Leah Bonner, Carl Eschler, and Camille Larsen: a special-needs teacher, an electrician’s mate, and a stay-at-home mom. These three seem to have little in common, but their pasts are tied to one place—Ecuador.
Each of these individuals volunteered with the Orphanage Support Services Organization (OSSO), a program that offers volunteers a chance to serve at various orphanages in Ecuador from five weeks to six months. During their time serving, Leah, Carl, and Camille helped orphanage workers meet the physical and emotional needs of the children through teaching and play. Their service not only helped the children in Ecuador, but it also gave these three volunteers new perspectives to guide their lives when they returned home.
Teaching Students with Certainty
For Leah Bonner, volunteering with OSSO seemed like the perfect way to transition between colleges. She was finishing up her associate’s degree and thought that the Ecuador trip would be the perfect break before she moved on to get her bachelor’s.
Before volunteering with OSSO, Leah was an elementary education major and was fairly certain that she wanted to teach special-needs students. When she was presented with the opportunity to work at a special-needs orphanage, she jumped on it. Despite the occasionally sad atmosphere, Leah was amazed by the happiness that the special-needs children in the orphanage maintained.
“One of the little boys I worked with was eleven years old, but he looked like he was maybe two or three,” says Leah. “He had part of his forehead removed, so his head was really soft. He had extreme special needs and was constantly in pain, but he was always smiling. I’d go in to see him in the morning, and he’d always be so happy for any attention he received, always excited for another day.”
After working with these children, Leah was sure that she would teach special-needs students when she got home. “This made me certain I wanted to go into teaching special education as a career,” says Leah.
Sailing with Purpose
Carl Eschler currently works as a member of the US Coast Guard stationed in Seattle, Washington. But nine years before joining, he took a semester off from college to volunteer with OSSO. For Carl, this trip to Ecuador was more than just a service opportunity. He was 18 years old, and this was his first trip abroad and his first opportunity to live in a distinctly different culture from his own. The experience was an adjustment for Carl, who spoke very little Spanish. He had an especially hard time communicating when he moved into the home of a local family, but Carl grew to better understand and appreciate this small family. As he describes it, “The trip opened my eyes to traveling and accepting other cultures.”
Every day while in Ecuador, Carl worked at one of two orphanages. At one orphanage, he fed and played with the kids. The other was for children with special needs, and he helped with physical therapy. On occasion, he was bussed to a nearby preschool to teach short lessons to local children. But Carl’s best memories came from working with the special-needs orphans. “I have a lot of memories of when I worked with those kids,” says Carl. “There was one kid in particular that I really loved. Those kids at the orphanage were always so happy.”
This eye-opening experience abroad became a stepping-stone toward Carl’s decision to join the Coast Guard. As he puts it, “I enjoy traveling, serving my country, and helping other people. I think it was important to be a part of OSSO, to be part of an organization bigger than myself. OSSO’s not a big thing, but it’s a group of people who do a lot of good. That’s also what the Coast Guard is: an organization that’s doing a lot of good.”
Raising Children with Confidence
Camille Larsen’s first volunteer experience with OSSO was only the beginning. Her time in Ecuador made such an impact on her that she decided to return the following summer for six and a half months as a site coordinator, training new female volunteers and helping them adjust to their new home in the orphanage.
While Camille loved working with these new girls, her favorite moments came from working with the children. One of the moments that she remembers best is when she was able to work with a newborn baby girl. Holding the baby in her first moments of life was extremely moving for Camille, who believes that moments like this prepared her to be a mother now.
“It was really hard for me to see so many children without parents. It broke my heart, and it gave me a better appreciation for my own ability to take care of my child. I went there thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to help them so much,’ but they helped me. They taught me the responsibility of parenthood.”
Not every volunteer will continue the work they start in Ecuador. But whether they come to teach, travel, or serve, in some way volunteers carry their experiences from OSSO with them after they get back.