Staff Spotlight: Andrew Kirby

Executive Director

What is your favorite travel memory?

I have so many memorable moments from my years in Ecuador! But perhaps the most significant was living with an indigenous family for a week in their crumbling shack on the Pacific coast.

At night the sound of the waves mingled with the insects from the forest behind us and the patter of raindrops on the thatched roof. Sharing so intimately and coming to understand so much about their culture and experience was one of the fundamental experiences in deciding to set up Yanapuma Foundation.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

We set up as a "social enterprise," developing our Spanish school and volunteering activities as a means of supporting our work with indigenous and marginalized communities around Ecuador.

We started with lots of enthusiasm and no experience and we had to learn everything from scratch! So I have learned so much during the past decade that we have been in operation - about indigenous cultures, about successful development work, about working with volunteers, and about myself as a result of these activities.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

The funniest story was of a girl who was part of a group that stayed with a family from the Tsa'chila indigenous culture.

One of her host's children asked her what the small bottle of liquid that she had was for. She tried to explain that she wore contact lenses to them but as they had never come across this they had no idea what she was talking about. So then she decided the best thing was to take out her contact lens and show them. They all thought she was taking out her eye and began to scream!

Eventually they understood and everyone had a great laugh. That was an unforgettable moment.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

My personal preference is always to go as far away from civilization as possible. I would choose one of the projects in the Amazon rain forest, maybe the project with the Shuar indigenous culture.

There is so much that one can learn by participating in the daily activities of a totally different culture in a totally different environment.

Volunteers come back with a new appreciation for their own culture - valuing some things more highly while realizing that other aspects are not so important as they once thought. That was my experience at the Pacific coast and I am always happy to talk to returning volunteers who have had similar experiences.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

Of all the NGOs and state and local organizations working in the area of development that we are involved with, I would say that what sets us apart is taking an anthropological viewpoint on all that we do.

Many organizations fail to comprehend the differences between our cultures and try to impose their values and system on another culture. We are more patient and recognize that the changes that other cultures are striving towards take many years to realize.

I am always particularly happy when we become trusted partners with another community.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

For us, success has been tying together the activities of the Spanish school with the volunteering and the development work that we undertake with the profits that we generate. There is a natural synergy between all of these, although it has meant from the start developing three different activities which has been a huge effort.

In the end I believe that it was the first years of sacrifice, working for next to nothing, that allowed us to get ahead and reach the position of relative stability that we enjoy now.