The school that chocolate built.


The day before the grand opening of the newest classroom in Chone, Ecuador, a rust-covered truck backs into the schoolyard, laden with orange chairs, cellophane-covered desks and clean whiteboards. The supplies sit in the flatbed, under the coastal Ecuadorian sun, waiting to be unloaded as students finish their classes.

When teacher Gabriel Iván Verduga rings the bell to end the day, an impromptu minga erupts. A rallying cry for collective action—when a minga is called, men, women and children work together to help complete a project for the benefit of their community.

Students descend on the truck, some clambering into the flatbed, others waiting at the back, forming a miniature assembly line in their grey-and-white uniforms. They work together to ferry the desks and chairs into the waiting classroom, unconsciously participating in the age-old Ecuadorian tradition. “This is the spirit WE has awoken,” Iván, as he’s known to his students, says. The teacher looks younger than his 35 years, his eyes disappearing into a disarming squint as he smiles at his students passing desks and chairs off the truck to classmates below.

Just weeks earlier these same students watched their parents pick up shovels, clear rocks, mix cement and build the classroom. Now they are finishing the work their parents started—proof for Iván that the whole community shares in his vision for change.

Chone is a rural cluster of homes that sit on the doorstep of one of Ecuador’s wealthiest beachfront tourist towns. Here, families live off the land. When harvests are plentiful, so is the food on their tables; when the river floods or the rains come too late, some tables remain bare. WE visited Chone in September 2017, drawn by word of its famous Fino de Aroma variety of cacao and the knowledge of what a fair price for the products—paired with sustainable development—could do for the community. The renowned cacao bean that helped create ME to WE Chocolate made this classroom possible.

As WE set to work partnering with cacao producers in the area, WE’s development experts began mapping a way forward with the community. According to Iván, an early champion of the new relationship, the first step in that journey was obvious: a complete school.

The problems families face in Chone are hidden behind a gorgeous landscape—just inland from the crashing Pacific Ocean waves, the cool coastal air pools in the hills around the school, coming down on vast fields of cacao and plantain trees in fat, warm drops that turn everything a cartoonish, verdant green. But the need is great.

A paved road only recently connected part of the community; many homes remain isolated by long stretches of pockmarked dirt paths. A truck with clean drinking water comes weekly. For those who don’t live on the paved road, they must catch their water as it rains or collect it—untreated—from the nearby river. The school is overcrowded and incomplete. Students in the upper years are forced to take a bus to the closest city, Atacames, at a price that forces many to drop out.

To Iván, the partnership with WE was “a chance to break the chain of misery with education,” and the classroom became “a mission of the heart.” A teacher and pastor, Iván speaks with traces of both: staring far off into the distance or looking directly into your eyes, he switches casually from grand proclamations about the state of education in rural Ecuador to humble revelations about his own past.

Originally from Atacames—a 45-minute drive but another world away, filled with high-rise hotels that crowd the white sand beaches and ceviche stalls lining the boardwalk serving up fresh lobster—Iván saw firsthand the doors an education can open. His mother had a chance to study, his father did not; later in life, his mom became a primary school teacher, and his dad was very proud of her accomplishment. They both instilled in Iván a commitment to finish school. “We experienced and struggled with the limitations of being poor our whole lives,” he says, speaking in Spanish. “But now that I’m not trapped in the threads of poverty […] I see myself in my students, in their needs and in their dreams.” With children of his own in a well-supplied and well-funded school in Atacames, Iván wants to bring those same opportunities to the young people of Chone.

The relationship with WE in place, the community took action to turn the classroom into a reality. To cement true partnerships between WE and communities in Ecuador—and to ensure community members feel ownership over all projects—the communities provide a small portion of the supplies needed. Mirroring WE fundraisers in schools across Canada and the United States, but with an Ecuadorian twist, students and parents in Chone held a bake sale to raise the money for cement and bamboo. Instead of cookies and brownies, they grated fresh coconut for encocados, ground corn for tamales and stuffed plantains to make classic corviche. They held a raffle and hosted neighbouring communities for a football tournament. Iván’s young children even came to help him sell juice and pop.

Then there was the minga. The same cacao farmers whose fair trade beans make ME to WE Chocolate—the proceeds of which fund projects like this across Ecuador—showed up to help build the school. On the first morning of work, there were more community members asking to help than shovels available. As parents cleared the land, Iván divided people into shifts and made a schedule. “The work was constant,” he says with a deep-dimpled smile. “And they did it out of love.”

At the grand opening in January 2018—the day after Iván watched his students carry desks and chairs into the new classroom—he stands next to the doorway, eagerly welcoming people in. The community leaders and teachers are here. As are local government officials and representatives from the ministry of education. But it’s the parents Iván is most proud of. They sit in the new classroom they helped build, on chairs their children carried. The new classroom offers more space, a soundproof roof and proper ventilation so students can learn in heavy rains or blistering heat.

“Today, we celebrate,” he says, addressing the crowd gathered for the grand opening. They celebrate the hard work of the parents, the support of the community and the dedication of the teachers. But above all, they celebrate the future and what this new relationship will bring. “This project is long term and contains many chapters.”

As parents file out of the classroom, confident their children will receive a better education because of it, they walk past piles of leftover cement bags and bamboo poles, enough material to build another classroom. These are the stuff that dreams are made of in Ecuador.

The celebration over, tomorrow the classroom will be full of the sounds of learning: turning pages of textbooks, markers squeaking on whiteboards, teachers encouraging uncertain students. For now, it sits quiet, a monument to education built by and sitting among the cacao fields of Chone. “We love the things we see,” Iván says as he closes the door. “Things that enter our eyes enter our hearts. This classroom is beautiful.”

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