When I lived in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2003 my eyes were opened to a whole new world, a new culture and a new point of view about life and what is really important. I worked and served in the orphanages of Cuenca for three months with an organization named Orphanage Support Services Organization. The kids there became “my” kids. The hundreds of children there that I had the opportunity to serve are so special to me and I will always love them. My heart aches for them. I miss them. I have never known so much love and happiness (until I went on my mission and until I got married 🙂 ).
I learned a lot from that experience as a 19-year-old soaking up life. Every day I taught them, fed them, bathed them and played with them. I worked in a few different orphanages in Cuenca (they have many more orphanages throughout Ecuador). One orphanage is an orphanage for 8 handicapped children that I was in charge of. The other orphanages included a baby orphanage with about 50 babies, 15 handicapped children and 20 toddlers that was run by catholic nuns. We served in an orphanage for girls aged from 5 to 18 years old that was also run by catholic nuns. We also ran a daycare in the Andes mountains for indigenous families. Most of the kids in these orphanages had been abandoned. They have very few possessions. No toys, no home and no family. Despite their few material possessions, they were very happy because they had us, people who loved them. You could see heaven in their eyes. They were so full of pure love toward us. They depended on us.
Landscape of the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains at the Continental Divide
The special kids orphanage behind me.
Andes Mountains in Ecuador
The special kids orphanage on my last day
The baby orphanage
The baby orphanage
The toddlers at the baby orphanage
The Day Care center for indigenous families in the Andes Mountains
The Parque National Cajas
We went to the Amazon Rainforest for the last week of my time in Ecuador. It was an amazing experience. We learned how to throw spears and shoot blow darts. We went hiking in the jungle and swung on a vine like Tarzan. We visited a local market that had the most delicious fruit and that also it had cow heads hanging from a tree. We ate dinner on banana leaves instead of plates with spiders crawling on our food. We went to a local medicine man who blew smoke into my face and hit me with some leaves. We floated miles down the Rio Negro with only a life vest on. At night, the insects and animals from the rainforest were so loud that we almost couldn’t sleep. One day, we had the opportunity to visit this little community of families. The children ran around with only their underwear on and played in the mud by the river. We would play and swim with them in the river and have mud fights. It impressed me that these families had almost no material possessions but they seemed so happy. They had each other. They were so accepting and kind to us. They were so beautiful.
A local market in the Amazon Rainforest
At the local market in the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador
A toucan in Coca, Ecuador
Swimming in the Rio Negro
Learning to throw spears
After a mud fight with the kids of a nearby village in the Amazon Rainforest
The cute kids of the nearby village
Trying out our blow dart guns on some cockroaches
The time came for me to go home to my family. I boarded the airplane and began to look at the Sky Mall magazine. I was so shocked. I guess that I had forgotten the world that I had come from only months before. The magazine showed pictures of children playing on giant playsets. It showed kids with lots of extravagant and colorful toys. It made me sad. Not for my kids in Ecuador who had nothing materially, but for the children who grow up in America learning to base their happiness on material things, TV and video games that always leave you wanting more. Those things are empty and only produces fleeting pleasure. Sometimes when our focus is so much on things, we lose focus on the “things” that really matter like the gospel of Jesus Christ, our families, service and knowledge. How much time to we take with the pursuit of material possessions or with watching TV when we could be making memories with loved ones or when we could be improving the world around us and the lives of people in our circle of influence. The things that last forever are the “things” that really matter and that will bring lasting, sustaining happiness and fulfillment.
The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach a lot about this principle. In the Book of Mormon, an ancient prophet named Moroni chastened the people when he said, “Ye do love money and your substance . . . more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted. Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet ye suffer the hungry… needy…afflicted to pass by you and notice them not?” (Mormon 8:39). Isaiah said, “I will make a man more precious than fine gold” (2 Nephi 23:12). There’s also that story in the Bible about the man who had great possessions and he came to the Lord and asked, “Good Master, What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Then the Savior told him, “Sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven, and come, take up thy cross, and follow me.” The man then went away because he had great possessions. The Savior said, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God” (March 10:17-23). This man may have missed out on eternal life because of his love for things that have no life. It’s people who matter. The relationships we have and the covenants that we makes and keep in this life will bring the “never-ending happiness” (Mosiah 2:41) that God promised to us if we follow Jesus Christ and live his teachings.
Just as the Savior denounced the love of material things that have no life, He also taught about the necessity of the love for things that do have life. He said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the great commandment. The second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”. I don’t think that it’s bad to be wealthy as long as we use our wealth to help other people as well. In fact, I think that it’s great to be rich because then you can have the ability to help so many people. No matter what our financial status is, we need to seek for a love of the things that bring true, and lasting happiness. I have known so many South American families from my travels to Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina who barely have the necessities, but they are very happy because they fill their lives with family, hard work and a love for God. They are truly rich.
This is what some of the homes of my friends looked like in Argentina. What you see is all that there is. Although they have so little, they would take us into their homes and give us food. What incredible people.
These people are members of my Church in Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina. They were extremely poor but they invited us over to their house because they wanted to make lunch for us. I’m so amazed how they were so generous with what they did have. She cooked our empanadas in an outdoor brick oven. I learned so much about the kind of person that I want to be from these people.