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Abuelitos, Navicajas and Much More

Felipe Vacas

Colegio Menor, Quito

My name is Felipe Vacas, and I have been a full time teacher for more than ten years. This is also my fourth year as the advisor of the National Honor Society group at our school, and I would like to say that this has been a great opportunity for me in many ways. In fact, sometimes I feel that when we are full time teachers, we get so immersed in our “amazing but time consuming” academic worlds, but forget that there are other dimensions in education that should be explored by us and of course by our beloved students. One of these is to serve others in need, to become citizens that take personal responsibility for actually doing something in response to the manifest injustice of our society. I do love teaching Physics for example, discovering with my students the wonderful reasons why our world is how it is; however, I also adore the sensation of having invested my time in serving those in need. Seeing people smile makes all efforts worthy.

One of my missions as the teacher leader of the NHS is to guide a group of academically excellent students into organizing service activities. Indeed, these students have to not only participate fully in the development of such activities, but also involve their community and create an important impact. In that manner, we have organized diverse activities throughout the years that have changed our lives and have opened our eyes to a new dimension of enjoying our years at school. Remarkable examples are our multiple trips to the Chota Valley, where we visited several schools with artistic performances about healthy habits and values, and offering our moving flea market where we sold more than 3000 clothes at minimum prices. However, one of the most remarkable projects in which we have been involved in this last two years is the one I am going to talk about in the following lines: our work with the abuelitos (the elderly group that gathers in front of our school).

Starting in the school year 2012-2013, our school decided to aim a lot of effort towards collaborating with a group of ladies that run a kitchen for elders, very close to our school. This group consists of about one hundred very needy people of all around the valley of Cumbayá. They meet in the mornings to have breakfast, to participate in different therapies (dancing, practicing academic skills, handicrafts, games) and to have lunch. As I mentioned before, it is ran by a group of volunteer ladies that day by day sacrifice their time for this great social service activity. Our school community has helped them in various ways in this past two years. We have helped them build their new place in a land closer to our school; additionally, we have also donated appliances, furniture, supplies and money. As evidenced, we are actively involved with this amazing group of people. In fact, they have become a beloved part of our community.

Our NHS group is also actively involved with this group. Besides constantly visiting the abuelitos a couple days per week in small groups, we have organized several successful activities for them. For example, last year we organized a Christmas event at our school in which we shared with the elders a great day full of music, dance, movies, handicrafts, food and of course smiles. After a few months, we took them to the city zoo. This was a great adventure for all of us. Some of the abuelitos had never seen a Galapagos tortoise before and were extremely happy about seeing some of them. AS the school year was approaching it end, we took them to see our school play and prepared a great good bye lunch.

This new school year started and we increased the regular visits to the elderly kitchen. This year we also started taking students that are not members of the NHS with us. Every time we go there, we share stories and help serving lunch. It is so fulfilling when we get there because they always smile and clap as soon as we arrive. Indeed, they know our names and treat us as if we were their own grandkids. We have learned to love them so much that each day we want to do more and more for them.

This year we decided to do even more than last year. We decided to start a new project that could run and improve for the coming years. We needed a project that would let us share with the elders, help us become a human link between the individuals of our school and this group of needy people, and of course invest our time the best way possible. With this in mind, we brainstormed in one of our NHS meetings. We decided to give a large box full of edible supplies to each of the abuelitos. This is something that a lot of people around the world do for needy families. Why couldn’t we do the same for our more than one-hundred beloved elders? We had constraints and doubts and fears. We were about to commit to raise more than US$4,000 in a couple months, to dedicate a lot of our time to the development of this idea, and to reach our goal no matter what. We all accepted the challenge. We divided responsibilities. We were ready to begin. Ideas flowed as if the project were already a success. We decided to involve the community by making each interested person a sponsor for an elder. Each sponsor was responsible for acquiring the box and a list from us, go grocery shopping for its contents, and give it back to us packed with the items on the list.

We launched the project by placing a cool booth in Family Day. This is a special occasion where the school hosts a day for playing games, eating and sharing with our families. Usually in Family Day, the NHS and the NJHS are in charge of organizing a raffle. By doing this we collected enough for buying a refrigerator and a freezer for the elderly kitchen. Furthermore, that day we talked to people about our project and collected the information from potential sponsors and volunteers. Sponsors were in charge of getting the name of an abuelito, filling a box with the basic food supplies from a list, and bringing it back to us on time for the NHS Christmas celebration with the abuelitos. We emphasized it was not only about spending money, but putting our hearts in the boxes. On the other hand, volunteers were responsible for gathering the boxes with us and helping us delivering them to their recipients.

After the project was officially launched, and counting with the support of our authorities, we sent massive emails to parents, teachers and students asking them to join the project. Additionally, we put posters and announcements in newsletters and bulletin boards. Each NHS member was supposed to be in charge of a group of sponsors and serve as their Navicaja contact, responsible for informing, reminding and gathering everything by December 13th. We decided to contact the lady volunteers at the kitchen and request a list of all the elders. The list contained 110 names. We had already committed, there was no way back.

Miraculously the emails started to come. People started to express their willingness towards our project. They felt included in our activities and requested their Navicajas. Not only they wanted

to sponsor the project, but also, some wanted to come with us to deliver them. Weeks passed and we still needed more sponsors. We started to get nervous as we couldn’t fail. We sent more emails, contacted more people, talked to our mates. The word spread out and suddenly we started to raise numbers. By December we already got 190! Work was very hard. As the advisor, I was in charge of buying the boxes at a warehouse. We prepared each cardboard box with the instructions with a list supplies to be bought, and the name of each recipient. Students had to call each sponsor, collect $2 (for paying for the box and some additional expenses of the project), give them the empty boxes and remain in touch. What were we going to do with the remainder boxes? We decided to contact a group of very needy teenage mothers and committed to them too. Now our commitment was to raise not US$4,000, but about US$7,000.

So December 13th came. Many community members brought the boxes to the doors of our school. That evening and the following Saturday, we spent long hours counting boxes, naming tags and checking contents. One of the main troubles we faced was that many boxes had extra or missing items; however, we were looking for equality. Because we had so many boxes, it was complicated to organize everything. Earlier that week, we created a list that gave each “abuelito” a box that was numbered, so that no boxes were missing. When we were done we just had to wait until Tuesday, the day of the Christmas celebration with the elders, and Saturday, the celebration with the teen mothers.

Tuesday 17th finally arrived and at eight in the morning we started moving boxes. This was a very tiring duty as each box weighted about 20 kg. Even though we knew we had a lot of work to do that day, we were all eager. We had to carry 110 boxes to the elderly place. We were all very tired. Finally we managed to recover and start to share with the elders.

Nine o´clock was time for the program to begin. We had everything ready, tents, chairs, microphones, sound. First, Patricia, the lady in charge of the kitchen, spoke. She wanted to thank us for all the effort we put in being part of their community. Secondly, I spoke. I thanked the elders for being like a family to us, for being so nurturing, open, and caring. Then the NHS co-president Domenica Ordoñez spoke and recited a poem by Pablo Neruda. She made all our hearts jump of cheerfulness. The sun started to bless us with warmth and light. After Domenica, we all gathered to sing and dance a Christmas carol we all had been practicing. Additionally, we had three very motivating theatrical representations. One of them had two seniors from the drama club, acting as mimes. They were all comical and very deep with values and positive messages. Then, many of our students sang beautiful jingles. We counted with the participation of two famous singers that volunteered to come as soon as they heard of the project. We even invited a few “abuelitas” to join us and sing or tell their stories. One of them had the voice of an angel and filled our hearts. This was all a dream coming true, and we hadn’t ever delivered the Navicajas yet. We also delivered the freezer and the refrigerator we bought for them with the funds obtained at the raffle in Family Day.

By noon we helped serve some delicious chicken and some cake for all. We contributed gathering all trash and cleaning the area for the delivering. Our next act was the box giving. The NHS members were in charge of the list and they started calling each elder to get closer and receive the box. Although the plan seemed simple, the delivery turned out somehow chaotic. With more than 30 people trying to help distributing the boxes we finally managed the situation. It was miraculous that although we had an organization problem, we were able to give each person their own. Another complication was that many of the elders did not have a ride home. We had to call lots of taxi cabs and send each abuelito safely home. We survived successfully. We worked so much that day but everything went ok.

That following Saturday we woke up very early and gathered for the delivery of the rest of Navicajas. We headed south to the humblest sides of our city. There, we met a group of single moms that were very young. They had all fought against abortion and were now seeking for help. We were received by our contact and we got easily amazed. How could we ever whine in our lives when others with such problems don’t? We carried the boxes, and walked up some very steep steps to find ourselves with the mothers. There again we sang and shared the real spirit of Christmas. As a final act we shared 69 Navicajas and again we had extra ones. The extras were donated to the guards in our school. They helped us so much all these days.

Sofía Bustamante, one of our NHS sophomores wrote these wonderful words for an article sent to the NHS magazine: “This experience was very enriching because we lived the real Christmas spirit. We shared like a family. At last we went home with handfuls of hugs and smiles. These people, who have so scarce resources, were extremely grateful. They did not complain or ask for more. This is a demeanor that I want to include in my life. I think they imparted in many of us more than what we gave them. In conclusion, I can assure this project gave us some of our most treasured moments. We are now trying to embody all the values we learned from the groups we have helped. We received strength from the mothers to continue on with our lives although we are sometimes not able to walk. We learned to hear and share with the elders. They taught us to enjoy all we have. I think this project was a success. The Navicajas is a project that unites people. Our community put their hearts to support others in need. We achieved the ultimate goal of community service; to serve. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” This is something we all have embodied in the project. I will continue my job as a visitor for long because it is no longer a sacrifice but an opportunity. And of course, the elders, the mothers and much more will receive a Navicaja next year.”

These words say everything. There is no need to express anything else, except that as a teacher I feel extremely satisfied and motivated to keep going on. Oh, how much I do love being a teacher!


Preparing the boxes so sponsors could get them and fill them with the food items in the list.


Checking the contents of each donated box.


Checking that all the boxes were ready to be delivered.


Getting everything ready for the Christmas celebration and the boxes delivery.


Delivering the boxes.


Delivering the refrigerator and the freezer.


Family day, getting sponsors and volunteers.


Singing carols for the abuelitos in the Christmas celebration and delivery of Navicajas.


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