Near the Colombian border, the Ecuadorian village rises from muddy shores of an isolated Pacific inlet. Children in the village spend their days splashing and digging in puddles.
Their toys are the thousands of walnut-size crabs that skitter sideways through the mud. Their playground is a dirt soccer field with patches of soggy grass. Their public elementary school is a small concrete building where teachers sometimes discipline children with wallops across the face.
Their homes are balanced on stilts to keep out high tide and twice-a-month flooding. Their drinking water is rain collected from rusty metal roofs. There is no sewer system, so toilets are the marshy fields or holes in porches of homes. There is no trash service, so people drop garbage on the ground or burn it.
Because Compassion is new here, Pampanal provides a glimpse into the types of needs that require Compassion’s intervention, and the challenges that local church partners face — especially in the early days of the program — to help children. This is where the Church and Compassion need to be.
In 2011 Compassion formed a unique partnership with Stadia, a U.S.-based church-planting nonprofit. The alliance enabled Compassion to build a child development center and church, Roca de la Eternidad, in Pampanal last spring. Compassion’s church partner has begun offering Bible lessons, drinking water and nutritious food for kids at the center, which has indoor toilets and sinks. To help the island’s youngest children and their mothers, Compassion also introduced its Child Survival Program here, where medical interventions have already saved babies’ lives.
When the community’s children aren’t at the child development center, many of them wander the village unsupervised because their parents are busy gathering food. Women dig for mollusks, while men fish for seafood to feed their families or sell to meet other daily needs. When visitors arrive on the island, children excitedly greet them with smiles, hugs and handshakes. They’re thirsty for clean water and attention. They run — many of them barefoot — across a ground littered with plastic bags, glass bottles and fishing nets to jump into the arms of Bertha, director of Pampanal Child Development Center. Others grab the hands of Pastor Jorge Tafur and his wife, Liz.
These Compassion church partners live in San Lorenzo, a city only 12 minutes away by motorboat — but a world away for most villagers, who have no money to get there. Even before the Stadia-funded church and Compassion center were built, Pastor Jorge spent more than a year cultivating relationships with villagers. During that time, he earned their trust and began to address problems that affect them and their children, such as domestic violence and machismo, a culture of exaggerated masculinity that encourages men to act aggressively.
Jorge began holding Sunday services at the new church. Most adults who come to church aren’t Christians, the pastor says. But they come. On a recent Sunday, Jorge preached in Spanish from his Bible as a dozen or so children ran around the church. About 50 women sat in white plastic chairs. The men were at a retreat that Jorge organized to teach nonviolent strategies for coping with frustration and relationship issues, which are in no short supply. One sponsored child’s mother bears a scar on her forearm, a harsh reminder of her husband’s machete blade.
Diego Nicolalde, Compassion’s Partnership Facilitator for the region, says he suspects that every child on the island has been abused in some way. “We have to work — and we are trained to work — quickly in the program to solve these situations, because people just see these kinds of things as normal,” he says. “So this is the big struggle.”
In addition to struggling with violence, Compassion’s church partners struggle to keep the village’s children healthy. Some kids’ legs are speckled with sores caused by insect bites that become infected when the children play in puddles or swim in the pond that families use for laundry water.
“We are teaching parents to really help the children not to walk and get inside the mud or to swim in those little puddles, which are full of dirty water,” says Bertha, the program director. “And also to use repellent and to wash their hands all the time before they eat.”
To treat sickness, some villagers go to witch doctors instead of the government-appointed physician who works on the island. “Our strategy is just to educate the community in many, many situations — like this one, the witchcraft, that they should not trust and follow these types of beliefs,” Diego says. Along with that education, Compassion provides proper medical attention for registered children’s ailments.
But illness seems far from children’s minds when they arrive at the child development center for songs, Bible lessons and lunch. The night before each program day, volunteers cook food for the 208 registered children. The next day, Jorge, Bertha and church volunteers load pots of the food onto a motorboat in San Lorenzo, along with bottled water and school supplies. Once on Pampanal, they haul them to the center. Because it is a work in progress, the center doesn’t yet have a kitchen. Jorge is still building trust in the community and fears break-ins if the building were fully outfitted. Meeting the children’s immediate physical needs is a crucial first step toward realizing even bigger dreams.
Jorge, Bertha and Diego have many dreams for the children of Pampanal. Bertha hopes to bring a child psychologist and dental clinic to the island. Diego is working with the public school to allow children access to its proposed computer lab during Compassion program time. Compassion is encouraging local authorities to move forward with plans to build a high school.
“We are ready to face any challenge,” Diego says. “Whatever the Lord wants to bring to us, we are ready.”
The challenges here are great. And the changes happening since Compassion’s programs started in Pampanal last year are not always obvious when trudging in rubber boots through the muck.
The daily retreat of high tide from the Ecuadorian fishing village of Pampanal de Bolivar leaves behind sewage-filled puddles.
Rubber boots can protect children’s feet from bacteria in puddles. But many families in Pampanal can’t afford the boots.
Pastor Jorge Tafur hands out a meal of chicken, rice and potatoes to sponsored kids at the island’s new child development center.
Pampanal villagers live on seafood, like fish that they dry in the sun.
Church workers are teaching kids to avoid dirty water such as this pond.
The local church team hauls food and bottled water from San Lorenzo to sponsored children in Pampanal, who usually have no safe drinking water.