Granby teacher helps Ecuadorian village thrive |

Granby teacher helps Ecuadorian village thrive

Tonya Bina
Grand County, Colorado
Courtesy Photo

A world away from brightly patterned fabrics and rich hearts of the Quechua tribe in the tiny village of Malingua Pamba, retired teacher Pam Gilbert wraps a skillfully crafted white shawl around herself in her Granby home Thursday.

The shawl is special to her, made by students from the first graduating class of an Ecuadorian school Gilbert established in 2004.

Because of Gilbert’s philanthropic connections, a small agricultural community of 230 people high in the Andes has progressed in ways that generations past would never have dreamed.

Even since last year, as many as 65 homes out of 90 in Malingua Pamba and seven neighboring communities now have plumbing.

Before, villagers walked far to get potable water from mountain springs.

Engineers from the Denver Chapter of Engineers Without Borders visited Malingua Pamba upon Gilbert’s invitation to construct the plumbing systems. They also provided villagers training on how to build, maintain and repair them.

To show gratitude last April, Malingua townspeople performed an “Irrigation Dance” for Gilbert and volunteers.

Villagers theatrically grew potatoes out of concrete, aided by water through a pipe. The dance was followed by speeches.

“And this one woman gave a speech, and it had me in tears,” Gilbert said.

The woman shared how ancestors and loved ones had suffered for lack of water.

“But now because of you, we’re not suffering because of water anymore,” the woman had said.

After building the village’s first multi-room school with a library and computer classroom, largely through a nonprofit organization she established in 2006, Gilbert involved the engineers. The village now has six of its own plumbing maestros, Gilbert said, “So it’s not like we do it for them, we teach them.”

The community also developed three irrigation systems to supplement water during dry seasons.

And Gilbert’s first class to graduate is now taking local courses on agriculture and fisheries.

As many as 170 total students and staff members make up Gilbert’s Centro Educativo la Minga campus in Malingua Pamba, and many students walk up to 1.5 hours to attend school on Saturdays.

Gilbert’s foundation has been paying teachers salaries; there is hope the provincial government will take over that responsibility, Gilbert said.

“While I’m there I teach math lessons,” Gilbert said with a smile. “Oh, it’s so much fun; they’re so excited to learn, and they so put up with my accent.”

Students surprised Gilbert last November with a newly painted school in bright colors that reflect their culture. Two basketball hoops had been erected in the school’s square.

Thirteen out of 31 students who first attended Gilbert’s Centro Educativo junior high are still in school, experimenting with different farming techniques to glean more success in potato crops. Historically, extreme poverty in Maligua prevented most young people from seeking education beyond grade school.

“They have hope for their future now,” Gilbert said. “I would hope that they would choose to stay in Malingua Pamba and continue to improve the farming, improve the education, improve the life there. I would rather have them stay at home with a better life. But now they at least have a choice.”

Gilbert’s two-year “exit strategy” as she calls it, includes a small vocational school for the community, another composting toilet, one other shower facility and the possibility of delivering water to another arid high-elevation village.

And what’s her reward?

“This is my reward,” she said, referring to her white shawl. “It’s that those 13 kids are pursuing education. And when people say they’re not suffering anymore because of water, that’s reward enough for me.”

” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail

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