SBCC student helps form nonprofit
Ili Levine, a second-year student at Santa Barbara City College, saw an article in The New York Times in early April that showed COVID-19’s impact on Ecuador.
“God it was, it was horrible,” she said, recalling photos of bodies lying in the streets.
She participated in a six-week exchange program in Ecuador in summer 2019 and was devastated when she saw the country struggling under the weight of the pandemic.
Ms. Levine wanted to help.
She contacted the family who hosted her during her stay in Ecuador. They were about to kill their cow — their source of income — in order to eat.
“That was a turning point for me. They fed me and housed me completely uncompensated for six weeks,” she told the News-Press. “They were going to starve to death or lose their livelihood. That’s just not something that I was going to be OK with.”
Meanwhile, the three other students who were in the exchange program with Ms. Levine were thinking the same thing. They all wanted to help and wrestled with ideas individually before discussing it as a group.
Two students, Kristen Chaplin of UC San Diego and Maryland high school student Tadhg Martinez, made a GoFundMe page to raise money but didn’t know how to distribute the food abroad. They contacted Ms. Levine and another participant, recent Colorado high school graduate Drew Kendall, to come up with a plan.
The four of them founded Ayudantes Internacional, a program partnered with the nonprofit Casas de Luz. They have raised more than $5,000 to provide life-saving food for families in Ecuador and Venezuela.
The Ayudantes founders rely on a man named Walter Castillo, whom they became friends with in Ecuador in 2019. Ms. Chaplin approached him about the group’s fundraising, and he agreed to distribute the food.
They were worried about asking him, though. He had lost his job, and his family was struggling.
But the idea empowered him, and Mr. Castillo, who lives in Ecuador, even got his parents in Venezuela involved.
Ayudantes deposits money into Mr. Castillo’s bank account, and he purchases and delivers food on his bicycle to around 20 families per week. His parents reach 45 to 50 families each week.
“I can’t overstate the corruptness of the government. And especially in Venezuela, like, no one who needs it would ever see that money if we didn’t go through direct deposit,” Ms. Levine said.
Mr. Castillo and his parents pinpoint the neediest families through word of mouth. The food is usually rice and eggs, though they’ve even provided baby formula for a single father and his child.
He sends photos of his deliveries periodically.
“It was really rewarding in the beginning to see all the pictures of all the happy families. But as it goes on, they get skinnier, and you can see how many more people could benefit,” Ms. Levine said.
They’d like to expand their reach and provide medicine as well as groceries.
“We want to make it more than just food, but food right now is something that they need,” she said. “Once we have the means or once things straighten back up, we don’t intend to just walk away from it.”
They started an Instagram page a month ago to raise awareness and have been receiving donations by spreading the word.
To learn more, visit their Instagram: @ayudantedinternacional or go to casasdeluz.org/ayudantes-internacional. Donations can be made through the GoFundMe page or Venmo, @ayudantes.