“In Ecuador, we have one and a half million children living in poverty right now,” says Janet Cruz, national office director. “The worst part of poverty is located in the rural areas, affecting mostly children. Sometimes the parents don’t have the resources to take care of them, don’t have the consciousness that these children need another opportunity — a different kind of life than their parents have had.”
ChildFund’s early childhood development (ECD) efforts are based on the premise that children have the best chance of having a better life than their parents when two things are true: In their first five years, all their basic development needs are met for care, nutrition, health care, stimulation and safety; and when their parents have the primary role in ensuring all those pieces are in place. In Ecuador, ChildFund’s ECD package of services is known as the Family Formation program.
“Many parents, if they were poor when they were children, they were receiving violence,” says Cruz. “They were neglected when they were growing up. That’s a pattern that they repeat with their children, and then their children will repeat it with their sons and daughters.”
Lucia, a young mother of two daughters, says she experienced some physical abuse as she was growing up and knew she didn’t want to do that to her own children. But abuse takes different forms.
“I got pregnant when I was 14 years old, and my baby died,” Lucia remembers. “I think it was I was too young to be a mother. When my baby died, the whole world crumbled around me. All my dreams were crushed. I didn't have any interest in anything. Even my husband started to verbally abuse me because I lost the baby.”
Lucia soon became pregnant again, and this baby, a girl she named Mayerly, lived. “I didn’t pay attention to her,” she says. “I think it was from all the emotional damage I had suffered from my husband.” Lucia would keep Mayerly in a little tub nearby while she worked with cows or planted in the fields. “I remember, when she started to cry or needed some diaper changing or feeding, I got so stressed about it — I thought it was too much trouble.”
It wasn’t until after Lucia’s second daughter was born five years later that her outlook began to change. ChildFund had begun implementing the Family Formation program in her community, training mothers from the community about early childhood development.
“It was a complete change in my life,” Lucia says. “They taught us about how to treat the children, what we should tell them all the time, how to hug them, to greet them when they came back from school.” Lucia shared what she was learning about child development with her husband. They applied it, and the family dynamic shifted. “My daughters now are very loving. Both are always hugging and kissing me, and both are always telling me, ‘Dear Mommy, we love you.’”
They taught us about how to treat the children, what we should tell them all the time, how to hug them, to greet them when they came back from school.— Lucia, mother of Mayerly and Vanessa
Johanna, a friend of Lucia’s who has been working as a trainer mother for the last year, sees similar stories unfolding throughout the community, and she relishes her role. “You learn, you teach, and you put what you learn into practice,” she says.
Johanna provides her services to the community both in weekly workshops and on home visits. Through the Family Formation program, she educates parents in three areas of childhood development: nutrition, basic health care and “giving children love.”
Love is the most important as it helps with children’s emotional development, and is the most complex of the three. “Play with children, kiss them, hug them,” Johanna says, as if it’s that simple. And it is — but it’s also a deliberate, targeted love: ChildFund helps parents enhance their interactions with their children by providing them knowledge of children’s developmental needs.
On her home visits, Johanna uses a special scale ChildFund created to track a child’s growth and development. As a trainer mother, she opens her bag of toys and books and takes children through a selection of age-appropriate tasks to assess whether they are performing the skills they should be: Is this 3-month-old reacting to sounds? Is this 18-month-old walking unaided? Can this 3-year-old name a few commonly used objects? Can this 4-year-old dress and undress herself without help?
In tasks where children have deficits, Johanna shows their parents how to work and play with them in between sessions to stimulate the needed skills. When there seems to be a delay, Johanna guides parents to the locally available child development resources for professional help.
“A child can start talking when he’s 1 year old,” says Johanna. “If a child is not stimulated early on, he won’t start talking when he’s supposed to. Everything will be slower, and he will take a much longer time to develop his motor skills and his emotional skills. If children haven’t been stimulated early on, they will bring all the problems they have at home to the school. They won’t pay attention. They can be very shy or hyperactive. You can really see the difference.”
“We accompany parents to develop these new skills, this new way of seeing their children,” says Cruz. “These children deserve a life different from their parents'. And their parents can give it to them.”