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SFU Co-op Student

Cathy, author, smiling view of Ecuador
This opportunity helped me to develop the ability to seize an opportunity when it arises rather than let me pass it by.

There are few experiences in one’s life that do not just provide you with new skills, but teach you a new way of perceiving the world around you. This past summer I had one of these experiences when I travelled to Ecuador with the Help, Learn, Discover program as a Rural Development Volunteer. It is a three-part program run by the company Ecuaexperience. What began as an inclination to help those in need became a love affair with a country.


Prior to our departure, we got together as group to raise money for the homes that we would be building in Ecuador. We set ourselves a goal of $30,000, which averaged out to be about $1000 per person to raise over a three month period. Our fundraising efforts included pub nights, club nights, weekly car washes, donut sales, comedy nights, and company donations. By August we were able to raise around $20,000 as a group. This required enormous dedication and perseverance as a group, but it was all worth it when we saw the faces of the children and families we helped.


The quintessential aspect of this program is the time spent volunteering in the community of Chunchi. Over four months the goal was to build 20 homes that would be given to families within the town. The work starts out in May with digging the foundation from the side of a hill. In June the foundation is laid, in July the walls begin to go up and in August we continued on the previous work and began finishing some of the homes. Unlike what we might see here in Canada, the foundation was made of dirt, topped with boulders, sand, and a layer of concrete. There were no machines to move materials or mix cement; it was all done by hand. When materials needed to be moved, we formed a human chain, and concrete was mixed on the ground then transferred into a wheelbarrow.

More important than just building the homes, we helped to give the community the tools and skills in order to continue the work in our absence. Unfortunately, we were unable to finish all the homes while we were there, but I look forward to their completion this upcoming May.

Cathy cutting up food


We arrived in Quito, the “Heart of the Andes”, a bustling city that reaches as far as the eye can see. While in Quito, we volunteered in local hospitals shadowing doctors. Over a two-week period we worked in several departments in the hospitals including Internal Medicine, Surgery, Rehabilitation, Radiology and the Emergency Medicine. In addition, we spent time at Camp Hope, a care centre for children living with cerebral palsy.

One of the most interesting aspects was that we were able to visit both private and public hospitals. The public hospitals were much like we expected with large crowds, long wait times, and little space to move or work appropriately. However, the private hospitals were unlike any building I had seen before. When we first walked in it was so pristine that it looked like a five star hotel. After our rotations, we would attend conferences on various subjects including how to take a thorough history and lessons in performing stitches. Our spare time was spent working on case studies that were to be presented at the end. This helped to give us a small insight into what medical school is like. It also provided us with valuable hands on experience that cannot be gained through education alone. Despite everything that I saw and learned about medicine during my rotations I found the advice I learned from the local doctors to be most useful.


When we were not working, we made the most of our time traveling to various cities. Our first getaway was to Baños, which is surrounded by mountains. This is where the fun began by going bungee swinging, white water rafting, zip-lining, and standing directly behind a waterfall until we were soaked through. We escaped Quito to go to Papallacta where we indulged in the natural thermal hot springs.

After our work in Chunchi we relaxed at an all-inclusive resort in Salinas where we took Salsa dancing lessons and went jet skiing. Other towns included Otavalo, which has the world famous market, Canoa, a surfing community, and Mindo, a town located in the middle of the rainforest. Activities included repelling down a waterfall, riding tubes down a river, taking surfing lessons, and paragliding. Each community had a different landscape whether it was in the middle of the mountains, the rainforest or right on the beach.

Cathy Bunjeee jumping


Like any good co-op, this experience helped me to develop specific skill sets including taking blood pressure, performing a physical examination, performing stitches, and taking a thorough history. More importantly, I learned things about myself, such as that I am surprisingly not squeamish around blood or during a surgery. I learned that my own mental perseverance is more important than physical ability in getting a task done.

This opportunity helped me to develop the ability to seize an opportunity when it arises rather than let me pass it by. I loved Ecuador not for just the tourist attractions or activities I did there, but for the Ecuadorians who were always fun-loving, warm hearted, and caring. This was more than a volunteer experience; it was a life changing one.

Beyond the Blog

  • Interested in pursuing an international co-op work term? Find out more on the International Co-op website.

SFU Co-op Student
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Oct 25, 2010

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