Gabby Wagner

My name is Gabby Wagner and I am a 19-year-old female from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I am currently enrolled at the University of Calgary where I am working towards a degree in Biological Sciences. After my degree I plan to attend medical school. I am a die-hard animal lover and puppies are my favorite. I am also an adrenaline junkie and I love being outdoors! I like to spend my free time hiking, swimming, and doing yoga.

Why did you decide to enroll with Help Learn and Discover in Ecuador?

White water rafting down a river in Mindo

Gabby: I traveled to Ecuador with an organization called Help Learn and Discover from May 24th to June 29th.

I chose to go to Ecuador with Help Learn and Discover because their program offered everything that I wanted.

They had great reviews and offered unique activities and opportunities that I hadn’t come across with any other organization.

For example, they offered a program where you could volunteer, partake in medical rotations, and travel around Ecuador.

For me this is exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want a trip that was just focused on one thing the whole time and Help Learn Discover allowed me to get the best of all worlds.

What was the most interesting cultural difference you encountered?

Gabby: For me the most interesting cultural difference was seeing how happy the people were with their lives even though they had so little. At the volunteer site, we were working with indigenous people from the community of Santa Barbara located in the highlands.

Before we started to work on the houses we were building for them, we got the opportunity to see where they were currently living. I was shocked to see how poor their living conditions were. Even though their houses were in poor condition and they had to wake up at 4:30am every morning to start their day, they always were smiling.

This happiness and humbleness was not just evident at the volunteer site but also all over Ecuador. On the outside, the people of Ecuador do not have as much as the people of Canada but on the inside they have so much more. They don’t need material objects to be happy.

Many people in our culture could not imagine living, let alone being happy without a car or a nice house, but for the people of Ecuador these material things didn’t matter. They have nothing, yet they never complain or are angry about the unfairness of their lives.

Tell me about one person you met.

Me holding a newborn baby

Gabby: There was a woman from the community where we were volunteering named Berta who truly left a lasting impact on me.

When we got to the work site she greeted me with high heel shoes on, a baby on her back, and a shovel in her hand.

I was amazed by what she was wearing to work but when I looked around, I realized that all the women were in skirts, high heals, and had children slung across their backs.

Although Berta and I could not communicate with words, we used smiles and body language to talk to each other. I worked for 7 days with Berta and each day I was more and more impressed by her work ethic and stamina.

She would work all day and lift heavier rocks than any of the volunteers, while she carried a baby on her back. She would only stop to feed her baby and adjust his position on her back.

Each day I was more and more amazed by her and by the end of the week I felt like we had created a true bond.

She left such a lasting impact on me and motived me to work harder for everything I want in my life. She showed me that life isn’t always fair but if you enjoy what you have and work hard, nothing can stop you.

What do you the miss the most about Ecuador or your experience?

Gabby: After coming home, the thing I miss the most about my trip is the group of people I traveled with for a month. I was nervous going into my trip about the people because I am shy and sometimes, I have a hard time opening up. However, within days I had created friendships that will last forever.

Our group consisted of 8 students and 2 leaders who were strangers to begin with but by the end of the month, we were like family. I will never forget the bonds and memories I made with these people.

They truly changed my life and I will never forget the memories we made and laughs we shared. Waking up every morning is a little harder now that I know I won't be spending the day with the amazing people from my trip but I am so thankful for time we spent together.

What was the hardest or most challenging part of your experience? Most rewarding?

Our group after hiking for 3 hours in the jungle

Gabby: The hardest part of my experience was saying goodbye. Not just the goodbyes at the end of my trip but also all the goodbyes I had to say throughout the whole month.

Since the program is split into three different portions, the Help, the Learn, and the Discover, I found that at the end of each portion, I didn’t want to say goodbye or leave.

For me there were three goodbyes that were very challenging. The first was when we finished our medical rotations.

Knowing that in Canada, it is very hard to get the opportunity to shadow surgeons and doctors, I found it hard to say goodbye to this portion of the trip.

I wanted to do more, see more and learn more and therefore, when we were finished it was hard to accept that fact that it was over.

The next one was leaving the volunteer site. Although, I couldn’t verbally communicate with the people in the community I formed a different type of relationship that was so hard to say goodbye to.

At the end of the week volunteering it was so hard to say goodbye because I wanted to do more work and help out more and I almost felt guilty that I hadn’t worked harder. Lastly, the goodbyes I had to say at the end of the trip were one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Throughout the month our group became more than just friends who were travelling together. We truly became a family and it was so tough to say goodbye to them and I found it sad to know that I wont be waking up and eating breakfast or going on a crazy hike through the jungle with them again.

For me the most rewarding part of the trip was when we had our thank you dinner with the community. We had spent the day enjoying the summer solstice activities with the community and then later that night we played games with the kids and the community cooked us dinner.

After dinner, they did a thank you celebration where one member of the community would individually thank each one of us. It was the most humbling experience of my life to see how thankful these people were for the little we had given them.

They would refer to the houses we were building them as mansions and they were beyond grateful for all that we had done. Although we were the ones building houses for them, they did so much more for me. They put my life into perspective and made me feel so thankful for the life I have been given.

When it was my turn to be thanked a woman from the community gave me a present, said her thank you and then gave me the most amazing hug I’ve ever gotten. It lasted for a long time and when we finally let go I felt this feeling of pure joy. I truly did leave a better person!