Shortly after Pam Gilbert retired in 2003, following 30 years as a high school math teacher in Boulder, Colo., she set out to explore Latin America. Halfway through her trip, which would take her through 17 countries in nine months, she went trekking in the high Andes of Ecuador. Climbing along a 12,000-foot ridge above a deep canyon, her guide lost his way. They were far from their camp. As darkness closed in, the guide spotted two figures on the opposite side of the canyon. He motioned to them, indicating they needed to find the way down, and the two pointed to a trail. After scrambling down a steep hillside, Gilbert and her guide crossed the river at the bottom of the canyon and met up with what turned out to be two teenaged boys.
Gilbert, who had three decades of experience with teenagers, was impressed with these two. “They waited for us, and then went an hour and a half out of their way to put us back on our path,” she recalls. During the long walk back to camp, the boys, named Pedro and Lautero, told Gilbert that their detour was nothing – they were used to hiking two and a half hours to go to high school, which, due to a lack of funds, was only open on Saturdays. One of the boys said he wanted to be a doctor, the other a psychiatrist. They weren’t complaining about that walk to school. “It’s a privilege,” they told Gilbert.
Grateful for their help, Gilbert tipped them five dollars (the average indigenous family in the Ecuadorian Andes makes the equivalent of 20 dollars a month), snapped a photo of the boys and went on her way. She never expected that getting lost in the Andes would help her to find an occupation – and a passion – for her retirement.
Back home, Gilbert considered where she wanted to travel next. Her plan, after scouting around Latin America, had been to return to one place with an established volunteer group. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel; I just wanted to volunteer.” But as she weighed which of the various international volunteer groups to join, she kept thinking about those two teenaged boys and their desire to simply to attend high school. She bought a ticket back to Ecuador, studied Spanish for a few weeks in Quito, and then set out by bus for the village near where she’d been hiking; she carried a photo of the boys she’d met on the footpath.
“My friends thought I was loca,” she says. She practiced the phrases she’d learned in Spanish to ask where to find the boys, which didn’t help much in the indigenous language of Quechua.
Gilbert hired a local guide in the area, who took her hiking near where she’d met the boys, and identified them as living in Malingua Pamba, a village of about 200 indigenous people. A couple more hours of hiking brought her there, and she met with the leader of the community and mentioned her desire to volunteer. He told her that they needed a schoolhouse for their junior high and high school kids. After some thought, Gilbert promised to give $1,000 toward construction materials, but only if the community agreed to actually build the schoolhouse and have the department of education finance a teacher. In turn, Gilbert made a commitment to return to the village every six months to help with the school’s progress.
Gilbert bought concrete for the villagers to build the first cement blocks for the school, then headed home. In Christmas emails to friends, she mentioned the project and received $4,000 in donations, unsolicited. On her return to Malingua Pamba, she had enough money to help build a large classroom and a teacher’s apartment.
Each time Gilbert returned to Ecuador, she was able to help finance some improvements. She felt it was important to maintain ties with the community, to not simply fund a building and leave. “I feel strongly that one has to keep going, riding hard, so the project will continue to be sustainable,” she says.
So far Gilbert has made 18 visits to Malingua Pamba. She worked with the villagers to build the school and badgered the Ecuadorian government into initially funding one, and eventually three, teachers. When the teachers wouldn’t stay – it was a two-hour hike for most – Gilbert built a shower and a large extra bedroom to make the school more attractive. When the hot water didn’t function well, she searched for help until she found Engineers Without Borders, which was just starting up a Denver chapter and took on Malingua Pamba as its first project.
For the engineers, making a hot shower work in Ecuador wasn’t much of a challenge. Once they were down there, Gilbert helped organize community meetings to see what else residents of Malingua Pamba and outlying villages needed. Everyone asked for irrigation to grow crops to keep from going hungry, and for potable water. Since Gilbert began working with Engineers Without Borders in 2006, they have provided irrigation to 500 small Andean farmers and potable water to 1,500 people in the region. All the while, Gilbert has made sure that the villagers are partners, agreeing in writing to keep their end of any bargain.
“Every step of the way, we made sure local people were involved, so that they would take responsibility for maintaining our improvements,” Gilbert says. “As we were laying pipe, they were learning plumbing.”
Gilbert is similarly conscientious about her own organization, which is now a nonprofit, Centro Educado La Minga. She insures that 100 percent of all donations go directly to Ecuador ($50 can fund a child in school for a year, and $960 can pay a teacher’s salary). She takes no salary or expenses for herself.
Gilbert’s energy and know-how have inspired some of the locals to start new education projects themselves. She calls the president of Malingua Pamba, Paulino Sacatoro, a “mover and shaker.” Since Gilbert came to the area, Sacatoro has teamed up with her to start 14 kindergartens in the region, with fresh food delivered to each one. “I’ve been able to provide him with some tools to have a greater impact in the area,” Gilbert says. “But he had the fire. I was just there to feed it.”
The residents of Malingua Pamba have nicknamed Gilbert madrina, which translates to “godmother.” At the opening of the school, they presented her with a hand-crocheted shawl and showered her with roses.
The school in Malingua Pamba is now a center for several communities around it. It has an organic garden, a composting toilet, five computers and three teachers. Eight of the 31 students who started in Gilbert’s school have gone on to university. Lautero and Paulino, the two boys she encountered on the trail years ago, are both studying in college. One has just switched his major from psychology to ecotourism, with the hope of bringing more people like Gilbert from the outside world into the remote, high Andes.
“In my mind, I was just helping two boys get an education,” says Gilbert. “But I’m a gardener, and when I plant something, I like to see it grow.”
Laura Fraser is the author, most recently, of the travel memoir All Over the Map.