In the summer of 2002 Douglas and Travis Merritt traveled to Guayaquil, Ecuador with a group of 12 people representing The Resource Foundation. Reverend Brooks Smith led the group on a 7-day service project to build homes for people of extreme poverty living in the suburbs of Guayaquil, Ecuador. The program was sponsored by the Resource Foundation and entitled “1000 Homes of Hope” as it was the goal to provide 1000 homes over several years of the project. Viviendas Hogar de Cristo, who makes the homes in a factory in Guayaquil, supervised and coordinated much of the work. One of the members of Hogar de Cristo was also a member of the local Rotary Club and Doug Merritt, being a Rotarian, began to establish a relationship between his Rotary Club in Branchburg, New Jersey, and the Rotary Club of Rio Guayas in Ecuador. A total of 12 homes were built that summer and money was raised for nearly 18 more.
During the following summer of 2003, a mixed group of Rotarians and Resource Foundation representatives traveled again to the suburbs of Guayaquil to continue their work. Since the program expanded to the Rotary Club for this year, all fundraising done for the project was done under the name “1000 Rotary Homes of Hope.” The group of 12 individuals built 9 homes and provided funds sufficient enough to build nearly 20 more. It was in that year that members of the Rotary Club of Rio Guayas, Gonzalo and Aleida Mejia, were seeking partners for a community service development project for a plot of land along the coast several hours from Guayaquil near the small Fishing village of San Pablo. Ironically, the Rotary representatives from New Jersey also had a desire to develop land and centralize their efforts since previous work was dispersed throughout existing communities.
Fate somehow brought Doug Merritt and Gonzalo and Aleida Mejia together and it was in the summer of 2003 that they began what would become a strong working relationship and deep personal friendship. Gonzalo and Aleida presented Doug and the Rotary Club of Branchburg with the possibility to develop a plot of land near San Pablo in order to centralize efforts and provide greater positive impact on the people they would eventually help. Since the project took on new meaning and goals changed to encompass an entire community, the name of the project was changed to “Rotary Homes of Hope” since it was no longer the goal of simply providing 1000 homes but, more importantly, an entire community.
The summer of 2002 and 2003 saw many individual successes and many homes were built for needy families. With the connection between the Rotary Clubs of Rio Guayas and Branchburg, New Jersey District 7510 now established, future work would now be focused on raising funds and supporting the development of the land donated by San Pablo. Since enough money had been raised by this point and Rotary District 7510 adopted the project in conjunction with the Rotary Club of Rio Guayas, a matching grant was secured and the project became an award winning effort recognized throughout the world by Rotary International. The decision to concentrate volunteer work away from Guayaquil was promoted by a theory that if you encourage economic growth away from Guayaquil, people in both the urban and rural communities would have a better chance at success.
In Guayaquil, the hilly landscape and overcrowding of the communities makes improvement and economic stimulation difficult. The economic crunch and population boom of Guayaquilis a result of many people fleeing their poorer rural communities seeking to find work in this large port city and economic capital of Ecuador. However, this migration has caused overcrowding of the suburbs with a lack of housing and jobs. Many people have to squat land and build shanty shacks out of whatever scraps they can find. Guayaquilwas ranked third in the world for “precarious habitation,” (too many people and not enough housing) after a 2000 census. After moving to Guayaquil, many people found themselves in greater strains, with little choice but to remain since the cost of moving back to their original communities would be too much and their hopes of a better life dashed. The goal of Branchburg Rotary and Rio Guayas was to assist the smaller communities outside of Guayaquilin order to stimulate economic opportunity and development. The improvement of these smaller communities would help keep people in their homes and prevent the overcrowding of larger cities where health and education are at a greater risk with higher numbers of people. The Resource Foundation and Viviendas del Hogar de Cristo continue to support the communities of Guayaquilby building houses and providing social work. The Rotary Clubs continue to do work in various capacities in Guayaquilbut the focus is now on San Pabloand development of communities outside of Guayaquil.
With approximately 89 acres of flat open land to develop, the Rotary Clubs would now be able to use a new type of home construction that Viviendas Hogar de Cristo designed and perfected between the summer of 2002 and 2003. Work in 2004 and beyond would use these new home designs with galvanized steel frames and concrete foundations. The costs were estimated to be the same as the post-and-beam construction but by 2004, with rising steel and manufacturing costs, the price rose to nearly $1500 for a 36 square meter house. With a strong relationship between Viviendas del Hogar de Cristo and the Rotary Clubs of Branchburg and Rio Guayas a deal was made to provide the steel frame houses at a reduced cost of $1000 per house for the development of this plot of land donated by the town of San Pablo.
A long-term strategic plan is in place to promote the development and economic success of the community, which is being built on the donated land, and to the town of San Pablo. The current community is named “Ciudadela Rotaria Rio Guayas.” It is a desire of all who support this community that it be integrated with the town of San Pabloand that San Pablobe incorporated into the long-term development goals in order to ensure lasting success to the entire population.
In the summer of 2004 a large group of volunteers representing the Rotary Clubs traveled to San Pabloto begin the development of the land by building a community center. The Rotary Club of Picher Creek, Canada, joined the Rotary Homes of Hope project during the initial phases of construction and provided vital support. The Rotary delegation from New Jersey helped build homes, fencing and a community center during the first year of construction. Electric lines were installed from the town of San Pablo to each house and a road was graded from the town, which is approximately 1.2 miles away.
In the spring of 2005 a group of students from Avon Old Farms School for Boys in Connecticut traveled to Ecuador to build a daycare facility for the community. Work was completed by a Rotary delegation in the summer of the same year. The Rotary delegation also brought dentists, doctors, and nurses to do medical screenings and oral exams at the Medical Clinic. Many people were helped and one child’s life was saved. This was a great year for the community and many families began to make improvements on their homes by converting bamboo walls to cinder block and landscaping. Some families even started small gardens.
Between the summer of 2005 and spring of 2006 all houses were fitted with proper latrines. This was a big accomplishment towards the health and sanitation goals of the community. In the spring of 2006 a second group of students from AvonOldFarmsSchoolvisited the community. The group worked on landscaping, painting, building fences and even clearing some land for a soccer field.
Almost 2 years ago, Homes of Hope volunteers began collecting various items that would be of value to the families of San Pablo. In partnership with Pedals for Progress, items such as bicycles, clothing, computers, sewing machines, toys, and school supplies were donated. In September 2006, a container ship bearing these items left a New Jerseyport, bound for Ecuador. About 6 weeks later, these items finally reached San Pablo and were distributed.
Work continued in the summer of 2006 with the Rotary delegation completing the conversion of all the houses from bamboo to cinder block walls. They ran the medical clinic as well. Additionally, 2006 saw the successful launch of the Sponsor Me program in which all children in the community received school tuition, school supplies, shoes, uniforms, a healthy breakfast and several medical and dental check-ups. A major milestone was met this year with a grant being approved for the installation of water lines to transport potable water for the entire community. Water was previously unavailable in the community and trucks would have to delivery it to be stored in large cans. The health risks will be reduced with the new system, which is currently in the planning process.