Tag Archives: charity

Guest Post: Ecuador!

One of my delightful fans, Alyssa, leads a very interesting life.  She left the comfort and familiarity of her home and country, and moved to a far-flung coastal village in Ecuador to help people less fortunate than herself…and she’s had many adventures along the way.  I originally began interacting with Alyssa when she commented on my blog posts about the ethics of eating meat and the subsequent follow up, and her comment sparked a completely separate post where I featured an essay she wrote about watching a chicken being killed in Ecuador for dinner. So Alyssa’s history with my blog goes back quite a ways.

I am fortunate to know many incredible people who do amazing, selfless work all over the world.

These are my dear friends Lucian and Adrienne.  They, too, lived in Ecuador for a while, helping mountain villages develop clean water supplies.  Adrienne and I both went to ACU, and she and Lucian are irreplaceable fixtures at my fall dinner party, and in my camp at Burning Man each year.  They come back to the US for these events, stay awhile to make some money, then get a ticket to another place halfway around the world to go back and start helping people again.  This year they return from Thailand and Cambodia to be a part of Burning Man, and I can’t wait to hear all about their advertures!

This is my dear friend Debbie.  She’s like a second mom to me.  Debbie decided, after her son Justin (one of my dearest friends in the world) graduated from college, that it was time to break out of her suburban existence as a teacher at an affluent high school.  She went to an international teaching organization and send, “Send me where you need me.”  They asked her what country she’d like to live in, and she said, “Send me where you need me.”  And she promptly found herself in Egypt.  And, for awhile, she was dead certain she had made a terrible, terrible mistake.  But a decade later, after working with amazing kids and helping jumpstart a charity that encourages underprivileged women and single mothers to become entrepreneurs in a male-centric culture, when she comes back to the US to visit each summer, she tells me she can’t wait to get back abroad.  “People in the US don’t understand what they have.  And they talk so loud all the time, but they talk about nothing.”  During the Egyptian revolution, Debbie was moved to Shanghai to begin teaching there, and you can see her here taking a big jump for joy on the Great Wall of China.  Debbie is one of those people who transformed everything about her life at a time when many folks start planning in earnest for retirement.  And the single most common comment on her Facebook photos is, “I wanna be like you when I grow up.”

This is my buddy Jon.  When Jon told me he was moving to China to teach, but had never been farther from home than Arkansas, I was excited and nervous for him.  Upon landing in Wuhan (a city of 4.5 million…small by Chinese standards), Jon was ushered to a local restaurant by his hosts.  As he stepped across the threshold, something slimy jumped out of a bucket by the door and started squirming on his feet.  It was an eel, and the restaurant owner began jabbering excitedly about this good omen.  Jon’s hosts translated and informed him that the eel had chosen him, and it would be taken back to the kitchen and cooked for him.  Jon had a rough time adapting to culture and cuisine in China.  And that was, what, 15 years ago, Jon?  After a decade in China, Jon moved to Korea to teach there, and he’s about to return to the US for a year to further his education.  He’s in for some brutal culture shock, but I’ll be there to help.

As a travel writer, I have many, many dear friends all over the world, and most of them are doing incredible, selfless work for others.  But this blog post today is about Alyssa, who’s going to share some amazing things with you about her experiences in Ecuador, including a delicious recipe for ice cream that doesn’t require an ice cream maker!  Enjoy this glimpse into the world of someone who left everything she new and was comfortable with, to make other people’s lives better.  Thanks, Alyssa!

…  Alyssa’s Guest Blog about her experiences in Ecuador …

I suppose I should start with why I’m here.  I found Ben’s blog, as I imagine many of you did, during his stint on MasterChef.  And I have followed it the two years since because it is witty and warm and chock full of rustic recipes.  I also stayed because I see eye-to-eye with Ben on a lot of matters: namely, that we should all strive to live a full, rich, wide-open life with integrity and that food is a wonderful way to connect with people.  So I reached out to him, thinking that this might be a wonderful opportunity to reach a community who might be interested in my own adventures with food – and water.

You see, I help run a non-profit called Water Ecuador, which works in rural coastal Ecuador to build and maintain clean water centers.  Getting to our headquarters in a town called Muisne, can feel as though you are going to the end of the earth.  After a day on a plane to Quito, you board a bus that makes its way down through the breezy windy mountain roads, through dense cloud forests and pastoral fields, and finally to the coastal city of Esmeraldas, a 7-hour journey.  Then you switch to another smaller bus, for another 2 hours bumping your way through tiny villages along Ecuador’s ragged coastline.  And finally – a quick boat ride to the other side of the river, and you have arrived.

Water Ecuador started its work in Muisnein 2007, when Alex, our founder, was volunteering at the regional hospital on the island, realized that too many kids were severely ill with diarrhea due to dirty water, and decided to do something about it.  Since then, we have built 6 water centers in the area. Here is how we work: we fundraise in the US to build water centers that purify available water sources, like river water, with high-quality water purification technology,and then we sell the water for a third to a half of the market price ($.25-$.75 per 20-liter jug, instead of the usual $1.50 charged in stores,with even more discounted options available for those who cannot afford even that).  Basically, we sell the water at cost– just enough to pay the local water center manager and cover the cost of system maintenance so that the centers are sustainable.  We also run several educational initiatives to teach people about how important clean water is.

All in all, we supply more than 2000 people every day with clean, inexpensive water – which means fewer sick kids and more money for families to spend on other essentials.

Before I came to Muisne, I had never lived without running water, in a home with a cement floor lacking glass in the windows to keep pests out at night.  But despite my love of American conveniences, I soon realized that I, like everyone else in the town, am just fine without.  And what Muisne lacks in first world technology, it more than makes up for in amazing, inspirational people and vibrant culture.  The community has been so willing to welcome me, a gringa, into their homes and lives, to share their stories and to share what they have.

One of my favorite ways to get to know people has been to cook with them (using Water Ecuador water, of course).  Everyone has to eat.  The people in Muisne eat simple food, but it is wonderful.  Nearly everything on the table was killed, picked, or foraged down the road.  And the food is just wonderful – pan de yucca (a bread made with tapioca starch and fresh cheese), and pescado encocado (fish in a coconut sauce), and just about every variation of plantain or banana cooked every possible way.  Some of the recipes are complicated or rely on regional ingredients, but one of my favorites this year was a simple helado (ice cream) that we made for a birthday celebration.  Heriberto, the organization’s Ecuadorian President, and his wife Egnis, insisted that we make it – and it was just delicious, easy, and didn’t require an ice cream machine.  Little Felipe, age 20 months, enjoyed it quite a bit.

Helado de Heriberto

Making it again at home (left)…and if you doubt it was good, just look at Felipe’s face (right)!

2 c heavy whipping cream (if you don’t like it too creamy, I’m told you can substitute about a half cup of whipping cream for milk, but I haven’t tried it this way so beware)
seeds from 1 vanilla bean (or substitute 2 tsp of your favorite extract – vanilla, almond)
3/4 c sweetened condensed milk

optional add-ins:

3 tbsp cocoa powder and 1 c chocolate chips
¼ c strained fruit puree
1/3 c peanut butter

Whip the cream and vanilla (in a mixer, blender – which is what we used in Ecuador, or by hand), until medium peaks form – the more you whip, the airier and more mousse-like the end product.
Add in sweetened condensed milk and whip until combined.
Add in any add-ins.
Freeze for 4 hours or until firm…if you can wait that long.

We had a great time celebrating that night – there were people from the US, Ecuador, Australia, Ireland, and Germany, but really, none of the cultural or language differences mattered.  Whenever I look back at the pictures, I always remember Mother Theresa’s statement: “The problem with the world is that we draw the circles of our family too small.”  The world water crisis is full of big, scary, impersonal, and overwhelming numbers – like that 3.4 million people die each year from water and sanitation-related diseases or that 32 million people in Latin America lack access to purified water.  But when we approach these challenges with empathy and compassion, when those people are not faceless, faraway strangers, everything changes.

Even when I am back home in the US, when I think of the water crisis, I think about little Felipe, and how I would do anything to keep him healthy, of the people who laughed with me in the kitchen as we fried plantains and grilled fish, of all of the mothers and fathers who have told me of their stories and the struggles they face everyday in keeping their kids clean and healthy, of the teenagers who shared their hopes to go to a university or start a business.  And then the hard work seems worth it, and every small step matters.

If you read this post and want to learn more about Water Ecuador, we would absolutely love your support in any way – whether you like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, join our email list (we promise we never share your info!),make a financial contribution, or want to volunteer some time.  Feel free to email me at abilinski@waterecuador.org if you have any questions or want to learn more.  And even if you have no interest in water, consider finding another way you can draw the circle of your family a little bit larger.  You may just like what you find.

The Elizabeth Experience

For the next four days, I am supporting a local Lewisville charity project called The Elizabeth Experience.  Jody and Natasha Trompler, who live right here in my city, lost their daughter Elizabeth at only 24 days old to a fatal disease called Trisomy 13.  During these incredibly tense 24 days, an nonprofit organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep offered support for their grief in many ways, one of which was to dedicate a photographer to capture tender moments between them and baby Elizabeth so they would forever be able to celebrate her life and memory.

After Elizabeth’s passing, the Tromplers were so moved by the services of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and the priceless photographs they had that reminded them of the quiet, special moments they shared with her (rather than the surgeries and tests and chaos of the hospital), that they have decided to throw an event each year in Elizabeth’s name, which includes a charity auction, garage sale, and an online donation campaign.

I have contributed a little “Ben Starr package” which includes one of my cookbooks, which I will personally sign to you or whoever you want it signed to, a photo of me signing the cookbook and a special note for the winner, and probably some other fun Ben Starr stuff, too.  You can bid on the item at this link, but be sure to read the Auction Rules first so you know how to properly bid.  There’s lots of other great stuff in the auction, so check it all out!

The Elizabeth Experience has been covered by the newspaper in my home town, also, so check out this article in the Abilene Reporter News about everyone from my hometown who has stepped up to the plate to support this wonderful service that helps turn grieving moments into priceless, peaceful lifetime memories.

Hawaii, part 1

A week ago, I went to Hawaii with Jennifer, Adrien, and Tracy from MasterChef at the invitation of Cristy Kessler.  Cristy is an amazing and inspiration woman…her whole life she’s been plagued with serious, normally-fatal illnesses.  A mere 6 months ago she was in Turkey for a controversial stem-cell transplant in a last-ditch effort to save her life…now she has normal liver and kidney function for the first time in her life.  And even though she still has a weakened immune system and tires very easily, she’s out in her community giving back to those less fortunate.  She and her partner Liz watched MasterChef during her recovery period and developed a connection with the 4 of us, so they decided to invite us 4 to Oahu to help serve some very special meals to some charities that they support through the Parish of St. Clement, where Liz is the pastor.

I met up with Adrien and Tracy in Los Angeles.  (Jennifer flew a different route from the east coast…11 hours to Hawaii!)  Luckily all 3 of us were able to sit in a row together and indulge in some truly spectacular airline cuisine.  Upon learning that Tracy was a former flight attendant, the crew kept bringing by complimentary drinks and food.  Yes…I actually ate an airplane hamburger.  It probably wasn’t made of meat…but it wasn’t terrible, and it didn’t kill me.  The 6 hour flight from LA flew by as we caught up on each others’ current activities.  Even though Facebook is designed to keep people linked together, we all have SO many fans on our Facebook pages that we easily lose track of each other, so it was really good to reconnect.  I hadn’t seen Tracy and Adrien since they stayed at my house this past summer.

This was to be everyone’s first trip to Hawaii except for mine.  (If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you know about my obsession with Hawaii and my dream to move there to open a sustainable guest farm.)  We landed, picked up the minivan, and headed across the spectacular Ko’olau mountain range toward the eastern side of the North Shore.  A generous parishioner at St. Clement had offered us their oceanfront home in Laie for our stay.

We met up with Jennifer and Cristy at the house, which was exquisite…perched right on Bathtub Beach where a breakwater built by the ancient Hawaiians forms a glassy tidepool even when the North Shore’s famous winter surf is raging.  It was getting late so we immediately undertook the task of preparing dinner.  The great thing about the 4 of us (and many of our other dear MasterChef friends) is that we have such synergy in the kitchen together.  We each went about our own tasks, crossing over to help others when they needed it, and quickly pulled together a stellar dinner.  Adrien made the appetizer, which we termed “guacapoke” or “pokemole.”  In Hawaii, one of the most popular foods is poke (pronounced “po-kay” and rampantly mispronounced “po-kee” by haoles “how-lees” which are basically white people.)  It’s Hawaii’s version of ceviche…raw fish (often ahi tuna) marinated in lime and sesame, and tossed with onion, crunchy seaweed, and chilis.  It’s SO addictive.  Adrien’s version incorporated avocado and cilantro, giving birth to a fusion of guacamole and poke…and let me tell you…it was TO DIE FOR!  (Over the following 2 weeks I would easily eat my own weight in ahi, it’s so cheap down there, $5-$6 a pound for high grade, and $12 a pound for sashimi grade.)  Tracy cooked some NY strip steak along with some mushrooms that made me weak in the knees, and Jennifer put together a mouth-watering coconut rice with garlic and ginger.  I provided dessert in the form of a chocolate pie.  Was it a cohesive, well-conceptualized menu?  Absolutely NOT, Joe Bastianich.  Was it an unforgettable meal, eaten on the deck overlooking the dusky coastline of the North Shore?  YES!

The next morning, it was time to work!  We’d been given a budget of $500 to prepare TWO meals…the first, a family-style sit-down dinner for 50 people from Family Promise (which supports homeless families) and Family Services (which supports foster families).  The second, a buffet style come-and-go meal for up to 50 homeless teenagers at YO! House.  That’s basically a budget of $5 per person, and the intent was to serve an unforgettable gourmet meal.  (And grocery prices in Hawaii are 30% to 50% HIGHER than on the mainland.)  NOT an easy task!  (Though I’ll spoil the fun and tell you that we came in $100 UNDER BUDGET!)

On the way to the grocery store, however, Jennifer spotted a humpback whale breaching offshore, so we had to stop and take a peek.  (It was whale migration season in Hawaii, and we saw dozens of them during our stay.)  The beach where we stopped offered a double feature…a basking Hawaiian green sea turtle was snoozing on the beach.  He was being closely watched by a volunteer, who told us that “Brutus” is 45 years old and this is his favorite beach for a morning nap.

We grocery-shopped at Costco and Whole Foods and then hit the commercial kitchen at the Parish to start prepping for dinner.  Our guests arrived at 6pm and the family-style dinner was served!  Our goal was gourmet and healthy, but recognizable.  These people weren’t accustomed to fine dining.  So we took island favorites (which often tend to be less-than-healthy) and put our own gourmet yet healthy twist on them.  Tracy prepared the appetizer, a macaroni salad.  Mac Salad is probably consumed more than any other substance in Hawaii, and at most restaurants and in the home, this just means macaroni tossed with mayonnaise.  (GROSS!)  Tracy diced up lots of beautiful colorful veggies and did a dressing that was more like a creamy vinaigrette, and one diner actually used the term “Exquisite!” to describe it.  There was NONE left.  Adrien provided the main course, dark meat chicken with veggies in a pineapple curry sauce.  It, too, was devoured, and one very young diner (who is an aspiring chef herself) said that she normally HATES chicken and refuses to eat it, but she ate FIVE HELPINGS of Adrien’s chicken!  Jennifer served up her legendary coconut ginger rice, and the Hawaiians, who are accustomed to plain short grain sticky white rice, devoured it as well.  (It helped that there were bits of crispy Spam, another island favorite, inside!)  ZERO leftovers.  As one of our goals was to cram as many vegetables into the meal as possible, my desert was a reiteration of my pumpkin carrot cake, done as cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and candied macadamia nuts.  Needless to say, they were popular.

The families truly enjoyed the dinner, and we loved playing with the kids afterward.  One family handed us a hand-made card that said, “We’ve never had a meal like this before.”  We all teared up reading it.  To be honest, we were all in our usual happy cooking mode, doing what we loved, and we’d have done it just for the sake of the cooking itself.  But seeing how important it was to the people who dined…it was incredibly moving.  We take so much for granted in our lives, and these families live on the streets and have no idea when their next meal will come, or they foster many children including their own and have precious little extra money to enjoy dining out.

The local news came out to interview us about the event, and we were excited to drum up exposure for the charities…we hope that more people will become aware of them and contribute support.  I also had the pleasure of meeting an articulate young woman named Lehua, who had been through the programs as a child and is now about to graduate from college and supports herself with a good job.  That’s when you see the REAL fruition of the efforts of these charities.

The next day we were up extra-early to prepare the meal for YO! House.  In Hawaii, it’s illegal to be homeless if you’re under the age of 18.  (It has to do with their truancy laws.)  If an officer finds a young homeless person on the streets before 3pm, they’ll be arrested and taken to a juvenile detention program to ensure they are in school.  (I later learned from a friend on the Big Island who volunteers with youth that these facilities, called Hale Kipa, are breeding grounds for violence and gangs.  However, YO! House is a program of Hale Kipa, and it’s a great one.)  So YO! House operates in stealth mode.  We had been instructed NOT to Facebook or Tweet ANY details about the event, for fear that the police might show up to arrest all the kids who were coming by to eat.

We were all STUNNED by the setup at YO! House.  They offer so many services to homeless youth: lockers to keep their valuables in (making them less of an object for assault and theft on the streets), a proper bathroom for showering, a decked-out clothing selection, a computer room which offers classes and GED training, and a medical clinic with on-site doctors and nurses.  They provide a hot meal each day after 3pm and try to send the kids off with food for other street friends and future meals.  YO! House operates their meal system on a $0 budget.  All their food gets donated…which can be challenging when the staff suddenly finds themselves with 50 boxes of cream of wheat, 10 cans of Vienna sausages, and 25 cans of cream of mushroom soup, and have to combine them in such a way that will be yummy and healthy for the kids.  It’s the ultimate nightmare Mystery Box!  (For the record, Tracy combined the aforementioned ingredients into a sort of “polenta” dish that was actually ridiculously tasty.)  We deep fried 2 turkeys for the kids, and served a fresh green salad (which they devoured, to our surprise), a fruit salad (no dressing, and it was also devoured), plus Jennifer’s sneaky mac’n’cheese which incorporated pureed cauliflower and butternut squash in the cheese sauce, so the kids had no idea it was there.  More of my cupcakes for dessert.

The afternoon at YO! House was really, really challenging for me.  Being homeless is horrible enough, but for a CHILD to be homeless…  What has our society come to when a child is forced onto the street with no family and no support???  That afternoon a “new” client showed up at the House, a 13yo boy who had never been to YO! House before, but he had heard about it on the streets.  He’d been assaulted by some gang members, apparently, and had a huge ugly scrape on his leg.  He dropped in looking for some medicine for his leg, and was begging everyone for a job.  He said he was willing to work at ANY job that would pay.  …A 13 year old child…

Another young man really connected with Tracy.  He was probably 16, and was currently in transition to a foster home.  He was strikingly intelligent and told us about how much he loved school and was trying hard to stay in and maintain good grades and a good attendance record.  That afternoon he was supposed to attend a registration meeting for the upcoming semester at school, but he’d been instructed to come with an adult.  His foster situation wasn’t stable yet and there wasn’t any adult who could accompany him…he was worried he might not be allowed to register unless there was an adult with him.  Through her tears Tracy was screaming about the injustice of a child who WANTED to be in school and learn, but that there wasn’t a single adult in his life that could make time to go with him to his school meeting.  She wanted to go with him herself, but the policies of YO! House are carefully designed to protect both kids and volunteers, and that wasn’t permitted.

It was an incredibly difficult afternoon.  I used to volunteer with homeless LGBT youth in Dallas when I was in my early 20s, and at that time I didn’t have the perspective I do now, as an adult.  Back then, they seemed just like me, showing up each week, dealing with the same problems I was dealing with.  Now when I see these children trying to be their own parents, their own support…having nobody…facing violence and temptation on the streets with no guidance or love…it was just wretched.  However, I recognized a BRILLIANT way to help support YO! House in the future…once my farm on the Big Island gets up and running we could easily have a dormitory to house kids who are willing to both work and stay in school…they can work a few hours a week on the farm, get back in school, and have a paying job and a roof over their heads, and a “family” to surround them with love and support.  I can’t WAIT to make this a reality.

After this very emotional afternoon, Cristy and Liz whisked us off to a dinner at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville in Waikiki.  Don’t laugh…the restaurant occupies the space where the incomparable Don Ho performed his legendary show for decades, and Cristy was a very close, intimate friend of Mr. Ho in his later years.  So she is well loved at the restaurant.  In fact, Don Ho’s wife was there at the restaurant to meet us!  It was a great honor to meet Ms. Ho.  Her husband is more than an icon.  I felt so tiny and unimportant in her presence.

And then it was time for another humbling experience.  The chef came out from the kitchen to meet us, and he was on cloud nine.  “Ben Starr, oh my goodness, I can’t believe you’re in my restaurant, this is CRAZY, I just can’t believe you’re actually here, I’d have you on my line in an instant, you’re such a team player, you’re so creative, you’re so nice, you’re so amazing, I just can’t believe you’re actually here and I’m talking to you, this is unbelievable…”  He went on and on like that for awhile.

When we finally got him calmed down, he explained that he was so happy that we came to dinner that day, because the next day he was headed to the mainland for cancer treatment.  This guy couldn’t have been any older than me, and he had a wife and kids.  We took some pictures together and I signed a photograph of me that HE HAD BROUGHT with him…

And then I sat down and cried.  Why ON EARTH would someone like that be so excited just to meet me?!?!  This guy is a REAL chef.  (And a VERY talented one, the meal was fabulous.)  This guy has WAY more talent and credentials than I ever will.  He supports a family.  He has cancer.  The idea that he would be so excited to meet measly little me just didn’t compute in my brain.  It felt very wrong to me.  If anything, the roles should be REVERSED.  Cristy, who has rapidly become a soul mate of mine, was bawling right along with me and trying to explain that the chef experienced the same kind of connection to us watching MasterChef that she did, and that there was power in that.  This was a very gritty, real moment of revelation to me…  TRUE celebrities (and I’m wildly far from that, thankfully) have influence.  REAL influence.  People feel intimately connected to them, though they’ve never met.  That power and influence leaves celebrities with a HUGE burden of responsibility on their shoulders, especially when that fan/celebrity relationship manifests in a young person.  A celebrity must realize that their actions and words have an impact on many people.  That’s not something to treat flippantly.  You can’t just live your life on your own terms when you have that kind of responsibility on your shoulders.

We got home that night utterly exhausted, emotionally and physically.  Thankfully, before us were 2 days of absolutely NOTHING and we’d be free to explore the island and delve into the Hawaiian culture and lifestyle…  Check out this video about our trip!