Service learning in Ecuador creates lasting connections and microenterprise venture

December 8, 2011 By Aimee Katz

As a service learning project within Wisconsin Without Borders, students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have made lasting connections with a village in Ecuador through a microenterprise project.

This year marked the pilot year of WWB and the UW–Madison Global Health Institute. Through engagement in collaborations in reciprocal community partnership, this initiative serves to foster sustained human flourishing throughout the world.

Photo: Jewelry makers

Two Ecuadorean women work on jewelry as part of the Wisconsin Without Borders project.

Lori DiPrete Brown, associate director for education and engagement of the UW–Madison Global Health Institute, has been leading service learning activities in rural Ecuador for five years to work on basic health projects, such as child development and family health.

In 2010, Brown was in La Calera, a village health sciences students visit frequently for service learning projects. The women of this village make jewelry in their spare time from tropical palm seeds and sought to expand into a business.

“The women initially wanted me to sell the necklaces, but I thought I would show them to Janet Niewold, who has expertise in buying and selling crafts,” she says. “We sought to explore whether there would be a way to do something more sustaining and create a service learning opportunity for students.”

Niewold is a member of the advisory board for Wisconsin Without Borders, an initaitive led by the Morgridge Center for Public Service in partnership with the Global Health Institute and Division of International Studies.

She agreed to assist Brown, and they found a student leader to help them.

Carybeth Reddy, a UW student, was interning in Ecuador in the fall of 2010 when she heard about Brown’s project.  Brown knew Reddy had previously researched the social impact of microfinance, and she approached Reddy knowing she was a Spanish speaker and had interest in microenterprise.  

Reddy contacted Brown while she was in Ecuador, and after a few phone conversations and an 11-hour bus ride from the Ecuadorean coast to the sierra, she met with the community of La Calera.

“What the women of La Calera really wanted was help from UW to develop a business,” says Niewold. “They have this great skill of making and selling jewelry to local tourists, and they wanted to develop their products to be more competitive.”

This past summer, UW students worked with the women of La Calera to design a line of jewelry, develop systems for managing orders and inventory, create promotional materials and buy products to sell at home in Madison.

Megan Hall, a UW student, had Brown as a professor in a populations health course. After a service-learning trip in Mexico was cancelled, Brown directed her to the microenterprise and community health project in Ecuador.

“Initially, my interest in learning more about international health initiatives and making jewelry motivated me to be involved with this project,” she said. “But after meeting the women of La Calera, their enthusiasm and determination became a true motivation factor.”

The women’s group is called “Sumak Muyo,” which translates to “good seed” in Quechua. The students involved maintain a very open, collective relationship with Sumak Muyo to provide resources as business clients.

“We regularly email with the women of La Calera to get updates on the community and see how the business is doing,” said Reddy. Students have placed orders with them and are selling jewelry locally at various events and fundraisers.

“Though this is supplemental income for these women,” says Brown, “The social support that they experience when they come together to work is an impact we all think about.”

Niewold adds that this extra income is appreciated as the women invest it in community projects, such as a local day care and a youth group to maintain cultural traditions.

Brown said these women use their income at their discretion; however the time they spend making jewelry, talking about life and laughing together creates a strong bond in the village.

Hall noticed this phenomenon when making jewelry with the women: “Spending time in La Calera with Sumak Muyo has reinforced how I value relationships and human connection.”

In addition to helping the women of La Calera run this business, students involved in the project experienced connections between economic empowerment, mutual friendships and community health.

“There is so much learning to be done when students go to other countries and learn about issues of life in a different place,” says Niewold. “Sometimes it’s hard to see what your culture is until you see another’s.”

Brown said students take a lot of lessons home on how they can change themselves after working in La Calera. The women they worked with are strong, resilient and competent in a number of ways; it was humbling to spend time with them, she said.

What resonated with students was the ability of these women to invest time and talent into a new business. 

“This experience has allowed me to see firsthand how empowered women can feel if given the opportunity to earn a little income,” says Reddy. “As a person aspiring to work in economic development, this is a really motivating experience.”

Though Hall and Reddy will graduate in the next year, they have created a pathway for others to pursue this project, says Brown. “After we spent time in this community, everyone is so welcoming and students felt like a real part of it. Other students have come before and built the road for a new group.”

This chain of students working with the women in La Calera will continue, as it has proven to be mutually beneficial between the two groups.

Hall will return to Ecuador in January for a six-month independent research project. She hopes to visit La Calera and Sumak Muyo.

“After working with the women in La Calera, I feel like I have a real grasp on the importance of involvement by those who are benefiting from a development project,” she says. “I do think the women of Sumak Muyo realize their connectedness with the community and how they can reach out to others.”

Sumak Muyo’s jewelry will be on sale Wednesday, Dec. 14 from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the atrium of the Health Sciences Learning Center.