Meet Your Guide to Volunteering While You Travel in Ecuador
Having joined the Global Volunteers team in 2011, Maggie Bjorklund is our Ecuador and Costa Rica Country Manager. She manages all aspects of those two programs and leads all teams in those countries. Maggie lives in Quito, Ecuador and travels to Costa Rica each time we have a service program there. When she is not leading teams, she produces online strategies to engage new volunteers. When on a service program in Ecuador, Maggie will be your guide on everything – culture, volunteering, development, and travel in Ecuador.
Maggie earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Global Studies and Spanish from the University of Minnesota, for which she studied in both Costa Rica and Ecuador, and graduated summa cum laude. She participated in a grassroots development program for an academic year in Ecuador as part of her studies. Maggie was born and raised in Minnesota, but has lived in Ecuador since 2003. She is a citizen of Ecuador. Beloved by our community partners and volunteers, Maggie is deeply dedicated to the development process.
“Maggie is an extraordinary person who has a deep devotion to the country and her work. Her excellent Spanish and cultural knowledge helped us immensely in doing our work and understanding the culture. She is an American, which gives her the ability to view things through our eyes.”
– Glenn Chelliah, retired pharmaceutical marketer
Through an academic year studying grassroots development in Ecuador with the University of Minnesota, Maggie was put into direct contact with the economic and social realities of actual communities and people working at a local level to address complex problems. Through classes and a six-month internship and research placement in a rural area on the northern coast of Ecuador, Maggie deepened her studies both through experience and critical analysis. In these studies and through her subsequent thirteen years living and working in Ecuador, Maggie has cultivated her awareness and appreciation for development issues through engagement with diverse communities.
Fluent in Spanish and having studied culture extensively, Maggie is bicultural. Although at first glance she does not look the part, Maggie is, without a doubt, a citizen of Latin America. In addition to the two programs she runs, Maggie has led teams to Cuba and Peru, and served in St. Lucia. She comments, laughing, that when leading a team in Cuba, despite being blonde and having a very Scandinavian last name, the elderly residents at the senior center where Global Volunteers works would ask for ‘la ecuatoriana’ (“the Ecuadorian”) on the days when she was at other project sites. She laughs and says, “I guess I must be pretty Ecuadorian if Cubans, looking at my blonde face, call me Ecuadorian and not ‘americana’!”
“Maggie is warm, approachable, organized, informed, and responsible. She understands and respects Ecuadorian culture while meeting the needs of team members and the full team. Her communication ability between the team and the local people was a real comfort, as well as her empathy and respect for these ‘two worlds’.”
– Shereen Beydoun, elementary school principal
A Short Interview with Maggie
What compels you to work for Global Volunteers?
“I am profoundly committed to Global Volunteers’ Philosophy of Service, and strongly believe in each of its principles. Local people must be in charge, there is just no doubting that. I could never work for an organization that didn’t have local people’s – Ecuadorians’ – empowerment at the basis of their work. Only local people can fully understand their own cultural, social, and economic issues. While outsiders can be very well-intentioned in giving advice or trying to direct projects, it’s counterproductive for a community. And it’s inappropriate. And Global Volunteers’ work around the globe is based on that premise. How can an outsider even presume to know what a community might need or how best to achieve it? This can be hard. I know that in practice, it wasn’t always easy for me when I first came to this country. But in the name of supporting the dignity of local people and the development process of a community, this is something that must be respected.”
What is one of your favorite parts of your job?
“The little munchkins in Calderón! Oh, they are just so sweet! They’re so eager for attention and are willing to give it back to you. The teachers at the center do a wonderful job caring for the little ones, but they are stretched thin. Sometimes I get envious of volunteers because I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with the children as they do, with all my responsibilities as team leader. Sometimes I’m in the office at the center and I say to myself, okay, I need to go hold some babies or play with some kiddos for a little while. My job can be quite hectic at times – being in charge of all the details. I make sure to dedicate at least a few moments each day to remember the bigger picture and what it’s all about. Looking into those tender faces does that instantaneously for me.”
“I also love doing project planning with our community partners. Talking about what their priorities are, what their goals are, and how we can help them accomplish that for their community – all of that is important and exciting and I love being a part of it.”
Why should volunteers spend a week or two in your community?
“Ecuador is a fascinating country. It is one of the most ethnically-diverse countries in the Americas, and is also home to four large geographic regions: the Galápagos Islands, the Pacific Coast, the Andes, and the Amazon. I’ve been here for fourteen years and I cannot imagine ever becoming bored here. I’m sure I’ll always be fascinated by culture and travel in Ecuador because there is just so much to do and see and learn.
“The children, families, and teachers we work with in Calderón are so happy to have volunteers at their daycare center, and they are so grateful for the help. People are extremely open to sharing about their lives and their struggles and their hopes and dreams – even if they just met you. So, if you really want to immerse yourself in a culture and learn about it, our service program in Ecuador is a wonderful place to do it. I take volunteers to visit the home of a family from the daycare center so they can see more of the reality of these families, who fight so hard to cover their basic needs. Volunteers in Ecuador know, without a doubt, that their service in important in the lives of these children and families.”
When people think of travel in Ecuador, they may not be thinking of volunteer vacations, but a guide like Maggie is one of the best reasons to do this. She and the sweet children who are eager for your tender, loving care.
Why do you recommend a Global Volunteers service program in Ecuador?
“The best part of travel in Ecuador this way is all-inclusive food, lodging, ground transportation, an on-site team leader, and in-country orientation to help you understand the culture and service projects – everything except for airfare and free-time activities. And I always give volunteers ideas and tips for planning to see the best of Ecuador. Everything is included and so volunteers can focus on volunteering. I think the best thing people can do is combine their travel in Ecuador with unique projects to support communities in need.”
“I think the best thing people can do is combine their travel in Ecuador with unique projects to support communities in need.”
What Volunteers Have Said About Their Ecuador Team Leader
“Our team leader was an absolute delight. And boy, does she know Ecuador. She is an essential part of bridging the American and Ecuadorian people. Maggie has great spirit, a wonderful sense of humor and is loved by those in Ecuador with whom she works. Global Volunteers has a real treasure.” – Mary Kozleski, interpreter and translator
“Maggie is a terrific leader. She is exceedingly competent, well organized, and has a passion for the people and culture of Ecuador that pervades everything she does. She is sensitive to the challenges of volunteers and works hard to ensure that all concerns are addressed and that the program is successful from a personal end as well as a project perspective.” – Mark Leibowitz, human services administrator
“Maggie is engaging and eager to share her love of Ecuador and Ecuadorian culture. She is clearly loved and respected by the staff at the day care centers and the women of FUNDAC. That strong relationship made our service trip that much easier. She handled situations with ease before they became issues.” – Joyce Gavino, financial consultant
Maggie Off The Clock
In her free time, Maggie is an avid salsa dancer and dog lover. She has been dancing salsa rather intensely for several years. A four-legged Ecuadorian named Gijo is proud to call her “Mama”. Maggie loves to read, play piano, and travel in Ecuador and abroad. Despite the distance, she talks regularly with her family in Minnesota and gets back to St. Paul usually once a year. She’s proud to still boast a Minnesotan accent in English even after having been absent from the Midwest since 2003.