During the 1990s, ICRI was invited by the National Family and Children’s Institute of Ecuador to help develop regulations for a new national law on work-related child care and to assist with modernizing early childhood education programs around the country. Ken Jaffe, ICRI’s Executive Director, recalls: We had already met with several different early childhood leaders in various Ecaudorian communities to provide substantive information, training, and support. Successes included new teacher training techniques, room configurations, and the use of found objects and locally made materials to create improved early childhood environments. Toward the end of our work, I was pulled aside by two of the Family and Children’s Institute staff to discuss the visit scheduled to take place the following day. I was told of a fascinating community, high in the Andes off of the Pan-American Highway outside of Quito. The community, known as Lucha de las Pobres (“Struggle of the Poor”), was comprised of 25,000 ‘squatters’ who had taken over government land in the mountains in order to put down roots away from greater poverty in other locales.
The community, I was told, had health services, child care programs, a school, and other surprising features created by a highly organized community council which reflected the diversity of the community. As I became excited about assisting the early childhood centers, family child care providers and child health program, I began to see a very serious expression cross the face of Cesar Caceres, my colleague and new friend. “Ken, there’s one more thing we need to tell you so you can decide whether you want to go to Lucha tomorrow morning. They use dynamite.” As I tried to gain a little more clarity regarding the warning, I came to understand that the members of the community were extremely afraid that the government, through its army, would one day try to re-take the land. It seemed that guards, inconspicuously stationed at the entrance and other key areas in the community, would throw sticks of dynamite under trucks, cars, or at people from the outside. The next question I asked was the most important one: “Do they know and trust you?” When Cesar answered in the affirmative, I said that I would stay very close to them during the entirety of my stay at Lucha de las Pobres.
The first two hours in the community the next morning were understandably tense, and my proximity to Cesar and his colleagues violated all rules of proper distance for normal communication. After working with a group of dedicated people to explore ways to improve one early childhood center in an old barn where clean hay was strewn across the dirt and rock floor to help protect children from hard falls, we moved onto several other programs. Throughout my time at Lucha de las Pobres, I was told that the best early childhood educator in all of Lucha was a woman who provided care to 12 small children in her tiny house on the side of a very steep canyon.
After riding, walking and sliding down an approximately 1,000 foot section of rough terrain, I was welcomed by Clemencia, a woman in her 50s, and her 12 year old assistant. In a small courtyard, eleven children were playing happily, utilizing old pots, pans and bits of wood to create wonderful fantasies. Clemencia was baking bread in her only cooking area, outside, facing the courtyard. She invited me into the tiny two-room house where children came in and used her bed as their climbing structure, and played with simple wooden utensils and some local plants. Clemencia looked at each child lovingly and took me to visit a little girl with physical disabilities who was lying in a woven basket on the side of the smaller room and playing with a wooden block. She picked the girl up to introduce her to me and stroked her cheek as she said that this child should have the same opportunities as the other children in her care.
I asked her, through an interpreter, how she planned for the children that she talked about so lovingly. She motioned with her eyes toward a dusty wooden box sitting on a small table near her bed. When I opened the box I found very old file folders containing, to my surprise, individual development plans for each child in Clemencia’s care. I saw that she made summary notes each week on their growth and development and measured it against the plan she had made at the beginning of the year. In this tiny house with a dirt floor, I witnessed the best family child care provider I have known anywhere in the world. As I thanked her for the remarkable things that she was doing with the children and made clear that I certainly had nothing to add to the wondrous environment and sensitive caregiving she provided, she said something very simple in reply: “This is only as it should be.” As I began to clamber up the canyon, I could hear Clemencia singing a local Ecuadorian children’s song and could barely make out the children’s voices in the distance.