An Interview with Nancy Shattuck, Ecuador Country Director

Meet Nancy Shattuck, MPI's New Ecuador Country Director
An Interview with Meghan Brennan

Lori and I recently returned from a training trip to Ecuador, where we met Nancy Shattuck, MPI Ecuador’s new Country Director, in person for the first time. Nancy comes to Manna with a background in victim advocacy, community education and volunteer organization. In addition to her impressive resume, we are discovering a plethora of hidden talents! During our visit, MPI’s Program Directors were baking a cake with girls at the local shelter for teen mothers. All was going well until someone tried to turn on the oven. The batter was ready, but the oven had no gas! The baking project seemed doomed to fail.

Enter Nancy. No oven? No problem! She put her Peace Corps skills to work, impressing everyone with the "field oven" she had up and running in no time using pots on the stovetop. Instead of disaster and a wasted cake, the project was a success and everyone was soon enjoying warm cake and fresh fruit - I took careful notes in case my oven ever breaks. 

field oven

Above: Nancy's field oven and resulting cake

Left: Enjoying cake at the shelter for teen mothers


Later that afternoon, Nancy sat down with me at the MPI community center and library to talk about her time with the Peace Corps, the goals and strengths of Manna Project, and what you absolutely must pack for a trip to Ecuador.

Meghan: Welcome Nancy! You first came into Ecuador via…

The Peace Corps, via Washington State.

What made you interested in the Peace Corps?
After graduating from college, I wanted to go to veterinary school but wanted to take a couple years and gain experience. The Peace Corps was always in the back of my head. I applied in my junior year, and they accepted me.

Did you originally choose to work in Ecuador? 
I asked to be placed in a Spanish speaking country, specifically Latin America; the Peace Corps matched my skills with a need in Ecuador and offered the position in February of 1999. I had six weeks to prepare for a two year commitment! It was a good timeline.

So you arrived in Ecuador for training, fresh off the plane, backpack in hand.
There were fifty or sixty of us! At that time, the Peace Corps had five or six programs. I was in the group with animal production, agriculture, and natural resources. The other group had youth and family development and health.

So after your training, you were pretty far out.
I was placed in Santo Domingo de los Colorados, which is about three hours from Quito. However, my home was actually about two hours from Santo Domingo into the jungle. At the time, they had just finished a bridge to be able to get into the town, but the roads were not paved. But we did have electricity and water. That was very exciting!

Sounds hard to keep in touch!
Yes, only three people in town had cell phones. Now it’s very common, as you’ve seen, everyone has a cell phone, but at the time it was rare. It was also less safe than it is now, but I always felt safe in my town. I never felt like a target. I was here for Y2K, and the Peace Corps told all the volunteers to take out at least $50 in case the banks crashed…that was the only time I had a problem. On New Year’s Eve some kids stole my $50! Good thing the computers didn’t crash.

Oh man! Your Y2K sounds more exciting than mine. What is one experience you had in the Peace Corps that you feel like really shaped you?
I ran a children’s English camp in my home. At the time, the Peace Corps was very much against us being English teachers. They didn’t want us to teach English; it wasn’t the skill we were there to bring. I had background in the artificial insemination of dairy cattle, so that’s what I was supposed to be doing! But people wanted to learn English, and it was an easy way to make connections. I started the camp with the kids I wasn’t specifically working with in school so I wasn’t “teaching English” on Peace Corps time. I’d have between twenty and thirty kids in my tiny wooden house singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” They loved to sing that song - fast, slow, every possible way. So much fun. We made paper mache, globes, art was always fun to work with the kids. I always really enjoyed it.

What do you find interesting about Ecuador?
Ecuador is the size of Colorado, but it has four very distinct ecological regions, and those regions have sub pockets of different environments. You can get from the beach to the mountains to the Amazon jungle, all in a day! There are also the Galapagos Islands, but you’d need an extra day to get there, too. 

When you mention the Galapagos, it reminds me of the intersection of Ecuador and the development of science, biology and geology, and how we understand human history. Darwin’s theory of evolution was influenced by his time in the Galapagos. Being here is a great opportunity to continue learning!

“All you need is Ecuador!” It’s the country’s slogan.

I find the rebar very interesting - almost every structure has rebar sticking from the top!
They definitely do not have the rules and laws we do in the States about construction. You will see some creative architecture here sometimes. The rebar sticking out the top is very common! If your house is “under construction,” you get a tax break. That’s what the rebar is all about.

Another thing that’s very surprising to me is: Nancy, it’s hot. I live in Florida so I know hot. But people are wearing sweaters and jackets, and jackets with sweaters underneath. Help me understand!
We’re on the Equator! We’re closer to the sun, and this is a high elevation. We’re at about 7,500 feet. So people burn easily here, and they don’t use sunblock unless they’re at the beach. So, in order to not get burned, people (including me right now) wear long sleeves and a hat. 

So is it inappropriate to wear shorts in public here?
I do see more people wearing flip-flops and tank tops these days. Shorts? I never wear shorts because I already stand out, being a blonde, white-skinned person. I personally would not wear shorts in public. The Ecuadorians do not, and I want to blend in.

What brought you back to Ecuador?
I married an Ecuadorian, and now we have two kids. We always talked about moving back when our son turned ten. Well, he’s thirteen and we just asked ourselves: “Are we going to do this?” My Latina friends in the States regret not living in their home island or country because their kids never understood what it meant to be Puerto Rican or Mexican. We visited with the kids, but a vacation is very different than when you actually live here and go to school and figure out life here. So we moved for our kids. I love it here. I just like the style of life. It’s a little bit slower, less of the “go go go” mentality.

And what is it that first drew you to MPI?
We moved back to Ecuador in 2014. I came here with a job, working remotely with my employer in Washington. But I like to be busy. I like being involved. When I saw the Manna position, I knew it would be a great fit. I like the working with people and being a part of the community. Not just training other people to go out and do the work, but actually being part of the work myself. Thats what drew me in.
What are some of the unique advantages that MPI Ecuador offers the community?
It is a huge benefit to have a community center they can come to. Families pay $5 to belong, which is totally doable for families here. It is important for it to not be free, so there is buy-in from the community and they have ownership of the space. 

Did you know it’s very uncommon for libraries in Ecuador to lend books? In Ecuadorian libraries, you go, look at the book, and then you leave it there. You’re not allowed to take it home. MPI’s library is a really cool thing we’re offering and I’d love to see it expand. There are so many options - perhaps a book bus that takes books into the community...there are so many things we could do with literacy in Sangolqui. 

I don’t want to make a generalized statement, but it is very rare to see Ecuadorian kids picking up a book and reading it outside of school - I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to, I just think it’s because they just don’t have access to books. Books are expensive, and the majority are imported. Reading is not a priority for families because they don’t realize the benefit. I’d really like to talk about literacy with the community - literacy and what happens when people are literate. Not just limited to education, but also to self-esteem and awareness. There are so many good things that come from being literate, so I’m really, really excited about the library.

When I was in the Peace Corps and they were so against us teaching English, it was very strange because that is what people were requesting. I’m so happy to see now that English is being offered by volunteer organizations because English is important for business and being able to travel. It opens up the world to people.

Do you see a high demand here for English instruction?
Yes, definitely. English is our most attended, most successful program. It’s what draws people in. The majority aren’t coming because of the library or our cooking class; they’re coming because they want to do English class. Then they get involved in our other programs. 

I sometimes get the question, “Why do you teach English? Isn’t that kind of imperialistic?” From the perspective of community, what would you say to people asking that question?
If you look at Europe, for instance, so many people are tri-lingual. I’m in no way saying English is better than Spanish; it’s just the language that is used in business. Maybe eventually we can have Chinese classes, but right now this is the language that is used the most. The people who come to class really want to be here. People want English classes, for sure.

What do you think - for our volunteers - is the biggest take away from their time with Manna?
The intercultural exchange, and really learning about the Ecuadorian culture and understanding the importance of family, of time. I’ve talked to people in the States who have no concept of how people live in Latin America. It’s totally normal to have three generations living in one house. It’s not like in the U.S., how kids leave the house at 17 or 18 and they are ready to go take on the world. That doesn’t happen here. Kids stay at home until they graduate from college or they get married. I was 21 when I was here in the Peace Corps, and it influenced how I am as a parent and an adult, how I try to form relationships with people. I think that that’s the Ecuadorian cultural influence on me. I think the volunteers take a lot from being so young and being able to be part of this culture of connection.

Peace Corps volunteers receive a stipend and people ask us, “Why would I pay to go and have this experience?” What would you say to someone who is considering the Program Director position and finds finances an obstacle? 
When I joined the Peace Corps, I had three months of training with my group, but then I was totally on my own. I had support from the main office, but it wasn’t like it is with Manna. From what I’ve seen, Manna is one of the least expensive programs someone can do, and for above average experiences. That’s the benefit of Manna: you get so much more than what you’re actually paying for. Aside from just a healthy, safe place to live, we have stable, reliable programs you can be involved in and constant support and career development. Even though I was paid to be in the Peace Corps, I definitely had to use my own money for extra little things. But I look at it as - you could do an unpaid internship in the States, but you will not get the experience that you get here of cultural immersion, hands-on experience. You will not have the same autonomy and independence and opportunities to do so many different things as you do here. When you look at the cost versus value and relationships, Manna wins!

What was your impression stepping into the Director position mid-year?
I’m excited. I’m glad about the timing, because the Program Directors that are here now are teaching me so much about what we are doing now and what we can do better. What did they like, what didn’t they like? Because I am a new face and they leave in the next six weeks, they have been completely honest about the year and feel there’s no pressure about what they can say. I’m excited because these conversations are going to help the next group in what we’re able to do together. 

What are some of your goals for the coming year?
I would love to see the [community center and library] grow with more participation, more community events, and developing personal relationships with families and doing things directly with them. As mentioned before, I’d like to see us do more related to the library and literacy because this ties into the intersection of community need and our programmatic strengths. 

I’d really like to help incoming Program Directors get creative and find out what we could do where there is more of an exchange with the community. The community teaches us, as well. How can we make that happen? One of my goals is to create a committee of local Ecuadorians who are involved in the Centro and partner programs, to get their feedback about what they want to see grow. 

What do you see as the biggest need in this community?
Education. Education has improved in Ecuador, definitely, from 15 years ago when I first lived here. But I still think there is only room for improvement when it comes to education and youth development. Kids need more options so they’re not just going home and doing nothing, or doing graffiti and getting into trouble. There are extra curricular activities, but they are cost prohibitive. I’d like to partner with programs already offered in the community. For instance, there are few opportunities for girl to do physical activities. We are looking into developing a soccer league for girls with some empowerment type program. I have many ideas, like developing our Preventative Health Center. Manna has a two-tiered approach that pairs community development with the professional development of our volunteers. Many of our Program Directors want to enter the health field, so I’d like us to grow in health programming and partnerships. I don’t know if it will be here at the Centro or if we will further develop our relationships with the local hospital, health center and diabetes club. We will see what interests our incoming people and what they want to pursue.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge or surprise for new Program Directors arriving to Ecuador?
Since I lived here before for three years and now I live here again, this is my “normal.” But if I had to guess, I’d probably say it’s the non-committal attitude in Ecuadorian culture. Ecuadorians will say, “If God wants it.” They’re very fate-driven, so they won’t just say yes. They are very easygoing about everything. Knowing Americans in general, we’re not like that. “I will be there on Saturday at 9:00 am, and it will last for 1 hour. We’re very respective of people’s time. It isn’t that Ecuadorians are disrespectful, it’s just a different way of life. Ecuadorians recognize it: “We’re never on time...we’re on Ecuadorian time.” It’s called “The hour of the Ecuadorian.” Even now, probably for me the hardest thing. So I think it will be a challenge for the new volunteers! They are idealistic, ready to do things and plan and be here. But sometimes, nobody’s going to show up. That just happens sometimes. It’s not a reflection on them, it’s just the way it is. You just keep building relationships and you see what happens.

So it’s “Do we wait for them to come to us or do we go to them?”?
We go to them. My experience is that Ecuadorians are not coming to Manna Centro because it’s the Manna Centro: they’re coming because Amelia was their English teacher at ESPE, and she said you could come here and get books. Personal relationships are what get people involved. In the U.S. we just do cold calling, it’s normal. Whereas here, they want to know somebody first. 

What would you say to people getting ready to come?
I would say, please come with an open mind - I’m excited about your energy. It’s important to have expectations, but be prepared that your expectations will change. That’s not failure or bad, it’s OK because you don’t know necessarily what you’re walking into here, what the reality will be like. I’m very excited to be with the new group and start with them, and see what we can do together in the next year!

It will be awesome!

If you had to complete Ecuador’s slogan and say “All you need is Ecuador…plus _________,” how would you fill in the blank?
“All you need is Ecuador ...and coconut ice cream.” 


Ecuador has great ice cream. If you’re a Program Director on your way, you don’t need to pack your own!
Maybe a jar of peanut butter. 

OK. It’s decided. All you need is Ecuador, coconut ice cream...and a jar of peanut butter. Thank you Nancy!
You’re welcome!