By: Nico Benalcazar, Compassion Ecuador Photojournalist   |   Posted: March 14, 2022

Being a photojournalist is full of surprises and challenges. But Nico shares the beauty and hope of learning amazing life lessons from children.

5 Children Who Changed Me

Being a photojournalist is full of surprises and challenges. But Nico shares the beauty and hope of learning amazing life lessons from children.

Written by Nico Benalcazar, Compassion Ecuador Photojournalist
Nico, the author, sits with some children

People often ask me, “Doesn't it make you sad to write confronting stories and take heartbreaking pictures?” In the beginning, I asked myself the same thing. Now, after countless long trips to the depths of the jungle, to the top of immense mountains and to the warmth of the balmy coast, I find nothing more beautiful than experiencing the deep, immense warmth of children's hearts.

The photojournalist's journey begins as the bags are packed. As I fold my clothes, get my camera ready and make sure I haven’t missed anything, my mind is already wondering about the places I will discover and the people I’m about to meet. The possibilities are endless. Expectation fills my heart.

People also ask me, “How do you not feel guilt or pain when you have to photograph the hard challenges of a family in need?” The truth is you always feel guilt or pain. Those feelings are present every time I take a plane, get on a bus or board a canoe. I am often afraid of the reality that I will soon face. But all that changes when I see the smile of a child.

After a long and tiring journey, everything lights up as the children run toward me, smiling and jumping. My fear disappears, doubts and sadness evaporate, and my heart feels peace and joy, knowing the incredible stories of so many children who smile and have hope. When you meet these children and their families, you finally realize the purpose of the trip: to capture hope at its purest.

For several years now, I have had the privilege of being a Compassion photojournalist and learning from the families I meet on these trips. I can humbly say that children are the best teachers in life. Today, I want you to meet five children who changed my perspective on life.

James Taught Me Resilience

When I met 6-year-old James in 2021, I was struck by his peace. He and his family had lost their house in a landslide that covered the area with mud and debris. As I interviewed the family, I learned about the terrifying event and how Compassion and the church had helped the family with food, mattresses and supplies to rebuild their home. James and his brothers receive consistent emotional and spiritual support from the church.

James sits among the rubble of his home.

James sits among the rubble of his home.

Caption

Despite the difficulty they were suffering, James showed determination and strength to recover everything they’d lost. He continued studying hard, taking care of the family’s animals and helping at home.

After the interview and the photographs, James asked me if I had brought any sweets. I felt terrible. Usually, I have a bag of sweets stashed in my bag, but not that day. I immediately asked if there was a store nearby.

After walking eight blocks down the hill, we arrived at a store where we could buy lollipops. The joy and gratitude of James and his brothers as I handed them the candy touched my heart. On the walk back home, James held on to my hand. In that moment, I learned that small acts of love can brighten the heart even in difficult situations.

Nico with James and his brothers

José Taught Me Perseverance

At 6 in the morning, I arrived at little José's house. This ingenious 12-year-old fishes in the giant Pacific Ocean with only a plastic bottle, thread, a hook and a stone. That’s impressive, right?

José and his brother Danilo fish to help provide food at home. They, along with most children in these coastal communities, face limited access to education as schools remain closed due to the pandemic. Most children do not have internet access or electronic equipment to take classes online, which worries families and church members since, without proper education, the children won’t be able to improve their futures. The local church is working with Compassion on a program to make sure José, Danilo and the other children can have a better education.

José holds a fish he caught.

José holds a fish he caught.

Caption

"At church, I’ve learned that if I work and study hard, I can become an engineer and build thousands of ships," says José. "I don't want to spend my whole life taking fish out of the sea; getting into those little boats makes me dizzy. When I grow up, I want to build big ships so my dad and the fishermen can work more comfortably and safely."

For two hours, José tried in vain to teach me to fish his way. The technique was so complicated that, even after a short time, my hands hurt. José made it look so easy that I felt frustrated. “Be patient,” José told me with a smile. After several hours, I was finally able to catch a small fish. It was all thanks to the wisdom and unwavering patience of a certain fishing master.

Jose and Nico fishing

Ninfa Taught Me About Hard Work

After an hour by plane and a three-hour car journey through the lush jungle, I finally arrived at the Indigenous community of Campanacocha. The people in this community are friendly. Poverty in Indigenous jungle communities is generational, and families live a simple lifestyle without appliances or furniture. Their homes are sparse but are kept neat and orderly to avoid attracting ants or wild animals. Families don’t have their own bathrooms, but the children bathe twice a day in the river.

The jungle provides families with the basics they need for survival, but education is a luxury that very few have access to. Through the Compassion program, young people are daring to dream and to break the cycle of poverty through education and the Word of God. However, children must balance their studies with working in the fields and their chores at home.

While the community leader served me chicha (a fermented cassava concoction) to drink, little 4-year-old Ninfa watched me, half hidden behind a wooden pillar.

Ninfa stands on her family's porch

Shortly after, the community leader directed the children to clean the crop field. All of them began to work clearing weeds to protect the crops. They looked like tiny ants working the land. While they were still working, a tropical storm swept in. Despite the rain and wind, none of the children seemed bothered or unhappy. They continued to work. I was so inspired by their efforts in the torrential rain that I decided to go into the fields to help them.

Finally, when we finished, Ninfa approached me. Her hands were full of mud, and she wanted help cleaning it off. We started running and playing in the rain. Suddenly, all the children joined us and asked me to tell them about my work. At the end of the day, we were all soaked, telling stories in the rain and having fun after a day of hard work.

Nico is sitting with Ninfa and other children

Axel Taught Me to Dream Big

Axel, 8, lives on top of a mountain, around 15,000 feet over sea level. I had to drive up a steep hill along a stone-lined path, and the hill was so challenging that the car couldn’t make it. I had to get out and walk the last quarter of a mile. The cold wind whipped my face. I was freezing. But up ahead, I could see Axel jumping with excitement when he saw that I had arrived.

Nico takes a photo with Axel and his brother

Nico takes a photo with Axel and his brother.

Caption

His community is called Cangahua — which means “Hard Lands” in the Quichua language. The community’s tributary of water comes directly from the melting of the snow-capped Cayambe volcano. Despite the area’s natural beauty, the water that flows through rivers and creeks to the local communities is contaminated by humans and animals.

Because of the contaminated water, many children suffered stomach pain and were often sick. After investigating the source of the sickness, the church discovered the problem of contaminated water and began providing pure water weekly to the community.

During my visit, Axel kept staring at my camera and touching it. He was very curious and wanted to know everything about the camera. Along with his younger brother, we sat outside on the grass talking. Suddenly, Axel took off my sunglasses, put them on his brother and started taking pictures. We played and had a lot of fun. Axel exclaimed, “When I grow up, I want to be a photographer.”

My heart was filled with joy to see that a little boy, so full of energy, was already dreaming of a professional future. Despite their financial situation and the remoteness of where they live, these children are determined to dream big. When I got home, I was finally able to look at the pictures Axel had taken. I remember thinking, “That's not bad!”

Axel sits with his brother and Nico

Ashley Taught Me About Creativity

After an extended quarantine and many days at home because of the pandemic, 9-year-old Ashley and her sisters were finally able to go outside and play. The girls live in a remote community where internet connection and technology are scarce. However, that doesn’t stop these intelligent girls from having healthy fun.

Nico takes a selfie with Ashley, center, and her sisters

Nico takes a selfie with Ashley, center, and her sisters.

Caption

On Ashley’s birthday, she knew the likelihood of visitors was very low because of the pandemic. And though her family celebration would be full of love, her parents couldn’t afford birthday presents or cake. Expecting a quiet birthday, Ashley and her sisters began the day in their backyard looking for creative ways to make Ashley's birthday special.

Partway through the day, Ashley heard a knock on the door and was delighted to find her tutor holding a birthday cake! Despite the challenge of social distancing, Ashley’s local center works hard to ensure that children still feel treasured on their birthdays. After eating cake and singing, the girls continued playing together throughout the afternoon.

After my interview and photoshoot with the family, the girls invited me to play with them. They handed me two sticks, two pieces of broken tile and an old cable. I was perplexed. Ashley looked at me. Smiling, she explained, “That's my computer. I'll lend it to you so we can play.”

I was surprised. The girls only needed sticks, tiles and a lot of creativity to play and have fun. What impressed me the most was the happiness in their eyes at finding joy and value in simple things.
Ashley and her sister, Emily

Being a Compassion photojournalist is full of surprises and challenges. But there is nothing more amazing than learning amazing life lessons from children.