The History of Adopta Una Familia, Inc.
One late afternoon in the summer of 1998, hot and tired after a day of cleaning the teeth of thirty children in the barrio of Guasmo Sur, Ecuador, the barrio where my daughter Erica was a Peace Corps Volunteer, the two of us stopped to have a drink, and sat on a rock beside the dirt road while we waited for the bus back into the center of the city of Guayaquil. We talked about the community where she had been working for the past ten months and the community I was seeing first hand. I was moved and changed by what I was experiencing and felt that this was an experience that should be shared. I had a gut feeling that the youth I worked with at First Congregational Church of Branford would become better young people and adults, if they could experience just a bit of what was happening to me. They couldn’t clean teeth, but what type of project would be needed in this community, how could we partner with this community and what would be possible for a group of North Americans to undertake? For the next week, while Erica and I traveled the country by bus, we talked about what would make a good project. Most of the houses in the barrio were without basic sanitation. There were very few homes that had even a rustic bathroom. That was it! We would develop a project to build bathrooms.
In October letters were sent to young people in the church youth program, inviting them to an informational meeting about a possible mission project during the summer of 1999. The meeting took place during the Christmas vacation and surprisingly over 40 people attended. There were excited youth, nervous parents and some extraordinary adults who grabbed the challenge and signed on.
Our group was made up of 28 people ranging in age from 13 to 70. One woman, whom I will never forget, Alice Reutenauer and her husband Russ in their late sixties, signed up to go and years later she shared with me how privileged she felt to be asked. She said it was an honor. I have never forgotten this conversation and it has stayed with me as I continue to ask people to share this experience. At about the same time, a member of the congregation, Colin Gershon, with a son planning on participating in the project, approached me with an interest in applying for a Rotary International Matching Grant and establishing a relationship with Club Rotario in Guayaquil. After months of paper work, the idea turned into a $20,000 grant to help with the project. Each participant in the project made a covenant of support for $1,500. This money paid for airfare, living expenses with $800 going directly to supplies for the project. While we were holding fundraisers and meeting to discuss immunizations, health issues, passports, packing and safety, Erica was leading the selected families in preparation for our arrival. Health classes were held each week, water purification standards were set, safety policies were established and excitement began to build. A small group from the community of Guasmo Sur sat down one night to draw up plans for the first bathroom and septic system. Measurements were made, number of cinder blocks estimated, length of pipe calculated, tiles tabulated and a rudimentary budget took form. At the end of the project, we had worked together with our Ecuadorian hosts to build 23 bathrooms (tiled shower, toilet and sink) and raised the level of the floors, which were at that time dirt, and then poured cement that would make the homes less susceptible to flooding during the rainy season.
Something miraculous happened that week in Guasmo Sur. Did I ever think that 17 years later we would still be doing this project and that we would have expanded to several projects with many different facets? Absolutely not, but as the participants got off the bus that first year after arriving home from the airport, I heard them ask, “When are we going next year?” That has continued year after year and our relationship with the people in Guasmo Sur gets stronger and stronger. Since that time we have had to increase the covenant of support. Ecuador now operates on the US dollar as their currency system and inflation makes material and travel costs much more expensive. Instead of building bathrooms we now build entire houses. We worked with a woman architect who designed a proto-type two/three bedroom house, with kitchen, eating area, living room and bathroom. We build each house in two years. The first year we do the initial structure and the second year we do the finish work.
In 2008, we completed construction of a three story new community center for the organization Mi Cometa and dedicated it during our tenth reunion project which brought over 100 participants back to Guasmo Sur to celebrate the accomplishment that two communities working together can change the face of communities. Mi Cometa in Spanish means My Kite (symbolic of dreams that take flight). Mi Cometa is the hub of the community and works to provide space and leadership for programs that are needed. It has been home of a dance school, a music school, programs for young children, exercise classes for elderly and an education program that we sponsor called CASF (Creacion Alumnos Sin Fronteras). CASF has two components; a scholarship program and an after-school tutoring program. In 2007 the tutoring program was designed and implemented by Abby Smith, a long term participant of the building projects. It was created to help the young people who were receiving educational grants develop a deeper love for learning and give them added support with their studies. The Ecuadorian teaching team was trained by Abby and they work off a monthly “thematic” curriculum that they develop themselves. All lessons are developed to enhance what individuals are already learning in their schools – but special emphasis is placed upon those areas that receive little or no focus in the public system (examples: geography, the arts and science). During the summer of 2007 a summer internship position was created and offered to two young women (Stephanie Apuzzo and Christine Cotton) who had been participants in the building project for many years. We continue to see the results of this great program as the students enroll, continue to stay in school, graduate from high school and many continue to university studies.
In 2008 we hosted our first medical mission project. A group of 35 doctors and support staff from St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, CT traveled to Guayaquil in July and did 78 surgeries. This project has continued to provide access to medical surgical procedures for a very underserved population. In 2009 we hosted our first dental mission project. Two general dentists, an oral surgeon, two hygienists and assistants from Branford provided free, comprehensive dental work on more than 100 children who participate in Mi Cometa’s community programs. Last year UCONN Dental School participated in the dental initiative and will continue with the work during May of 2015. In August of 2012 AUF, Inc. (Adopta Una Familia, Inc.) was officially granted 501c3 status and has a board of directors of 16; all past participants in one of the projects.
What started in 1999 as a nervous group of 28 from The First Congregational Church of Branford has grown to multiple projects with participants from five churches and more than 10 states. Our age range of participants is from 12-91. Yes, you read that correctly. We had a 91 year old man who went on his fourth project for the reunion celebration. From the groups that have traveled with us, we have had three people enter the Peace Corps, one who worked with Sister City Project in El Salvador, 14 who completed summer internships in Guasmo Sur, numerous past participants with careers in health fields and others working for non-profits that address issues of justice and peace in communities throughout the US and the world. It has been a life altering experience for most of us. At a time when our reputation around the world is not the best, I am proud that we try to express the true nature of the people of the United States. The history of this project will continue to grow through our new non-profit organization Adopta Una Familia, Inc.
If you would like to make history, please read more, consider joining us on a project, or make a contribution to support our work.