Existing in humanity

I spent this afternoon transcribing an interview I did six months ago in a quiet mountain suburb in Quito, Ecuador. I was speaking with a fifteen-year-old girl (we will call her Yamileth) who had an eight-month-old son and was living in Casa Elizabeth, a home I have talked about frequently in other blog posts. That afternoon, she told me about her family, her life, her high school classes and her dreams for the future.

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I’ve sat here this afternoon 2,000 miles away in a Starbucks. And I can’t get one simple sentence she said out of my head, “I never thought [before coming to Casa Elizabeth] that the love of God existed in humanity to help those who are ‘condemned.'”

Later this week I will share more about Yamileth’s story, but for now I will simply say, she found in Casa Elizabeth a group of people that gave unconditional, unconservative and uncondemnatory love to a pregnant fourteen-year-old.

I never thought [before coming here] that the love of God existed in humanity to help those who are ‘condemned.’

And isn’t that what God’s love should be? Every time I reflect on my summer in Ecuador I am overwhelmed by the truth that it is the radical, incomprehensible love of God existing in ordinary humans that makes all the difference. In the down-on-their-luck, victims-of-society, least of these.

But also in me.

Sofia and Carla: The need for education

This article is a part of a larger series on teen mothers in Ecuador. 
To read the first article in the series, click here.
Read the previous article here. 

After a long night of frequently-waking sick babies, I hear the bed beneath my bunk squeak as Carla wakes at 7 a.m. She begins dressing her son, Tomas, while Sofia is in the other corner sweeping the floor and talking to her daughter, Natalia.

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My two roommates last summer had been roommates since they gave birth within a week of each other. The girls could not be more different. Sofia is a bubbly, affectionate girl of 19. Her gullibility is continually a source of laughter at Casa Elizabeth.

Carla is quieter. She loves to read but struggles to connect with the other girls in the home. But she is ambitious and daily, while others are watching TV, doing chores or talking, Carla can be found at the kitchen table making up the homework she misses because she can’t attend classes.

“My mom or my dad never [went to school], and because of that I saw the poverty in my mom,” said Carla. “I want to study. I want to continue life.”

“I want to study.” A phrase I heard over and over as I interviewed girls 15 to 18 years old, facing an unknown future with no one but their first child. All, without exception, knew that an education is the key to a job and economic stability for their families.

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“The girls [teen moms in Ecuador] clearly identified education as an opportunity to gain economic autonomy,” wrote Isabel Goicolea, the foremost researcher on teen pregnancy in Ecuador in a 2010 study. She proposed that gender equality in the country, specifically in regard to teen pregnancy, would only happen through education.

But that economic autonomy is out of reach for most teen moms in South America, because an almost eternal cycle of education deficiencies exist in their families, like that of Carla. She was bounced from family member to family member for most of her life, but was determined to not only finish high school but to go on to university.

Sofia, Carla’s roommate while at Casa Elizabeth, did not have the same options. “From the time I was eight-years-old I had to leave to work,” Sofia said. “I was a maid. I have a photo with my first patrons and I was so small.”

In Ecuador, it is common to send children to work as live in maids with wealthier families, known as patrons. The schooling of such children largely depends on the generosity of the patrons. Some allowed Sofia to go to school; some didn’t.

Once they are pregnant, the chance of a teen girl who comes from poverty finishing high school or going onto higher education — already slim — becomes almost nonexistent.

Sofia is a very smart girl, cheerful and eager to learn. But today at 19-years-old, Sofia struggles to read and does have not much more than a mid-elementary education. It could take her eight years to earn her high school diploma. With a daughter, and no family willing to take her in, she will probably never finish.

Because Sofia has worked as a maid for so long, she has the skill set to provide for herself and her daughter; she perhaps doesn’t need her high school education. But many other girls in Ecuador are not as lucky.

The United Nations in 2011 statement said education in Ecuador is the permanent solution for communities in risk, because it lets the adolescent girls be free from abuse of the past.

And the solution to teen pregnancy is not just academic or occupational education, but also reproductive and sexual. “There is a lack of education these girls have about themselves and their bodies,” said Eliza Brown, Director of Casa Elizabeth.

That lack of education is the “principle responsibility for the prevention of adolescent pregnancy in adolescent girls,” Giocolea wrote.

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It is a two-fold problem: girls in impoverished communities lack education about their bodies, abuse and contraceptives, resulting in pregnancy. Once they are pregnant, the chance of a teen girl who comes from poverty finishing high school or going onto higher education — already slim — becomes almost nonexistent. And then the cycle repeats itself with her children.

Which leaves Carla and Sofia with few options. Carla says she will find a job, rent an apartment, and, “If God lets me, I would study in the university,” while Sofia simply dreams of a place to work and a “room for two.”

Read the next blog in the series here

Julieth: A story of hope

This article is a part of a larger series on teen mothers in Ecuador. 
To read the first article in the series, click here.
Read the previous article here. 

It is easy to get caught up in the statistics of the thing.

july1 in 5 girls in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.

Girls living below the poverty line are 4 times more likely to get pregnant.

Some statistics have even stated that as many as 62.7% of pregnancies in the Amazon jungle are unwanted or unplanned.

Like I said, easy to get caught up in the statistics. But perhaps what I learned, more than anything else living with five teen mothers in the Ecuador, is that hope is found in the individual story. It’s in what we do for the person directly in front of us.

Julieth, also known as July, was 11 when her mom died of cancer. She’s an outgoing, passionate girl, who laughs and loves easily. She was the “mother” in a home of mothers, helping the younger girls adapt to taking care of babies who were sick, didn’t want to eat, cried easily or couldn’t sleep. My first night at Casa Elizabeth, she saw through my fear and culture shock, told me to sit down and watch a movie with her.

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But she was not always so comfortable in that role. July lived with her stepfather, an aunt, then a friend of her mother’s before getting pregnant at 15. “Before, I went out with boys without thinking,” July said. “I drank a lot. I was always partying.”

It is easy… to become overwhelmed by the mixture of social disadvantages, bad choices and pure evil that contribute to the situations teen moms find themselves in.

It wasn’t until she had a medical scare that the lifestyle halted. “I felt a bulge in my stomach and my entire family was scared [because they remembered my mom],” July said. “But I went to the doctor, had a test and he said you’re pregnant.”

July’s story is unique because she came to Casa Elizabeth after she had Felipe, who was then four-months-old. Social workers said she could no longer stay where she was, and Casa Elizabeth made an exception, because “Julieth had nowhere to go,” July recalled.

She did not want to be there. She said she had a bad attitude, didn’t want to share her space and it was “very, very difficult.” But the house parents showed her how a family could be different.

“When I came, I saw their lives, how they acted,” July said, remembering that she found their kindness weird. “But now God has done many good things in my life. They make you apart of their family.”

DSC_0171Casa Elizabeth is a home that doesn’t just help the girls with the physical and economic needs of having a child. They also help them continue school and emphasize living a healthy lifestyle physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. But everything Casa Elizabeth does is centered in the family, something July decided to take with her when she left. “I’m nervous,” July told me days before her wedding last June. “Because for the first time I am forming my own family.”

July is also unique because she married her boyfriend, and the father of Felipe, Gorge. A beautiful wedding, perhaps because it showed that we don’t have to fear the insurmountable.

It is easy when listening to the tragic stories of five teen moms in the mountain capital of Ecuador to become overwhelmed by the mixture of social disadvantages, bad choices and pure evil that contribute to the situations teen moms find themselves in.

You only have to listen to Lucia’s mom tell her she must marry the 57-year-old man who sexually abused her for months. Or to the fear that Yamileth’s boyfriend might come back, and hurt her or her son. Or as Sofia, a 19-year-old girl, struggles to read at the kitchen table.

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These are a few of the people I met this summer: moms, babies, volunteers. They inspire me in the face of the incredible pandemic of teen pregnancy in Ecuador.

But then I remember laughing at dinner over some mistake I made in Spanish. I remember Dani, Yamileth’s son, making faces at me across the room, late night facial nights and dance parties. I remember the pure joy that anyone can find anywhere love and acceptance is.

It is easy to get caught up in the statistics of teen pregnancy. But the hope I see is not in large-scale public policy or international efforts, although those do help.

I see hope in a school psychologist who noticed something was wrong and called in social services. I see it in the house mom who spent hours on a Wednesday afternoon picking lice out of a girl’s hair. Or the counselor who volunteers on Tuesday mornings to just listen. It’s in the mission team who comes to build beds large enough to sleep a mom and her child. It’s in the family who donates baby clothes or weekly buys diapers.

I see it in the individual who dedicates his or herself to helping the person right in front of them, without judgment and full of love — and I realize that anywhere there is an overwhelming problem, God also provides unexpected hope.

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