Travel with a Purpose: Service Trip to Ecuador

August 01, 2023

Amir Livadic and Khetsi Pratt, both teachers in the Primary School Division at Sacred Heart Sheridan Road, and former TA, Julia Carofilis, often talked about Julia’s Ecuadorian roots. Specifically, Julia shared the work her mother, Dr. Narcisa Villegas  did in Ecuador as the Director of Los Talentos de Manta, providing K-8 and high school education programs to local students, including some special needs students.


Julia’s mother was acutely aware of the need to prepare students to compete in a global economy where the ability to speak English is of paramount importance. She often discussed with Julia her desire to offer a robust English immersion program at the school. Julia listened intently and continued helping with updating the school’s website until she took another key step in assisting her mother in realizing her dreams for the school.


In February 2023, Julia approached her colleagues and friends, Amir and Khetsi, with a service idea: How would they approach a summer service project at the school in Ecuador, beginning the early phase of an English immersion program? In Ecuador, the school year continues through the summer months, but closes during January, February and March, their rainy season. For Amir and Khetsi, mid-June begins their summer season out of school, so the timing would work well.


Khetsi already had some experience teaching English as a second language, having done so for an online school program before joining Sacred Heart. Amir had been thinking about a trip to Ecuador before Julia posed her idea and they were both immediately drawn to the suggestion. They wanted to help and they were eager to travel and experience different cultures and environments outside the U.S. while they had some time off from their regular teacher’s duties.


Julia worked closely with the English language department at Los Talentos and with her mother in gaining an understanding of the best way to approach this service program, providing Amir and Khetsi some helpful insights. The plan began to form for a one-week program to kick things off and introduce the concept to the school, its teachers and the students. Julia’s mother’s vision included putting a greater emphasis on the practical application of the language to students’ everyday lives than what currently existed in their English class.


Together, Julia, Amir and Khetsi continued mapping out a one-week curriculum and planned activities including games, various speaking practice sessions and dialogue among students and teachers. Given the broad age range of the students, their program included specific college prep work for the older students such as preparing essays, personal statements and other composition help for the high school seniors.


Mid June arrived and the trip to Manta included a stop in Fort Lauderdale and then a connecting flight into Guayaquil Airport and a three hour drive to Manta. They stayed at Julia’s family home with her mother and enjoyed the wonderful food of the area, including many delicious meals of tuna, ceviche and plantain. They even babysat two of Julia’s nephews while they were in Manta.

Early on, the teachers understood that one big key to the success of this program would be to build the students’ confidence, to encourage each of them to stretch past their comfort zones and not to be afraid to make mistakes, rather to engage and commit themselves. Workshop sessions were also part of Amir and Khetsi’s strategy, getting the students to trust them and to dig deep as they gained confidence and self assuredness by working in smaller groups.


This summer’s program ran from June 19-23 and was so enthusiastically received that a program for next summer, extended to a month, is already in the early planning stages. Amir and Khetsi’s enthusiasm to continue this venture was equally shared by their students and faculty at Los Talentos.


In speaking with the school’s department head as the week’s program was concluding, the teacher volunteers noted the importance of striving for community among the students to ensure the program’s effectiveness. Some students are naturally curious, engaged and eager to learn and stretch their language skills while others are more hesitant or reserved. Creating a safe atmosphere of trust and community would go a long way in making all feel welcome and encouraging full participation. Social and emotional learning and general community-building principles could easily be integrated into this language immersion program.


The Sacred Heart team also prepared a report for the school director highlighting other recommendations for success going forward. Chief among those was to create more opportunities for students to practice their English language skills in everyday activities. Additionally, students should be encouraged to share more experiences with their peers using these language skills.


Lest you think our dedicated service volunteers had no time for fun outside the classroom, they were able to squeeze in some additional non-teaching activities into that short week. They were able to go paddle boarding and whale watching two hours up the coast from Manta, as well as go to the top of a mountain to get a view of Ecuador.


Full of rich memories, great friendships forged and excited for the next chapter in this service journey, Amir and Khetsi returned to Chicago to enjoy the remainder of their summer vacation before the start of the new school year on Sheridan Road in a few weeks. While they are sorting through many wonderful photos, they are already in conversation about what next year’s program will entail. The staff members at Los Talentos are excited to welcome them back and they are so looking forward to continuing this educational adventure. Certainly, Amir and Khetsi are living the principles of Goal III and Goal V, giving of themselves in service and forging special new communities.