those days were jam-packed and every movement was thoughtfully led by one of our staff directors, volunteer alum, and organization partners. And while those first few days together as a community felt somewhat awkward, we all felt an amazing connection through our common yes to the camino ahead.
We left Boston on a rainy day, waving goodbye to our directors, anxious and eager to get to the airport to finally start nuestro vida en Ecuador. And as our spirits remained high, no one could anticipate what the next 24 hours would hold. What was supposed to be a one-stop flight in Miami before Guayaquil turned into us almost touching ground in Miami before being directed to West Palm, FL due to thunderstorms and inclement weather. While waiting on the tarmac in West Palm, I found myself bonding over the concern of missing the connecting flight out of Miami to Guayaquil with the family sitting next to me. This powerhouse of a mother was flying with her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twins from the UK back home to Guayaquil. After finally heading back to the Miami airport from West Palm, we all deplaned and ran to our gate, only to miss boarding by a few minutes. The next hours were filled with long lines and several phone calls in an attempt to get our group tickets of 11 rebooked for Guayaquil. Standby tickets for about 8 of us to Bogota, Columbia turned into only 6 of us arriving there before flying to Guayaquil. Coincidentally enough, the family I sat next to on the first flight also got put on the Bogota flight! However, our Rostro group of 11 was split up dramatically into 3 different arrival times in Guayaquil. I arrived with the first group in Guayaquil in the morning hours before lunch; our group was warmly and energetically welcomed by the former volunteers and in-country staff. The relief flooded our bodies after running on minimal sleep and food, knowing we finally arrived to our new hogar for the next year. However, the full relief did not come until 10pm that night when our last community mate landed. While our coming-to-Ecuador adventure was utterly exhausting and surreal, it was not completely spirit-crushing as we knew it was only a test of our resilience, adaptability, and community strength. Those open hands to the craze helped us along – gracias a Dios!
Rostro de Cristo volunteers are split between two invasion communities: six of my community mates live and work in the community of Monte Sinai, Guayaquil, while I live with four others in Arbolito, Duran. Sophie, Steph, Ashely, Chris and I are living and working together in Arbolito and the surrounding areas-communities with partner organizations. Our first few days in Ecuador were spent being oriented by the former Arbolitovolunteers, a tight-knit foursome of Mujeres Fuertes. We shadowed these ladies at the 4 different job sites before leaving for a weekend discernment retreat at a Jesuit retreat center just 3 hours west on the coast of Santa Elena. Our community of 11 reunited for a few days to reflect on our first few days in Ecuador and to communally discern where each one of us was being most called to work for the next year.
My site placement for this year is at an after-school program called Manos Abiertas – fitting right? I am placed with my community mate, Sophie, and there we work with one of Rostro´s Ecuadorian staffers, Ricardo. The Manos Abiertas program is in a neighboring invasion community called Gregorio II (a.k.a. 28 de Agosto). The students who come to program are ages 3-15 and come Monday-Thursday afternoons. After our discernment retreat, we had a day or two to go to work with the former vols. One of those special ladies, Clarissa, reminded us of something very important about the Manos Abiertas program; while it is an after-school program where students come to receive homework help, it more importantly a place where our kiddos come to "love and to be loved on." Our kiddos are welcomed every day with open arms and cariño. Manos Abiertas is rooted in 6 different values that we discuss through charlas or chats- the beginning portion of the program is dedicated to these values lessons on: confianza, respeto, responsibilidad, bondad, justicia, and espiritualidad. While some of our kids come from loving and supportive families, we have others coming from struggling homes with parents who have minimal presence in their lives. The intent of having these built-in charlas or values lessons is rooted in the hope that we can either reinforce the values being taught in some of their homes, or even fill in the gaps for students who do not receive these lessons at home.
The former volunteers´ last few days were spent saying goodbye to the neighbors who became their family during their time here, while introducing us and opening the doors and windows for us to experience that great love as well. It felt so special to witness how our neighbors could hold both the sadness of saying ciao to the former vols with the excitement of saying bienvenidoto all of us. The neighbors in Arbolito have also leaned into having manosabiertas to this experience. The kids on my street remind me every day of the power of love and laughter. In fact, they basically force me to walk and live with open hands as they beg me to pick them up screaming, "cojeme!" as I walk down the street.
In this month and a half while being here, I have realized how special this gift of an experience is. Joining La Familia Rostro allows me and pushes me to be open to a new Way of Life, one based on community and simplicity and one that pushes me to say yescadadia to asking hard questions, to making mistakes, andto encountering my fellow humans. During this time, I have said a lot of goodbye´s and hello´s explored a bit of Guayaquil, jumped into waterfall pools, eaten delicious food, felt my first temblor, had my Ecua-birthday, and danceden las calles. My days are filled with high highs, like saving a kitty from the mango tree in my yard, to low lows, like burying a dead stray pup at work. Not every day is easy, but every day is filled with moments of great grace, like the glow that comes when the sun sets or the laughter that erupts within me when we are chasing down the bus. Some days I am haunted and overwhelmed by the questions of injustice circulating through my brain, but the serendipitous moments like racing the kids in my neighborhood or sharing a coco heladowith a community mate pull me out of my head and into my heart so that I can keep my manos abiertas.