When wildlife conservation major Matt Lacey visited Ecuador in summer 2016 with a study abroad course, he was struck by the beauty of the place: the lush cloud forests, brightly colored birds, and strange nocturnal mammals. But even more, he was struck by the people.

While there, Lacey met Danny Gualinga, who served as the student group’s birding guide. Gualinga is a member of the Kichwa, a tribe with limited contact with the outside world; the nearest town is three hours upriver by motorized canoe. Unlike many young Kichwa, Gualinga decided to stay in his village to help expand the community’s capabilities without diminishing its cultural heritage.

Ecuador study abroad
Danny Gualinga (front row, in blue shirt), who served as a birding guide for the Ecuador study abroad group, founded the nonprofit Llikchary Institute to improve education, employment, and cultural opportunities in his community.

Gualinga founded the nonprofit Llikchary Institute to raise money to improve schools, increase instruction in technical trades, and facilitate an appreciation for the tribe’s rich history and culture. “I want to give the young people in the village the opportunity to acquire skills, which enable them to build their future and that of the village,” he wrote.

He is also passionate about hosting international visitors because it gives them “the opportunity to engage with us in a meaningful way by using their skills to get involved in the construction of our and their own future.”

Lacey was struck by Gualinga’s commitment to his community. “His passion for the Kichwa is so strong and their needs are so great that I knew I had to do something to help.”

Among the many animal species the group encountered in Ecuador, hoatzins are prehistoric birds — chicks are born with claws on their wings.

That fall, Lacey entered the college’s Leadership Institute, a two-semester professional development course. He pitched the idea of raising money for the Llikchary Institute for his team’s capstone project and was thrilled when his peers agreed.

The student team set a goal of $5,000 to help two Kichwa students attend the university in Quito, pay for a boat license needed to take the students to the school, and fund a stipend for international volunteers to serve in the community. Under the name “Hokies for the Amazon Kichwa,” the team created Facebook and GoFundMe pages. In addition to online fundraising, the team hosted restaurant fundraiser nights in Blacksburg and gave educational presentations across campus.

When Lacey first proposed the project, fellow team member Henry Cohen was skeptical. The mission of helping an entire group of people thousands of miles away with only a few months to prepare and limited resources and contacts seemed daunting. And it was a struggle for the team’s six students to find time to meet each week. However, by the conclusion of the project, Cohen said it was incredible to look back and see how far they had come.

The team raised more than $2,000 for the Llikchary Institute by the end of the spring 2017 semester. The GoFundMe page remains active, having reached a total of $3,225 by press time.

Danny Gualinga (right) and a community member gave the study abroad group a tour of one of their classroom buildings.

“Working so closely with five other people over the course of two semesters taught me so much about leadership in a way that a typical classroom course could not,” Cohen said. “This was not the type of group project where we could meet once or twice, make a Google doc, and finish it up the night before it was due. We had to call each other out when we weren’t carrying our weight. I used to pride myself with being a pretty independent person, but I saw how important it was to let go of my pride and work alongside others for a common goal.”

Team member Tristan Jilson added, “While working on the project, we faced challenges, such as public outreach and realistic goal setting. I learned that getting your message across to just a handful of people and ensuring they understand the issues can make a bigger difference than trying to spread your message to as many people as possible. Our speaker nights were important because we got the chance to sit people down, talk about the issues, and answer questions.”

Leadership Institute Director Brian Bond said he was proud of this cohort’s dedication to their projects and the skills they acquired. “Matt had to sell his idea to get five students interested,” Bond said. “He used his leadership skills to communicate his vision of what the project was, and then the team had to figure out how they were going to achieve the goal. They had to use their tools of leadership to come together. It’s wonderful to see how the students grow throughout these experiences.”