Village Education Project creates template for grassroots movements

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When Katie Chamblee ’07 went to Ecuador in the Summer of 2005, she was, by her own admission, the wrong person to go. “I was this girl who liked English literature and spent the summer before in Italy studying classics.” But Ecuador saw Chamblee reassessing her values. “I spent 3 months covered head to toe in mud. I was so happy.” However, Chamblee says of her work as a volunteer with Global Vision International that “we were getting a lot done, but students couldn’t continue to secondary school because it was too expensive.”

Secondary education, which in Ecuador consists of three years after seventh grade, required fees for tuition, books, and several sets of uniforms. This meant only about ten percent of the the rural population could afford to go. The students who could not afford to go were overwhelmingly indigenous. “So not only was it a class issue, it became a racial issue as well. There is a large gap in attainment levels for the poorer, indigenous population.” This population, which is already culturally isolated because it speaks Quichua, instead of Spanish, as a first language, has an even more difficult time gaining social and economic mobility.

In order to combat these gaps in attainment, Chamblee decided to create a foundation that would pay for secondary school. The foundation, called the Village Education Project (VEP), was co-founded in the city of Otavalo, with Gilberto Cifuentes, an Ecuadorian school principal and a fellow volunteer. The foundation now operates in four villages surrounding Otavalo- Mojandita, Chuchuqui, La Joya, and San Juan. Every student that graduates from primary school in the four villages can receive full support from The Village Education Project for all three years of secondary school. The project works with entire villages rather than individual students because “We wanted a sense of continuity. It was important to us that the kids maintain a social network,” says Chamblee.

VEP has three different components. The first is to identify the seventh-grade students who would be attending high school, and fund their education. “We figure out who the seventh graders are- we connect with some of the leaders of the community, the principals of the school. And then we talk to them, talk to their parents, and plan for them to go to high school.” The second component is giving students material support- buying notebooks, pens, crayons and other school supplies.

The third and final component consists of making sure that these students are actually prepared to continue on to high schools. Because primary schools are so overburdened, many of the classes are taught by teachers who are still in training. “You’ve got teachers who aren’t qualified teaching in extremely arduous circumstances, with six or seven grades in one classroom. A lot of them don’t know English or how to use computers, both of which are really important for high schools in Ecuador. So the students are vastly unprepared for high school,” explains Chamblee.

This is where the summer volunteer program comes in. Over the summer, the VEP holds summer classes for students to learn English, Math, and Computers. Last summer, this program was driven largely by a group of 15 volunteers. “We had expected that only the 48 students who we were paying tuition fees for would attend– but we ended up having approximately 150 students,” says Chamblee.

Recruiting students initially seemed to be a challenge, says Teresa Kelley ’07, who helped coordinate the program with Chamblee last summer. The volunteers literally took to the street– “The night before we started classes, [co-Program Director Gilberto] asked me to come with him in a jeep, and we drove around the dirt mountain roads with a megaphone announcing the start of classes the next day.” But by the end of the week, students were clamoring to get started. “Kids would actually climb through the roof the mornings before classes started,” says Chamblee.

The curriculum taught in the schools was largely based on what they would need to know for high school, and it had to be taught in the same way that the students were familiar with. This became a challenge when the American volunteers had to teach the students long division the way it was taught in South America. “It was something of a debacle,” Chamblee said, laughing. “All of the volunteers had to learn how to do division backwards in an unbelievably complicated way…I don’t even know how to do it forwards anymore!” says Chamblee. “I lived in perpetual fear of messing up in front of thirteen year olds…I remembered there was this one kid who was unbelievably smart and his eyes would bore into me as I worked on the board…I was terrified he’d catch me making a mistake and say ‘Senorita can’t do math!'”

Chamblee believes that the Village Education Project is different from other volunteer programs in the third world. “A lot of volunteers come to the third world for cultural tourism, which is great…but our program is really special because the volunteers are preparing [students] to do something concrete,” she said. “The work is a lot more intense.”

Chamblee sees the Project as more than just a humanitarian effort– she wants to raise political and intellectual awareness of the sorts of conditions that these people are living in. “The government of Ecuador doesn’t regulate the lives of rural people at all. There are no municipal services, no plumbing, no mail, no trash collection.” The people in these villages live under the radar, in mutual silence with the government. One resident of the villages lamented to Chamblee that the “Government has forgotten us.” But according to her, this forgetting is part of a political/strategic reality on part of the government. “The government doesn’t want to help people who aren’t going to be contributing to the economy. This project is an example of how transforming a village can turn these people into active, productive citizens.” Chamblee wants people to consider the political implications of such a project-particularly its impact on the movement for universal education headed by the World Bank. “[The World Bank project] is an example of a state-level project, coming top-down. But this is a real grassroots project; it can support top-down efforts by providing a template for how things can be done on a bigger scale.”

Chamblee says that the small-scale nature of the project makes it somewhat difficult to recruit volunteers. “People are attracted to really large movements that affect millions of people– ending the war, ending hunger. We’re only working with a group of maybe 500 people.” But though the project seems small, its impact is substantial. Chamblee argues that the value of this project reaches beyond “making a difference in just one person’s life.” She says that “This is about creating a small, manageable project that can serve us a template to be replicated in the future. It’s not just the power of helping the kids, which is incredible, but setting up a program that works, and can be pointed to as an example of a success. It’s to show the government– ‘this is what happens when you recognize these people, and give them the abilities they need to take their own lives into their hands.'”

Chamblee wants all sorts of students to get involved– students who are creative, innovative, hard-working. “I want anybody, and everybody,” she said. “I would like the most ideal candidate to come, and the least ideal candidate to come. They would both have so much to learn and contribute. It’s an amazing experience to do something so concrete. To have kids come to trust you, who don’t trust you right away. It takes a while, it takes work and effort. But the payoff is incredible.”

Students who are interested in the project can email kchambl1 [at] swarthmore [dot] edu or go to to get more information.

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