Junior Evan Karlyn recounts his 10-day service learning trip to rural Ecuador
Sitting in Miami International airport waiting to board his flight back to Logan, Evan Karlyn ’24 jotted down his final journal entry. His 10 days in Ecuador were at an end; he had logged 4,900 travel miles there and back, and many more around the country as a volunteer with MedLife, an organization that hosts pop-up, walk-in healthcare clinics in rural towns and villages around the South American country.
The experience was entirely new for the Marblehead native, who had never been to South America before, had never assisted doctors before, and had never traveled abroad to volunteer before. But there was something about the opportunity that called to him.
“Ever since I started at St. John’s in the sixth grade, I heard about friends and classmates going on service trips and having really amazing experiences serving others,” says Karlyn. “When the opportunity came for me to participate in one outside of the Prep, I had all those stories in my head that pointed to this being a really good thing.”
And indeed it was. The experience—which included service days as well as opportunities to learn about Ecuador’s culture, geography, history, education system, and economic structures—was a physical expression of being open to something completely new. “It changed my worldview,” says Karlyn. “I’m so appreciative that I was able to go, see what I saw, and have the chance to apply what I learned back home.”
St. John’s has a long history of partnering with organizations whose mission is to work with Ecuador’s vulnerable and underserved populations. Groups of students who participate in In Ryken’s Footsteps trips serve at the Rostro de Cristo center on the outskirts of Guayaquil during April break, and Head of School Ed Hardiman spent a year living and serving in Ecuador when the program was in its infancy. The organization Karlyn worked with, MedLife, focuses on solving the root causes of education, healthcare, and housing inequalities in locations across the globe and creating service and learning opportunities for students, in particular.
“Ever since I started at St. John’s in the sixth grade, I heard about friends and classmates going on service trips and having really amazing experiences serving others.”
Reflecting on his experience, Karlyn—who participated in Prep Awareness Day Experience (PADE) as a sophomore and the Sophomore Mother-Son Retreat—exemplifies what any adult hopes a young person will glean from a trip like this: a more nuanced understanding of their place in the world, an appreciation for different cultures and ways of life, and an awareness of the needs of others. Knowing this trip might be something Karlyn would want to remember, his father, Matt, encouraged him to keep a journal.
“I wasn’t really sure about it, but when I got to the first hotel in Ecuador, I saw my dad had snuck it in my bag,” remembers Karlyn. “I’m very glad he did.”
Over the next 10 days, Karlyn kept notes of his journey—villages the group visited, people he met, and things he learned about the country. Below are excerpts from his journal, highlights from a deeply impactful summer journey.
Karlyn retraced his steps on the return journey, flying from Quito to Miami, and then back to Boston. He says he’s already looking forward to finding another opportunity like his Ecuador experience, but one with an even greater ratio of service to learning and travel.
“No matter where it ends up being, this type of service experience is absolutely one I want to do again.”
DAY 1 — JULY 25:
“Today was a long travel day. All 25 of us going on the trip—including three of my close summer camp friends from New York—flew from all over the U.S. to meet up at Miami International Airport. From there, we made the four-and-a-half hour flight to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where we spent the night before setting off the next morning.”
DAY 2 — JULY 26:
“On our way to the volunteer site we stopped in a town called San Antonio where the equator runs through the middle (which is how the country got its name). Our tour guide showed us the Coriolis Effect—water drains counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, but straight down when you’re on the equator.
From there we made our way to Rio Bamba, where we would be based for the next nine days. Things I might take for granted in the U.S.—gas stations for example—were different and interesting when you’re in a new country. Ecuador has used American currency since 2000, so it was cool to see people using $2 bills and Sacagawea dollar coins, neither of which I’d actually seen before. Sun and weather patterns were interesting to learn about too—being on the equator means that the sun rises and sets at 6 am and 6 pm respectively every single day, and it’s pretty much always 60 degrees with a rainy season and dry season. Quito is also the second highest capital in the world at about 9,300 feet above sea level. No one in our group got altitude sickness though, which was good.”
DAY 3 — JULY 27:
“It was colder than I expected. This morning we had orientation, which was run by Dr. Ellis, who directed the MedLife program in Ecuador, and then in the afternoon, we went to a town called Guapo. We learned about the way budgets are distributed; the government puts certain cities in charge of allocating funds to smaller villages around them, which has its pros and cons.”
DAY 4 — JULY 28:
“This morning we went to the first Catholic Church in Ecuador, called María Natividad de Balbanera, which was built in 1534. On our tour, we learned that 99 percent of Ecuadorians are Catholic, and that there’s a lot of Spanish influence in the religion and culture. We also learned about something called Ecuadorian ivory palm, which is essentially a substitute for ivory. People will use palm tree seeds instead of actual ivory in an effort to stop elephants from being killed for their tusks.”
DAY 5 — JULY 29:
“After an hour-long bus ride, we arrived at our first clinic site at a town called Nabuzo, which was at an altitude of about 13,000 feet. I didn’t really know what to expect, but when we got there, we saw we were going to be stationed on this big outdoor space that looked like a mix between a basketball court and an airplane hangar. We set up our three stations—vitals, nutrition, and a check-in with a doctor. I was at the vitals station first, where I was taking peoples’ blood pressure and measuring their weight and height. Everything was said in Spanish, so it was a steep learning curve, but you get the hang of it.
For most of the villages we went to, there isn’t a pharmacy you can go to to grab Advil or a doctor you can see regularly. Some patients came in just looking for some basic over-the-counter medicines, while others might have had surgery 15 years ago and just needed to be checked on.
It was interesting to hear different volunteers’ reactions at the end of the day. Some said they felt guilty realizing how much they had and how easy it was for them to access healthcare. My three friends and I looked at it a little differently—the people we met were happy. We didn’t feel like it was our place to feel bad for them; their lives were different from ours, yes, but we also kept in mind that we were just there for a short period of time.”
DAY 6 — JULY 30:
“Today we went to Chillanes, which was about three hours southwest of Riobamba and set up the clinic. In addition to the medical rotations, there was a walking tour where you learned how the Ecuadorian school system works. Typically there is primary school followed by some form of high school, and then an admission test for those who want to go to college. If you get a certain score, the government will pay for you to go to any college in the world, as long as you come back and share what you learned in a way that benefits Ecuador. The next level down allows you to go to any college within Ecuador for free, while the third level allows you to go to any college within Ecuador, but you have to pay tuition. Below that, you can apply to a school for admission, or you can retake the test. I thought it was kind of cool and just different from the U.S. system, and I had never heard of a system like that before. In the rural areas we were in, though, the schools were often in rough shape, and many of these towns don’t get the funding that cities like Quito and Riobamba do.”
DAY 7 — SUNDAY, JULY 31:
“We set up the clinic, but since it was a Sunday, the towns were pretty quiet. It’s tradition to have lunch with your entire family after going to church. We learned about family structure and marriages too—families are super tight here, and if you’re getting married, generally speaking your and your future spouse’s families know each other well. Going back to education and that test, if you score really well on it and leave Ecuador, that’s great, but your family also expects you to come back to your town. It felt very different from American culture, where generally kids are encouraged to leave home and make their own way.”
DAY 8 — AUGUST 1:
“This was another full day of service, but our group was given the option to help paint an elementary school or help build a community house that got wiped out by an earthquake (we learned that half the mountains we thought looked cool were actually active volcanoes). I chose to help build the house. When we got to the site, we saw about 20,000 rocks on top of a hill—there was no truck that could dump them because the truck would fall down the hill—so we all made an assembly line and passed them down by hand for about four hours. In the end, we helped make the process considerably shorter, but I do wish we had been able to stick around and help build the whole house.”
DAY 9 — AUGUST 2:
“To end the trip, we went ziplining in the Amazon, which was really cool. The road we took from Quito to the Amazon wound through these massive hills, and whenever the driver got behind a slower utility truck, he would just pass them. It was definitely a different driving experience than in the States. After ziplining, they said we were going on a “lazy river.” It was NOT lazy. This was just straight up whitewater rafting. They strapped us into lifejackets, handed us helmets, stuck us on tubes, and the guy just said “Vamanos!” and pushed us off. We were all screaming—we were always one weird bump away from flipping over. It was ridiculous, hilarious, and awesome.
On the way back to Quito we stopped at a chocolate factory and learned that Ecuador is involved with 73 percent of all chocolate production around the globe. I had also never seen a cacao bean before—it was covered in this gelatinous white coating. But, we all tried the 100 percent cacao chocolate; I liked it.”