What one woman can do
December 26, 2007
She wears a flower above her left ear as an accessory, like other people would wear a barrette or a hair comb.
This particular December day, the red silk carnation pops from her brunette hair.
Her smile is destined to turn around anyone’s mood, and her eyes are expressive, especially when she talks about her students.
When she makes her biannual trip to Ecuador, Pam Gilbert, retired teacher, has become a sort of superintendent of schools and board of education wrapped all in one.
The indigenous villagers can’t help but shower her with gratitude.
When she steps off of the plane, she is greeted by a crowd, a band and newly choreographed dances.
Her students call her “Pamelita.”
Stocking a library and creating new classrooms at 10,000 feet in the Andes is no small feat, but somehow, Gilbert has accomplished just that.
The modest philanthropist is now in the process of bringing potable running water to the village ” population 200″ which should benefit about seven other neighboring communities, also without dependable water.
She’s recruited the Denver chapter of Engineers Without Borders to implement a plumbing system with a public shower house and indoor plumbing, as well as composting toilets.
It will be the first time such infrastructure exists there, a step toward remedying the health issues that arise from a much cruder form of sanitation.
She calls her Ecuadorian friends her “extended family.”
Her work has taken a community, she said ” not only in Ecuador, but with help from her friends back home in Boulder and an outpouring from her other home, Grand County.
Gilbert discovered this simple village in the Andes four years ago.
After teaching high school math for 30 years, mainly at Fairview High School in Boulder, Gilbert decided to explore the countries south of the border, having already traveled to 59 countries of the world.
“I have the passion for travel,” she said. “I love cultures, people, food, the mores and how people treat each other, all that stuff.”
She gave herself nine months for the journey, with a planned visit to seven Central American countries and to South America, armed with one week of Spanish.
In Ecuador, while traveling with a friend, Gilbert hired a guide to lead them on a six-day hike, but the guide got lost on the second day.
“We were on the wrong side of a really steep canyon,” Gilbert said. “Here we are at 3 p.m. in the afternoon on the wrong side of the canyon.”
When Gilbert and company realized they were lost, two boys who they had seen earlier with a group of students planting fava beans on a hillside, noticed them and patiently guided them to safety.
From the other side of the canyon, the boys motioned to them where to descend, then waited 45 minutes until seeing them to safety.
“Then, they went an hour-and-a-half out of their way to get us on the right trail,” Gilbert said.
While walking with the two boys, whose names are Lautaro and Pedro, Gilbert learned they hiked two hours on Saturdays to attend school once a week.
The boys’ story stuck with Gilbert, and six months after having returned to the United States, she followed her intuition to Ecuador.
“I kept dreaming about those boys and the passion which they talked about school. I told myself, I’m going to go look for those boys,” she said.
Eventually, she found their village by backtracking her path.
Gilbert, who said she tends to be aware of subtle signs from time to time, was surprised to learn that the village is called Malingua Pamba (Note: her first name is Pam).
When she arrived at the playground connected to a one-room mixed-aged school for youngsters, she found out the boys who helped her were working in fields that day.
Gilbert started to tell the young children the story of how the boys had came to her and her friend’s aid.
The children gathered around her, creating a “skirt of guaguas” or “skirt of kids,” she said.
In the village of Mingua Pamba, an agricultural community inhabited by members of the Quechua tribe, families make about $20 a month.
Students had a one-room elementary school where 50 children of all ages were given the same lesson. “Eventually, they would stopped going to school when got too bored of it,” Gilbert said.
Wanting to help, when Gilbert asked the president of the community what they needed, she was told “classrooms, a teacher, a medical office, a doctor or all the above.”
Gilbert made no promises, except that she would do some research and return.
She eventually discovered that building a school in Ecuador would cost around $1,000 in materials.
The community, as it is accustomed to doing, would provide the labor in what is called “a minga” or “barn raising.”
Gilbert decided to pay the money for the materials.
Casually, she wrote about her Ecuadorian project in e-mails to friends and family. The following Christmas, about $4,000 came to her in cards from friends, she said, which helped to pay for books, supplies, and a teacher salary.
Ultimately, the minga took place, and the school opened to 40 students of junior-high age in September 2004.
From there, the story mushrooms into a community that, with Gilbert’s boost, has been able to create what is now a two-story school called the Centro Educativo La Minga with two bedrooms to house teachers, the first-ever shower, a sitting room, a kitchen, a library, a computer lab, books, science equipment, four printers and five sewing machines. The school even has a lunch program.
The school has attracted 170 students, some who walk one to two hours to go to school, and has grown to employ six teachers.
“Now we have, I think because of my presence in the community, motivated the local government to build a proper elementary school,” Gilbert said. “Now we have a newly built elementary school.”
Gilbert, who is still paying for teachers’ salaries at the colegio (junior high to high school), but working with the community on ways to self-sufficiently become more economically stable, has since set up a program in which individuals in the states may sponsor a student for a school year.
A child’s education costs $60 per year.
Grand County attorney Rich Newton and David Pope have since helped to establish a 501(c)3 nonprofit status for Gilbert’s venture.
And the water project is being embraced by the community, Gilbert said, as engineers teach villagers plumbing skills to maintain the new infrastructure.
The more advanced water system, Gilbert estimates, may impact close to 700 to 1,000 people.
“They’re amazing people. They are poor, they have health problems, they’ve been dissed by local government, but they remind me that we’re rich in our friendships and by just sharing our talents, it’s not all about creature comforts and having a tap in your house, but about having a ready smile and a hug,” Gilbert said.
“They have enriched me and fulfilled me. The happiness I get from this commmunity comes out, it makes me glow.”
For more information about the projects being accomplished in Malingua Pamba, visit http://www.escuelaminga.org.
Tonya Bina can be reached at (970) 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.