Since 2008 parishioners of the First Covenant Church in River Falls have made trips to the Cayambe district of Ecuador.
The 12-member group returned to the "not on a map" area for a fourth time March 12-22.
Members of the group include: Mark and Sue Kimball, Tony and Matt Ecklund, Terry and Nicole Ekstrom, Kasey Manche, Phil Hanson, Keith Hansen, Jim Harsdorf, Richard Franta and Jerry VanHeukelom.
When the Ecuadorian government broke up the haciendas (estate plantations), they gave the land back to the native Indian populations.
Without a central town, the area was named Lote Tres, or lot 3. The area, 12,000 feet above sea level, is home to 75 households.
In 2008, Covenant Church parishioners went to Lote Tres to build a church for the people.
According to Mark Kimball, "We brought more than construction and a children's program."
"Sue (Kimball) did a teachers' program in the next lot over. In 2010 nurse practitioner Julie Stoffel went and helped with medical care."
In 2011 three members of the group, Mark and Sue Kimball and Jim Harsdorf, made a return trip to help with farming practices. They held seminars and visited farms.
"We moved into community development. We don't just plop money down. We try to get them to be self-sufficient," said Mark.
"We are helping our brothers and sisters move from subsistence agriculture to surplus agriculture production."
The feeling from the local church group is that if it helps improve the standard of living, then those who've been helped can help others.
Making a difference
When asked what changes they have seen since last year's visit, Sue points to the increase in milkings.
"Some families are milking twice a day, she said. "They are using the second milk for the family. Before, most children, after they are weaned, do not get milk."
The people made a change in herd management, with an increase in the amount of water given to the cows.
"There is also better pasture management -- they are not as grazed down," said Mark.
This time, Sue was asked to return to the school, in the lot next to Lote Tres, and give a few more seminars to their new teachers.
Since the last mission trip, the school has added three teachers. They now have five full-time and two part-time teachers for the two-year-old to seventh-grade school.
School officials asked Sue to train the teachers in math and writing skills.
Sanitation was also an area that the Ecuadorians wanted to change. They had a design for indoor plumbing, including flushable toilets.
"We helped them redesign the bathroom and they accepted the changes we brought,' said Mark.
"They are primitive, but they are moving forward -- it's like they are skipping 100 years of development."
About one-half of the residents have cell phones, and they have computers. They have electricity, a water source, but no indoor plumbing.
The Kimballs noted that the government does not give much help -- these are the forgotten people.
"To build the cobblestone roads, the government dumps rocks and the people have to make their own roads," Sue said. "They take turns building the roads, and on a good day they can lay 50-75 feet of road."
The Kimballs noted an improvement in the overall health of the Ecuadorians.
"They look healthier, they have more flesh -- it may be the milk," said Sue.
Local dentists Associated Dentists and Main Street Family Dentists donated toothbrushes and toothpaste for the group to take down to the residents.
The attitude of the Ecuadorians was also different.
"When we first met they were very conservative and shy," Sue said. "They are now giving hugs, building relationships."
"They have always appreciated when we come, but more so now."
"As we left there were tears on both sides," Mark added.
While there in 2011, a suggestion was made to find other enterprises to raise more money.
A popular delicacy in Ecuador is cuy -- guinea pig. Most residents only eat it about twice a year, but there is a market for quality cuy.
The church group asked the Ecuadorians to consider raising them as a cash crop.
According to Mark, if raised properly they can become large and quite tender when cooked.
A farmer with 20 females could earn an extra $1,200 - $1,500 a year. Considering that the minimum wage in Ecuador is $300/month, the endeavor could be worthwhile.
The Kimballs likened it to a diversified U.S. farm 75 years ago, where farmers had pigs, chickens, cows, etc.
During the return trip in 2012, eight families had taken the advice and started raising cuy.
"They are going to school and using pens, not the old-fashioned way -- putting them in the corner of the house," Mark said. "They are using animal management in breeding, feeding and selection.
"They are very early on, with only four to five females and one male, but they are doing proper management."
Before going on the trip, Terry Ekstrom and Richard Franta did some research on raising cuy. They connected with someone in Caymabe that runs a cuy operation, and is looking for more cuy farmers.
According to Mark, the cuy operator tries to use a holistic approach to his farm. "He uses the cuy droppings to make a tea that he uses to fertilize his vegetable crops."
The hope is that the people of Lote Tres, could sell their cuy to the larger operation for a profit.
When the Quichua, an old Inca-language speaking people, were driven from the Amazon and went up the mountain, they established homesteads in multiple areas.
Another town, Oyachia, about 1½ hours away from Lote Tres, was in a similar situation -- isolated and remote.
"They have the same community background, they have just had community development," said Mark.
According to the Kimballs, about 40 years ago a preacher came to town and introduced sanitation.
At the time there was a 90% infant mortality rate.
It is now a thriving town with a three-family cheese factory, a trout pond and a wood carver.
The area of 600 people went from a rough environment to a developed community.
According to Mark, "The people in lot three have more resources, but are underdeveloped."
To show the people what could be, the group took residents of Lote Tres to Oyachia, where they had never been.
They wanted the Ecuadorians to see what can happen if they start to develop their resources.
The goal is to partner the two together to move Lote Tres in that direction.
The Kimballs hope to continue the partnership that they have formed.
The church sends a group every two years, but the Kimballs would like to go on their own every year.
"It was a great experience -- I loved watching the high school kids," Mark said. "They grow so much in faith and themselves."
"The biggest thing that affects me is we keep going back to the same community," Sue said. "Even with a language barrier, there is a huge deal of trust -- a partnership between two people.
"You're family -- truly -- in Christ you are family."
To read more about the First Covenant Church's trip to Ecuador, visit www. firstcovecuador.blogspot.com .