Not your average summer vacation

Southwest parents and kids travel to Ecuador to run a camp for kids in poverty

For a few Southwest kids, family vacations no longer mean crowding into a station wagon for a two-week road trip to the Black Hills. For Aidan Lynn-Klimenko, 15, it means helping kids in a poor country and learning about their lives.

In 1998, Tangletown resident Mary Karen Lynn-Klimenko and her family -- husband Markus and sons Aidan and Ted, then 9 and 6 -- lived in Cuenca, Ecuador, as part of a humanitarian effort to improve the lives of women working in the city's dump. They returned home with a quest to create a Kids' Camp to help Cuenca's children.

Since that visit, the Lynn-Klimenkos had another son (Simon, now 3) and Ecuador Kid's Camp has become a reality in which they include all three sons. Each summer, 100 5- to 13-year-olds get adequate food, hygiene education and school supplies, as well as plenty of games and arts and crafts activities. The camp lasts for four days and leaves all the children with a school scholarship for a year.

For volunteers, the camp is a 17-day trek, with one week for training, one week for the camp and the remainder for travel. The Lynn-Klimenko family has returned to Ecuador four times at their own expense (approximately than $2,000 per adult trip) with other Southwest volunteer families.

While bringing joy to Ecuadorian kids, Americans learn lessons in humility. Aidan recalls trying to get the children to eat all of their lunch. They refused, insisting on saving half to take home to their families.

This summer, Southwest families raised money and practiced their Spanish in preparation for the fifth voyage to Cuenca Aug. 6-23. Veteran participants hope to launch a literacy initiative, while newcomers prepare to help and learn.

The camp's creation

More than 15 years ago, Mary Karen and Markus worked in the Peace Corps but left when she became pregnant with Aidan. She said they waited to become involved in other humanitarian efforts until their children were older because they wanted them to be included.

Mary Karen said, in 1998, they traveled with Aidan and Ted to Cuenca to work on a humanitarian project helping the women of the dump. The women were ashamed to sift through garbage, but still proud to work instead of beg.

She said women working in the dump would search for recyclables to sell to a middleman, making approximately $1 per day. Mary Karen said the group helped organize the women into associations, so they could cut out the middlemen and double their daily income.

As part of the work, a donor working with the project gave money to fund a four-day camp for the dump's children, ages 5 to 12. The mothers made the meals, which camp donations funded.

Mary Karen said through their experience that year, they learned about the children's needs and decided to return and fund their own camp. She said, to the family's surprise, friends and fellow Southwest parents who had heard about the Lynn-Klimenkos' camp experience wanted to help, too.

"All of a sudden, we had 25 people the first year," Lynn-Klimenko said of the 1999 trip.

The group had a fund-raising party and raised $2,000 that year -- enough to pay for the camp and school scholarships for 50 kids. From that year on, except for 2003, the camp has become an annual summer ritual for many.

This year, 150 Ecuadorian kids were expected; volunteers were split, 27 from the United States and 27 from Ecuador. Nearly half the Americans were from Southwest.

Camp preparations

Camp preparations start in Southwest, with volunteers and participants hosting fundraising parties. While each family pays its own way (usually less than $2,000 per person for the trip, including food), donations fund the camp itself.

The camp costs about $3,500 to run each year: $1,000 for materials, $1,000 for bus transportation, $1,000 for camp food (which the children often share with their families) and $500 for an artist to do camp activities.

Mary Karen said the realities of Ecuador's poverty were a quick education in what the children most need, dictating what the camp offers.

She said they discovered unsanitary conditions fuel the most common cause of death for Ecuador's children, so the camp focuses on hygiene education, handing out dental supplies, for example.

Mary Karen said volunteers also learned parents must pay for public school-required uniforms and supplies -- even toilet paper -- so most children never make it to 6th grade. The cost for a spiral notebook in Cuenca is $7.

She said it costs $75 to send a child to school for a year -- often something Ecuadorian families can't pay, since they make less than $2 a day.

In addition to fund-raising, many volunteers prepare for camp by practicing their Spanish. Student volunteers gather periodically to practice the art projects scheduled for the camp and to make the camp T-shirts.

Once in Ecuador, volunteers also go through a week's training in Spanish and have time to travel so they can acclimate themselves to the culture and explore with their families.

Welcome Jerde, her husband Dan Berg, and their kids Julia, 14, and Hannah, 11, are long-time camp supporters and were prepared to go with on the trip for the first time this year. "I think it's an adventure. What more could you want than to have an adventure like this and do it with your family?" she said shortly before the Aug. 6 departure.

Despite extensive travel experience, Jerde said her family had to prepare extensively for their own trip and the camp itself, with their daughters feverishly learning Spanish.

Lessons from another land

Those who have been to the camp reflected on what they've learned.

Tangletown resident Terese Pritschet has been to the camp once with her daughter Jesse Wiener, 11, and is returning with her again this year.

She said it's really important for her to do work like this with her family. Mary Karen echoed that sentiment, saying, "It was one of the most uniting experiences for our family, and I hear that a lot from other families."

Pritschet said getting off the tourist track and being able to relate to people in a completely different culture also offers volunteers the chance to learn so much more about their way of life and how privileged we are in the United States.

Wiener, who first volunteered when she was 8, said working with the children also made her feel lucky to have things like food.

Wiener said she also learned a lot about communication. She said at first it was difficult to communicate because she doesn't speak Spanish, so she'd get an interpreter to help. But she said she also learned how to use the universal language: "A lot of times I smiled at them and they smiled back," she said.

Tax-deductible contributions to continue the Ecuador Kids' Camp can be sent to:

Mary Karen Lynn-Klimenko

229 W. Rustic Lodge

Minneapolis, MN 55409

Checks can be made payable to the group's fiscal agent, Walker Community Church, with a note on the check specifying the money is for the Ecuador Kids' Camp.

For more information on Ecuador Kids' Camp, contact the Lynn-Klimenkos at 825-0578 or [email protected].