When we research the prospect of relocating to another country, we spend a lot of time considering what that country might give us: whether it be the perfect climate, the low cost of living, the great food, the vibrant culture, etc. But not so much focus is put on what we might be able to offer the country that we choose to adopt. Moving to a lower-income country often affords us the luxury of being able to work less, or not at all, meaning we have far more free time. Volunteering with a local charity in your newly adopted country can be a wonderful way to fill some of that time purposefully, and give something back to the place that will undoubtedly give you so much. In the 22 years that I’ve spent traveling and living overseas, the volunteer experiences I had along the way hold some of my most valued memories.
In Ecuador’s third largest city, Cuenca, many expats are actively engaged in volunteering with various local charities. Below is an overview of the organizations that were kind enough to talk to me about their missions and current openings for volunteers:
1. Cuenca Soup Kitchen
Initially established to feed Venezuelan refugees, CSK now provides food assistance to anyone in need. This is currently given in the form of food kits, distributed to around 175 families (equating to about 750 people fed per week). A social worker evaluates the families’ needs and program participants sign a three-month contract, with the vision being that after this time they may be self-sufficient. CSK is entirely donation-funded and relies on the hard work of volunteers for its operations–even the directors are unpaid. There is a huge demand for CSK’s services—a further 300 families are on the waiting list to be helped. Volunteers primarily help to assemble food kits, and to collect and sort clothing, distributed to families on a targeted basis. A popular birthday cake program is also run for the children of participating families. Expat volunteer Barbara Curry and her husband, Gary, have been in Cuenca since November, 2020. In addition to her regular volunteering work with the food kits, she manages the children’s birthday and Christmas programs. Barbara says: “Volunteering one’s time is the least anyone can do to help someone in need. If we all volunteered a small amount of our time, wow, what a difference we could make!”
2. Fundación Hogar de Esperanza
This non-profit organization provides programs and services to people made vulnerable from illness or disability, with a particular emphasis on HIV patients. It provides shelter, meals, medical assistance, equine therapy, art programs, workshops, and many other services. Volunteer opportunities for expats are varied and include handing out food, working at the thrift store, assisting with the equine therapy program, and working at the shelter. Certain, more specialized, roles are often filled by qualified international volunteers and local university students. Many of the positions for expats do not require knowledge of Spanish, although for some roles it is helpful to know a little. Hogar de Esperanza receives donations of food three times a week from a national supermarket chain, and this requires a lot of volunteer assistance for sorting and distributing the supplies.
3. Cuenca English Lions Club
Falling under the umbrella of Lions Clubs International, this non-profit organization is currently focused on raising money to support other charities in the city such as GRACE and Casa de la Diabetes. Initially the service club set out to provide eye disease screening services for local children, but like many organizations it was hard hit by the pandemic and membership declined during this time. However, it is now regaining its member numbers and has recently been able to support worthy causes such as paying for a local child to have life-changing retinal surgery. The club meets once a month at a local restaurant for breakfast (a great way to socialize with fellow members!), and then holds a meeting to discuss service projects and fundraising ideas. Every cent raised goes directly to service projects and anyone with a willingness to help and serve the people of Cuenca is warmly welcomed.
4. GRACE (Give Refugees a Chance)
This non-profit organization provides support to refugees from any country—although currently the majority are from Venezuela—and offers a variety of services ranging from medical, dental, and maternity to food and employment assistance. Their Cuenca service center has a full-time doctor and nurse, and a part-time dentist and gynecologist, and provides free healthcare to program participants, serving hundreds of patients per month. Current opportunities for volunteers include sorting, bagging, and distributing food; assisting with marketing and publicity; helping with fundraising campaigns; participating in administrative roles; and occasionally specialized roles are available for those qualified in healthcare professions. GRACE currently works with various coalition partners and is funded by private donations too, but is also working on establishing partnerships with the United Nations, the Ecuadorian government, and local churches, to help offset staff salaries and rent.
5. Hearts of Gold
One of Cuenca’s longest-serving non-profits, this Ecuadorian foundation was set up by a philanthropic Canadian expat couple. It seeks to empower grassroots organizations by implementing workshops, mentoring non-profit leaders, and supporting various community projects in the province of Azuay (in which Cuenca is located). This is all achieved through its Community Assistance Program. Among the many projects supported is CETAP-Lucy, a center specializing in supporting impoverished rural youth. There are various volunteer positions currently available at Hearts of Gold, ranging from translator/interpreter roles for those with language skills; writers to assist with marketing and communications; IT volunteers to help with tech problems, software updates etc.; and helping to teach English to local Hearts of Gold staff and various groups serviced by the programs that the organization supports.
There are many other organizations that do wonderful work in Cuenca, including: Mujeres Con Exito (working with abused women); Fundación Arca (animal rescue); and Snow Angels in Ecuador (helping Cuenca’s most needy residents), to name just a few. Whatever your interests and skills, there will be somewhere that needs your help. Volunteering is a great way to get involved in your community, meet new people—both locals and expats—and give something back to your adopted country. Hogar de Esperanza volunteer Kevin Pelton has been living in Cuenca for five months now; his primary role at Hogar de Esperanza is organizing and packaging all the food that comes into the charity from the supermarkets, as well as handing it out to program recipients. Kevin sums up his experience perfectly: “I pinch myself every day that I get to live the life I do here in Cuenca. I’m fully aware of how lucky I am. It’s the least I can do to give back, donate my time, and help those in need.”