Bridging cultures

Encampment Spanish teacher raising funds to aid Ecuadorian orphanage this summer


Max Miller

From left, teacher Toby Ricks, trip chaperone Jana Cor, Jamilliah Cor (front), gallery owner Laura Morrow, and Cheyenne Cor show off some Ecuadorian hats at the Laura M Gallery. Morrow donated 10 percent of her proceeds from Saturday, Dec. 10's business to the students' trip, a sum totaling over $500.

Encampment School Spanish teacher Toby Ricks only had a trimester's worth of eighth grade Spanish and two months of training from the Church of Latter Day Saints when he first went to Ecuador as a teenage missionary. He hopes his students will be a little better prepared for their trip this summer, but admits there are some lessons that just can't be taught in the classroom.

Ricks plans on taking a group of five students and a parent to the South American country to volunteer at an orphanage for two weeks over summer break. The trip will be organized by the Orphanage Support Services Organization (OSSO), a 501(c)(3) which supports orphanages in Ecuador and Thailand.

The OSSO is based in Ricks' hometown of Rexburg, Idaho and when Ricks was 14 or 15 years old, he attended a presentation by the group that stuck with him for years. He said that after he returned from his mission, he missed Ecuador a great deal and wanted to find a way to return. In 2015, that long-ago OSSO presentation came back to him, and he revisited to the country through the group, this time accompanied by a couple students.

Ricks said his own first experience outside of the country was a shock. He arrived in Ecuador with rudimentary Spanish skills at the height of Carnival and remembered, "people were like throwing oranges at the bus and stuff and I was like, 'what the heck is going on?'" He was completely unfamiliar with the Roman-Catholic holiday.

One of the biggest adjustments Ricks is trying to prepare his students for is the experience of poverty in the developing world. "We have poverty here in the United States, but it's almost different I would say than poverty in a third world country. I think it's hard for people to understand that until they actually go see it first hand," he said.

He's also prepared his kids in more mundane ways, showing them pictures of an Ecuadorian shower head, for example, and reinforcing other lifestyle differences between the two countries. "The houses are smaller and they don't have modern appliances and that kind of stuff," Ricks tells his students. "They don't really understand that stuff until they go experience it first hand (though)," he said.

The orphanage Ricks and his charges will be volunteering at is in Cuenca, a southern city with a population of around 325,000. The town is "a little more affluent than other cities I've been to in Ecuador," Ricks said. According to him, it's been named a world heritage site by the United Nations, and is known as an art and cultural center with outstanding colonial architecture. About 8,000 U.S. expatriates make their home in Cuenca, which Ricks said, "tells you a little bit about the safety of the city."

It will be the first trip abroad for Ricks' students, though, and with their youth and limited language skills, there will be rules to protect their safety. All expeditions out of the OSSO compound will have to be done in groups of four (including an adult), a curfew of 9:30 p.m. will be enforced, and the group must travel using certified taxies–not the numerous unlicensed operators in the city. At the orphanage, "they had a map that showed you, 'don't go down these streets because that's the dangerous part of town,'" Ricks said.

Sanitation can also be an issue. "You can't even brush your teeth with the tap water is what they told us last time," Ricks recalled from his last journey South with the OSSO. The Americans will also avoid some local produce and even juice made from unfiltered water–"we just drink soda to avoid that," he said. Helping the Americans navigate the unfamiliar environment will be some longer-term volunteers at OSSO and the assistant director of the orphanage.

For Ricks and McKenzie Powell, a student who went on the trip last year, the charitable aspect of the voyage made as large an impression as the cultural learning. "We went on a city bus tour and went and ate at all these different restaurants and got to see the city and the countryside, but helping the kids was the coolest part of the experience," Powell recalled. She said the trip has inspired her to pursue more international travel in the future, and more good works.

"The kids at the OSSO orphanages–a lot of them are severely handicapped. I'm not sure if it's autism, or Down syndrome or what they have, but a lot of them are in wheelchairs," Ricks said. The students and Ricks will be cooking meals, doing housekeeping, playing with the orphans and even helping them bathe during their stay. Some of the OSSO fees for arranging the logistical details of the trip will also go toward buying food and paying school fees for the orphans, Ricks said.

In order to help pay for the expenses– Ricks estimates the total cost will be around $18,000–He and his students have embarked on a variety of fund-raising ventures. These include movie nights in Encampment and at the PVCC, selling Ecuadorian wares at Laura M's Gallery and asking local businesses for donations.

Powell called her 2015 trip the best experience of her high school career and said playing with the orphans stayed with her for months. "We were able to interact and bond even with a language barrier, and that's one of the things I remember most," she recalled.


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