BUFFALO, New York — In 2015, after relocating from her home in Colombia, 32-year-old Yeimmy and her daughter became involved with the Manna Project International (MPI) community center in the Chillos Valley outside of Quito, Ecuador. There, Yeimmy enrolled in MPI’s entrepreneurship class, and she and her daughter joined the English program. By 2016, Yeimmy was running her new communications business and giving back to the community center in her free time. This is just one of the many ways in which Manna Project International aids community development in Ecuador.
Manna Project International
A phrase commonly used within Manna Project International to synthesize the organization’s mission is “communities serving communities.” In an interview with The Borgen Project, MPI Executive Director Jeff Goldman explained the phrase as one community, composed of MPI staff, volunteers, alumni and donors, that engages in a long-term, meaningful exchange with a foreign community of lower-income.
Goldman emphasized the importance of the “long-term commitment that builds trust and relationships and allows [MPI] to have more impact over time.” In Yeimmy’s case, she was new to the Chillos Valley, but the MPI community center was a long-standing, trusted learning space available to locals. When local Program Director Carley Clement reached out to Yeimmy with an invite, Clement had a foundation of trust with the community members to back her up.
MPI’s Response to the Needs of Ecuadorians
With a population of around 180,000, the Chillos Valley has historically been an area of low income outside the country’s capital. The conditions of poverty that impact people living in the valley include, but are not limited to, poor access to education, inadequate healthcare and scarce employment opportunities. By building and maintaining relationships with the community, Manna Project International is able to create programs that cater to the specific needs of locals in the Chillos Valley.
Executive director Goldman explained that the close relationship between the organization and the foreign community creates opportunities to serve in a specific geographic area or for a specific demographic. He clarified that as important as formal national and international poverty reduction strategies are, the annual needs assessments and communications with the community members are just as insightful.
In line with the three main facets of poverty in the Chillos Valley, MPI’s work can be classified into three main categories: health and wellness initiatives, educational opportunities and career development assistance. Though these categories broadly adhere to poverty reduction goals, the creation of MPI programs for community development in Ecuador aims to best impact the community and the people in need.
- English learning programs. Because “English fluency is a valuable skill in Ecuador’s job market,” this program increases access to higher-paying job opportunities in Ecuador. The program provides English language classes to both adults and children.
- Nutrition programs. Local children and adults learn about healthy eating habits and how to create nutritious meals with local ingredients to combat issues such as diabetes and malnutrition.
- Professional development workshops. To help adults secure employment opportunities, adults can learn new job skills and receive help with compiling a CV and taking professional headshots for job applications.
Some of MPI’s other programs are geared toward specifically vulnerable populations. One example is Manna’s partnership with a local shelter for pregnant teenage girls. The shelter is open to girls who were abused by a family member and became pregnant as a result of the abuse. The shelter removes the girls from their home environment and provides youth and pregnancy support.
Another example of this type of work is the water and horse therapy program run through a partner organization on the ground. MPI volunteers help to staff this program, which is open to Ecuadorian youth with physical and/or mental disabilities.
Other Work in Latin America
Manna Project International has previously worked on-site in a few impoverished suburbs of Managua, Nicaragua. Despite MPI having to physically leave Nicaragua in 2019 due to safety risks stemming from increased political instability, Villa Guadalupe, Nicaragua is home to Manna’s most successful project, which is still running today. After a spike in homelessness in the area, MPI opened a medical clinic and hired local medical staff in 2014.
The Villa Guadalupe clinic provides basic internal medicine, OB-GYN care and newborn care and support. Goldman explained that “when [MPI] couldn’t operate on site after the political violence, [they]handed those programs off to a local NGO so they could sustain them.” MPI went as far as handing over its funding so that the Nicaragua health clinics could remain open during MPI’s absence.
Impacts of COVID-19
When the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world around March 2020, Manna Project International staff and volunteers had to return home for safety reasons. However, MPI proudly maintained its relationship with foreign communities through virtual service. Although resources and opportunities were limited, MPI was able to sustain English programs, mental health assistance in partnership with a local psychologist and a microfinance program created earlier in 2021 to assist families through the financial hardships of the pandemic. Despite the barriers faced during COVID-19, MPI had 46 virtual volunteers who dedicated more than 9,000 hours of service to the people in the Chillos Valley.
Back on Site Soon
In his interview with The Borgen Project, Goldman excitedly shared that not only will Manna Project International be back on site in the Chillos Valley in January 2022 but that it is also preparing a new site in Tena, Ecuador, to be up and running by early 2023. On top of this great news, Goldman expects that the organization will be able to return to Nicaragua with new programs for its old sites as soon as the spring of 2022. The executive director and other staff and volunteers are ecstatic to soon be back on the ground working toward community development in Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Commitment to Change
With only six staff members, Manna Project International is a relatively small poverty reduction organization. By maintaining close community relationships and specific sustainable development strategies, though, MPI impacts thousands of lives per year. Yeimmy was able to start a business. Others found employment in Quito. Many Chillos Valley residents live physically and mentally healthier lifestyles thanks to MPI. Community development takes years of uplifting local people and businesses and Manna Project International is committed to its work in Ecuador and beyond.
– Hayley Welch