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UAlbany Alum's Goal to Put Learning Within Reach for Impoverished Community in Ecuador

UAlbany Alum Elizabeth Gray working with children in the Wishi Community in Ecuador

UAlbany alum Elizabeth Gray, '08, teaches a class for children of the Wishi Community in the rain forest of Ecuador.

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ALBANY, N.Y. (December 21, 2010) -- University at Albany alum Elizabeth Gray has launched the Wishi Project, a fundraising effort to establish a primary school for children in an impoverished community in the rain forest of Ecuador. Gray's goal is to provide students with the opportunity to receive a formal education while helping to preserve the indigenous Shuar language and culture of the Wishi community.

When Gray first visited the isolated village in January 2010, she was asked to teach a class for the children. The students sat on logs under a scrap of aluminum roofing, there were no school supplies, and many of the children struggled with letters and numbers.

Wishi project founder and UAlbany alum Elizabeth Gray

Wishi Project founder and UAlbany alum Elizabeth Gray

Gray was originally visiting the area for a one-day reforestation project. She ended up staying for a week, and then returned less than two months later with basic school supplies to continue teaching. She learned that the community has been working to establish a school for some time, but repeated requests for funding and assistance had been denied.

"The community is committed to providing their children with a basic education to allow for their meaningful participation in the modern world, while also preserving their traditional language, culture and lifestyle," said Gray, who received her bachelor's degree in Philosophy from UAlbany in 2008.

The Wishi Community is Shuar, an indigenous group that lives primarily in south-eastern Ecuador in the Morona-Santiago province. There are only about 40,000 Shuar left in the country, and the preservation of their language, territory, and culture is consistently challenged by industrial interests, the pressure of modern society, and marginalization by governments.

With members of the Wishi community actively engaged in the project, the ultimate aim is to make the school completely self-sustaining. The total cost of the project is estimated at $20,000. With $11,000 raised so far, the goal seems within reach.

When the time came to start fundraising efforts, Gray, who is originally from Ithaca, decided to return to the Capital Region area. Her experience at UAlbany played a major role in the decision.

"UAlbany's diversity - in both its programs and its people - was constantly stimulating for me," said Gray, an Honors College student. "When I left Albany I didn't expect to come back. But, I knew I had built a community here that was invigorating. I feel like I reach out to people here and say 'This is what I'm trying to make happen,' and the community will come back with the answers."

Gray and other volunteers will travel back to the community just after Christmas to begin building. The community has already found a professionally certified teacher from a nearby city who is fluent in both Shuar and Spanish. She has begun teaching out of one of their huts to keep the children on track until the school is built.

During her time at UAlbany, Gray received several awards, among them the Ada Craig Walker Award, given to undergraduate women typifying the ideals of the University, and the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence.

To learn more about other opportunities where you can make a World of Difference, visit UAlbany's Community Connections.

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