Something from nothing

with one comment

On one of my first days here, Jody, the director of Arte del Mundo, sat me down in her office and asked what I hoped to gain from my time as a volunteer.

¨Well,¨ I said, ¨Put most simply, I want to see how an arts non-proftit works.¨

¨Then the first thing you should know,¨ Jody replied, ¨is that you don´t need money. Don´t ever let anyone tell you that you need money. Two years ago, this building was completely empty.¨ She gestured at our building, which now houses a 2,000 volume library and plays host every afternoon to thirty or so happy children, classrooms for English lessons, and a volunteer quarters that I am happy to call home. ¨We built all of this, and we had no money.¨ She laughed. ¨We still don´t!¨


After working at FAM for three weeks, I can see that Jody is right. The non-profit world is quite different here than what I expected. My only prior experience was my work at a fancy shmancy arts non-profit in Miami. In that circle I saw a world where all the town´s upper crust came to throw money around and in exchange, see their names in gold letters on gallery and museum walls. I had been prepared to study the art and science of grant writing, a wearisome task that I´ve seen friends and former colleagues pull their hair out over. There´s none of that here. In an organization where one of the founding beliefs is, ¨To be human is to be imaginative and creative,¨ it only seems fitting that funding is born of creative ideas rather than red tape. I love it. It´s so DIY. It´s so… punk!

We have a whole room of recyclables. I´ll have to take a photo of it– it´s incredible. Anything that to most people is trash, goes into the recycling room. In the hands of our children and volunteers, that trash is turned into fun afternoons, and then, into art. For instance, this little guy. Another volunteer, Pete, made them with all the kids one day. They loved it!


I´ve long thought that what I´d like to ultimately do– my big move– is start a non-profit. I was born into a family of hardworking, self-employed folk and so I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I quickly learned, while self-employed in the real estate industry at the age of twenty, that I lack the ¨money grubbing spirit¨ that one needs to succeed. Or, I should say, to succeed in the traditional, American-dream sense.

A few days ago, I went hiking with Karl and Kim, other volunteers, and we got talking about the movie Network. The discussion concluded with me yelling that famous line from the side of a mountain, ¨I´m as mad as hell, and I´m not going to take it anymore!¨ I´ve met so many people here who I can imagine shouting that phrase from the windows of the suburban homes just before leaving their old lives behind.

The people I´ve talked to all describe a transformative moment when they realized with full clarity that they wanted more out of life than nice cars and big TVs. I met a former firefighter who spent the last three years out of his twelve year career working in Iraq for the United States military. He´d come to Ecuador to climb volcanoes. ¨There´s something about them,¨ he said, leaning close and speaking softly. ¨When I´m near volcanoes, I just feel different. Like nothing else on this Earth has ever made me feel.¨ When he returns to the U.S., he´s going to study for his master´s in Geology. Specializing, of course, in volcanology.

Many of my fellow volunteers, after many years spent on careers, suddenly decided they´d had enough. They gave away or sold whatever they had left. One simply handed the keys to his Mercedes to a friend, trading the car for a bicycle on which he spanned the entire United States. Bobby and Jody, the couple who helped found FAM, have been heading south from Mexico for twenty years, volunteering along the way. ¨We´re the world´s slowest travelers,¨ Jody says.


I feel incredibly blessed to have had the realization relatively early in life that, to quote Fight Club: ¨You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.¨ I feel even more blessed to have the support of my university as I explore what it really means to spend your life doing what you want to do, rather than what you feel you have to.

So far, the most exciting part of my work has been teaching English to adults. I knew I liked ESOL tutoring before, but damn. I really like it now. My class is intermediate, five students give or take, all of whom are there because they really want to learn. They ask difficult questions. They challenge idiomatic phrases. They shake their heads, their faces clouded with confusion. And then, together, we come to understanding, the clouds break, and their faces light up. Or so it seems to me. I can´t say for sure that they´re learning, because I feel so new and inexperienced at this. But as time passes and they warm up to me, I hear their voices more and more often. I see them smile. And then I´m a little like that firefighter with his volcanoes– feeling something unlike anything else. I´ll never forget when Kyunghwa, a Korean woman who I tutored in English back in Tallahassee, told me after our six months together that her professor had commented on her improved English. I was surprised. Kyunghwa came to me almost fluent– she taught English to high schoolers back in Korea– so I really thought, all along, and guiltily, that my tutoring sessions with Kyunghwa were more like just hanging out with a friend. But after that compliment, she thanked me! I know I didn´t do much. The words were there, but having someone to use them on helped improve her confidence and comfort in speaking up.

I feel certain now that my path, for at least the next few years, is one of teaching English overseas. I´ve never been able to relax, so sipping margaritas on the beach never appealed to me as a traveler. I like coming to see the place I´m in as home, and that can only come with time. It doesn´t hurt to be affiliated with an awesome organization, and it really doesn´t hurt to be in a small town where the people go out of their way to make you feel a part of their world. I have felt so welcome in Baños that I feel sure I can become at ease in another part of the world. But for now, it´s true: Baños feels, to me, just like home.


And while we´re on the subject of home, can I show you some photos of my FAMily?


That´s Carlos on the right and I think that´s Oliver on the left. I can´t be sure, because would you believe it, there are TWO of those adorable faces around the Biblioteca? That´s right, Oliver´s a twin. And yes, the saying ¨double trouble¨ does apply!


That´s Veronica, Karl, and Bibi, my surrogate dog for the summer. Veronica is one of the sweetest and friendliest kids at the Bib. Karl is our volunteer coordinator, but he also takes us on rad hikes and keeps me company at the bar. He´s also provided an outlet for my sometimes crude sense of humor, a role I greatly appreciate. As you can see, Bibi´s quite cuddly and good-natured. When Bobby & Jody go away for the weekend, I have the pleasure of being Bibi´s guardian. Having a dog around has really contributed to that sense of home. I´m just not myself without a dog around.


That´s Alfonso, me, Dalene and Pete. Dalene has left for home but her husband, Pete, will be here until August. Alfonso is a Baneño and friend of Karl´s. We went to his house to watch the dismal USA vs. England match a few weeks ago, and to take in the view of Baños from his roof!

Stalin at work

That´s Stalin. He´s the sweetest kid. Every day he greets me with a smile and ¨¡Hola Sam!¨ and when he leaves, it´s a hug and a kiss on the cheek and a ¨¡Chao, hasta mañana!¨


That´s Alex, one of the twins. Yeah, he looks sweet and angelic in that picture.

But this one´s much more true to his silly, mischievious nature.


The passenger with the huge smile is Yesi, our librarian and guru to the children. She´s from Baños and can manage a room full of rowdy kids like none other. I´ve seen thirty children go, at her command, from running around the library putting each other in headlocks to sprawled all over the floor, quietly reading to one another. The ¨horse¨ is Cecilia, a lady from Spain who has the prettiest, but difficult to understand, accent. She led a Friday afternoon of dancing and games that I think was as much fun for the volunteers as it was for the kids.


That´s Karl again and Kim, our newest volunteer. On her second day here, Karl took us to a place called the Tree House. The warden of Volcan Tungurahua built it. It´s a two hour hike from our house and features such glories as a swing that takes you over the valley and spectacular views of the volcano and the surrounding mountains. Like so:




As Kim and I stood looking out over the valley, I turned to her and said something I tend to say often, at times of overwhelming wonder. Like I´m trying to convince myself, still.

¨We live here!¨ I said, and we smiled.


I live here.
I live here.
I live here.

How will I ever leave?!


Written by Sam Kelly

June 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. i’m speechless. joyous, beautiful, incredible!! gahhhhhhh


    June 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

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