Santa Ana, Ecuador, and Lodi do not have many things in common. They are a few thousand miles apart, in different hemispheres and different countries. But they share one person: Sean McDonald.
McDonald, 26, a graduate of Lodi High School's Class of 2004, joined the Peace Corps in February 2011. Before his life in the Peace Corps, he was a mentor with Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Sacramento from 2009 to 2011. He studied business administration at California State University, Fresno.
"Living and working with the native Amazonian peoples to preserve their cultures is a rewarding experience," said McDonald. "They have amazing motivation and can do so much with so little."
Santa Ana is located in the eastern region of Ecuador, and is home to a mix of four different indigenous cultures. It has fewer than 200 residents. The Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar and Zapara peoples still hold on to many cultural traditions, from the use of natural remedies and medicinal plants to face painting with natural dyes and living in traditional huts, with roofs made of jungle leaves.
The modern world's fast development has put new pressures on the community, especially the younger generation, resulting in them leaving behind their ancestral ways to work outside of Santa Ana.
In order to fight threats to their culture, one group of families has formed an association called Yaku Runa. The association name means "River People" in the Kichwa language. They are developing a tourism industry to share and promote conservation of their culture.
"Tourism has great potential here, and brings work to the community and promotes preservation of our culture and nature," said Yaku Runa President Telmo Rodas in comments passed by McDonald.
McDonald's work in Yaku Runa began in 2011. He works as a business adviser and teaches concepts such as business planning, marketing, accounting, sales and leadership.
The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Volunteers live in traditional homes, often with local families, and live at the level of the local population.
McDonald joined the Peace Corps to learn about and live in another culture, and to use his business education to support communities in need.
More than 50 percent of tourists coming to Ecuador are Americans, so English knowledge is essential. McDonald and volunteer Wendy Murray are forming Yaku Runa English School to prepare community members to communicate with and better serve tourists.
With students ranging from 5 to 20 years old and representing all four cultures of the community, McDonald and Murray teach classes with few resources available to them — a few children's books, improvised whiteboards made on cardboard, and whiteboard markers. Classes are held 12 times a week in three different language levels — early introduction, basic and intermediate.
Students learn through hands-on activities, often involving art, games and songs. Students at the intermediate level have shown rapid growth in a short period of time.
"I have learned much more rapidly in these classes than in the traditional English classes provided at school," said 16-year-old Javier Ushigua, in comments passed on through email by McDonald.
Currently, classes are taught at multiple locations, primarily in community members' homes. Construction of a physical schoolhouse, using local resources, is planned for completion in April of this year.
"We envision a special place where teachers can create an environment that surrounds the students with learning opportunities," said Murray. "As of now, our classroom fits into one canvas bag that we tote to class each session. With an actual school, we will be able to grow and provide the students with a more focused learning environment."
To make a donation to Yuka Runa English school, visit www.facebook.com/YakuRunaEnglish and click the link "Yaku Runa English School Fundraiser."
Contact reporter Brian Ratto at firstname.lastname@example.org.