by Susan Dawson
Abandoned by their mother and father, Juan and Jaime* were put in a state-run orphanage at the ages of four and five, where they were forced to get up at 5am, shower in cold water and live in a context of rigid rules and punishment rather than love. Jaime was sent to school but Juan, who seems to have ADHD and some learning difficulties, was not sent because of his ‘problems’. They were so traumatised that they were eventually withdrawn by their grandmother, who has been caring for them ever since. Their mother comes and goes from time to time but they have not seen their father for years. Now aged 11 and 12, they live in an unfinished house structure on the same street as the church with no glass in the windows and no real sanitation. The grandmother scrapes a living by cleaning houses and doing the best she can for the children.
It is for children like this that we run a Comedor Infantil. The literal translation is a children’s dining room or canteen but it is more like a day centre where the kids not only get fed but also get help with their homework, are accepted and loved, and learn about Jesus. Operation Thrive was started by one of the church leaders and his wife 13 years ago. They saw some children scrabbling around in the rubbish in the area in front of their house and began to invite them in for food and Bible teaching. When the number of children grew, they asked the church to take over the ministry.
The Director of Operation Thrive, Gladys Santana de Bustos, underlines the importance of the work saying that ‘we live in a context of huge need and many of the families in the area are very fragile’. Her motivation for leading this work is the difficult context and home that she grew up in and her own memories of how hard it was to live a fulfilled life in that situation. Now, as a Christian, she feels the Lord has called her to work with these families and children, knowing that, as was her own case, it is only through faith in Jesus that their lives can be changed.
Almost all the kids, with the exception of Jaime and Juan and five of their cousins who also live with the grandmother, come from a slum area near the church. This is a very vulnerable population, where domestic abuse is common, drugs abound, gangs operate, food is sometimes scarce and not always very nutritional, and where children from two or three different fathers all live under the same roof. The aim of the Comedor is to nurture the children’s physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.
I’ve loved being part of the church family. I feel loved.
We operate Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during term time and run a morning and afternoon session. In Ecuador, there are not enough school buildings to accommodate every child, so some go to school in the morning and others in the afternoon. Those with the afternoon shift come to us in the morning and leave for school after lunch and then the kids who have been to school in the morning arrive. This year we have had around 28, aged five to 15, coming regularly.
The Need for this Work
Poverty is a considerable issue in Ecuador, with around 25% of the population living in poverty and 8% in extreme poverty with an income of US$50 (£41) or less per person per month.1 The problem is worse in rural areas than urban ones. Families with children who are living in poverty across the country are finding it hard to recover from the pandemic,2 which badly affected access to basic services for many, including health and education.
I’ve learnt more about Jesus and I loved being with all the kids.
Schools closed for two years during the pandemic and the government, not surprisingly, declared that all children are a long way behind in their education. Holidays, apart from bank holidays, were cancelled this year and the long summer break has been cut short. As in the UK, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who have suffered most, so a lot of what we do is trying to help them catch up with content and concepts they have missed. We also provide school materials where we can. Although state school is free here, children have to take all the materials they need: pens, pencils, notebooks and even things like board markers for the teacher to use, or copies of a page in the textbook for their classmates. So, by helping in this way we reduce the burden on the families a little.
thank you for helping me know more about God’s love.
Health is another big issue and we are fortunate to have someone who donates basic medicines, which we can distribute to the families. We are also very grateful to have an agreement with the Vozandes Hospital in Quito. This is a mission hospital that was founded in 1949 with a particular focus on serving the indigenous population and poorest in society. Although it is now a private hospital serving the general population, its Christian ethos still survives and it provides free check-ups and follow-up care, to a certain value each year, for the children who come to the Comedor.
There is currently considerable freedom in Ecuador to talk about Jesus. A key part of every day at the Comedor, in both the morning and afternoon sessions, is the Bible time. The main aim is to introduce the children to Jesus and to nurture and develop the fledgling faith of those who have committed their lives to Him. At the morning sessions, where the children tend to be a bit older, we often focus on the biblical perspective on issues such as relationships, friendships, making wise decisions and witnessing. With the younger children in the afternoon, we are gradually working our way through the Bible. We had a great time in the first few chapters of Genesis, making our own world and creatures, establishing rules for them so that the world functioned as a happy place and looking at the consequences of breaking those rules. It is exciting to see them growing in faith and knowledge. When asked to write thank you letters at the end of the year, many of the children said that one of the best things about coming to the Comedor, was learning more about Jesus.
We celebrate birthdays and other special days where we can. Perhaps the most special outing this year was one which all the families came to. We went to a place with a swimming pool, which the kids loved, and we also celebrated several baptisms.
Thank you for being such a special person in my life.
The team are all volunteers from our local church, although the cook and those who commit to work for the full three days, are given a small offering each month to help with their travel and other costs. This is a way of helping some of the church members who themselves have lost jobs or are struggling to make ends meet post-pandemic. There are four of these volunteers and a few others who come when they can.
One key plan for the coming year is to work more closely with the families. Some of them come to church and one of the mums was baptised this year but there is a lot more we could do. We hope to run a series of parenting workshops in the coming year, and a pastoral worker will also come in once a week to provide more opportunities for the children to chat with someone and share their joys and sorrows.
I’ve learnt more about God’s word and how to put it into practice in my life. Thank you!
The Comedor uses a rented church building, which is being sold at the end of this year, so we need to find a new place in the area to continue running. It would be great to have somewhere that allows us to expand the work. Thirty children is our limit at the moment.
Pray for the team at the Comedor as they support vulnerable children and their families, seeking to nurture their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well being. Pray for the families and the children; for their lives and their communities to be transformed by the love of Jesus.