Former Missionaries Return to Ecuador to Serve 20 Years Later
By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events, and Daphne N. Blanchard, service project participant
It’s Friday afternoon when the two dozen or so children who attend Control de Tareas (Homework Control) at the Annika Tutoring Center in Guayaquil, Ecuador, exit the facility.
In years past, the center, run by the Fundación por Ayuda Humanitaria (Foundation for Humanitarian Aid—FAHUM), could accommodate as many as 300 children, but recent economic struggles and a reduction in donations necessitated cutbacks, allowing only 50 to attend.
During a 2011 humanitarian trip organized by 20 former missionaries of the Ecuador Guayaquil South mission, however, the Annika Tutoring Center was able to add a second floor to the facility and increase its total attendance to more than 75 children on average.
Today, five days a week, the new second floor is used for Control de Tareas, which FAHUM president Teresa Fuentes says offers classes to help parents become more involved as well as free after-school tutoring for children.
Twenty Years in the Making
They came from California, Idaho, Ohio, and Utah, USA, and from cities throughout Ecuador. Twenty former missionaries of the Ecuador Guayaquil South Mission, along with some of their family members, met in the Equador Guayaquil Temple on June 4, 2011, in preparation to begin a four-day humanitarian project, once again serving the people they had brought the gospel to all those years ago.
They were joined by two families who found the gospel through one of the former missionaries present.
Abe Cubano is a former missionary who headed up the effort. He explained, “We were a committed force of people who wanted to serve and help the people we love.” He felt that “the temple was a great way to start serving.”
Brian Zwahlen, now a dentist in Modesto, California, said of their experience in the temple, “We all felt that if we had come only for this one day, it would have been worth it.”
A Labor of Love
During the next four days, group members grouped themselves into three teams: the construction team added the second story to the local tutoring center, the dental team performed free dental procedures, and the medical team offered medical training.
Twenty individuals dedicated their time to expanding the Annika Tutoring Center. Waking each day before dawn and stopping work after dark, the construction team sifted and mixed cement, raised walls, and painted inside and out. When the building was completed, school supplies filled the tutoring center shelves.
With some of the funds provided by the former missionaries and left over from the service project, Ms. Fuentes set up a small storefront to sell donated items, which generate a little income to help with some of the center’s expenses.
At the same time, at a nearby LDS stake center, members of the dental team taught dental hygiene and offered patients free dental care, while the medical team offered neonatal resuscitation certification training.
Multiple locations and projects made planning the trip challenging, but Troy Blanchard, co-director of the trip, said, “It was never heavy or burdensome; instead it was invigorating.”
Members of the dental team, many of whom are practicing dentists, treated more than 650 individuals over the course of four days. Some patients had special needs, others were preparing to serve missions and couldn't afford the dental exam required, and hundreds were local school children from Guasmo and the surrounding areas.
Some members of the dental team dedicated their time to teaching dozens of children crucial hygiene skills in an enthusiastic and hands-on way.
The medical team certified 33 individuals—university, senior medical students, and a local pediatrician—in neonatal resuscitation. One participant, Dr. Carlos Latorre, a recently graduated medical student from Ecuador, was trained to teach the course in the future.
The Blessings of Service
Daphne Blanchard, the wife of former missionary Troy Blanchard and participant on the construction team, explained, “We are most effective where our love runs the deepest.”
“I observed a most remarkable group of saints who served with such deep love for the Ecuadorian people,” she wrote in an e-mail. There was much accomplished in the four days of organized service; but I also observed our group following the example of the Savior as they went about doing good“ (see Acts 10:38).
She cited the examples of former missionaries eager to serve, a stake president who helped spread the word of their service projects, and drivers who helped the group travel and gather supplies.
Members of the service group credited most of their success to divine assistance. Brother Blanchard told of finding the opportunity to help the tutoring center just two days before the group leaders needed to decide on a service project.
“It was one of those miracles you absolutely can’t deny,” he said. “We felt exhilarated to be instruments in God’s hands.”
In addition to their accomplishments over the four days of service, many service project participants mentioned additional blessings they experienced.
In one instance, members of the group donated funds to a family whose home recently burned down. Service project participants were also able to supply a computer to a woman in a small mountain town, enabling her to communicate with her children and grandchildren in the United States.
Brian Ellsworth, who headed the education efforts, felt that returning to serve the people of Ecuador was simply “putting into practice the temple covenants we make.”
Deven Smith, head of the construction team, expressed his joy at seeing people he baptized still active and serving in the Church.
At the conclusion of the service project, the group gathered in a Church meeting with members in Guayaquil to report their successes and suggest future improvements members in Ecuador could continue to carry out. Several group members testified of the impact a mission had on their lives and how its effects continue to bless them.
Asked, “Who is going on a mission?” several young priests from the local Church unit raised their hands.
In that same meeting, Gaby LaTorre, who was introduced to the gospel many years before through one of the group members, stood with a hand over her heart and said, “Thank you for saying ‘yes’ to a mission.”
Brother Zwahlen explained it this way: “What we received was so much more than what [we] gave. . . . This is the Lord’s work.”