I had the best mom in the world, but I also benefitted from "other" mothers: a former boyfriend's mom who encouraged me and has been a lifelong friend, an elderly woman whose stories of courage and adventure make me dream bigger and take more chances outside my own comfort zone, a friend who's always willing to listen to my worries and cares and offer prayers along with sage advice.
Several months ago, a reader told me the story of Mary Eckert, a woman I've never met who has become the "other" mother to villagers in the highest mountains of Ecuador. David Putnam Jr., that reader, refers to her as "Mary Poppins" for the magical things that happen in her wake.
A former Montessori teacher, Mary Eckert was almost 70 when she decided that the young indigenous children in the Andes Mountain villages of Ecuador deserved more than a sixth-grade education, which is where government-provided schooling stopped in the remote villages. They are a population slighted in terms of services, education and general caring. They have been, to some degree, a forgotten people. But this June, the first batch of kids will graduate from the middle and high school she started after she organized a foundation called Children of the Andes Humanitarian.
You don't have to be their mother to dream big for children. And Eckert's dream was huge.
Initially, the foundation focused on helping kids from those villages receive treatment for congenital medical conditions before shifting to building a school. It sits on 75 acres 9,000 feet above the sea and 23 kilometers from Otavalo.
They got a boost in funding efforts in 2006 when one of the children, a teenage boy named Franklin who needed open heart surgery for pulmonary hypertension, died unexpectedly. The money that had been raised to help him was donated instead to the school.
The impact of the education spreads well beyond the 69 kids who are attending the school, because they're excited by what they are learning. They go home each day and talk about those things with their families and neighbors. In America, kids don't talk much about sanitation and they take our clean water for granted. The Ecuadorian students are learning about those things, along with a more standard curriculum.
Ten teachers guide their education. The students themselves come from multiple scattered remote villages. I'm not kidding about the "remote" part, either. According to the foundation, some of those children spend three or four hours a day climbing in cold and fog and dark to scale the mountains to reach the school. The foundation points to two brothers, Richard and Efren Staco, who climb several mountains in the middle of the night, cross a little river and then hitch a ride the rest of the way in gravel trucks. The trip home is less arduous, but only because it's downhill.
Education is so important to the lives and futures of these underprivileged children that there are efforts to expand the school to take in preschool-age kids, as well. It's a daunting task to raise the funds and meet all those needs.
As I get older, I find myself drawn to women who have become "other" mothers to young people. I admire the coaches and car-poolers, the safe havens and listeners, the watchers and carers.
Nobody replaces a good mother, but the best mothers welcome the other women (and men) who fill the gaps in a child's life: the teacher who takes time to explain a concept that was not understood, the coach who emphasizes sportsmanship and character, the neighbor who's willing to help out in a pinch.
May we all reach deep to find a piece of what drives women like Mary Eckert.