James Madison University

A Graduate Studying Abroad

By: Brett Seekford '17
Posted: November 10, 2015

Alex Saal (’15) recently befriended an Ecuadorian woman named Clemencia. Their bond grew until one day over lunch, Clemencia offered to be Saal’s “Ecuadorian mother” while she was away from home. Saal found this moment to be especially touching and they continue to meet regularly, fostering a caring relationship. Special friendships and memories such as this connection would not be possible without Saal’s involvement in Manna Project International. As she prepared to graduate from James Madison University with a degree in Health Sciences and a minor in Exceptional Education, she initially planned to attend graduate school, but a close friend encouraged her to look into working with Manna Project International. After careful consideration, Saal applied to be a program director in Ecuador and was accepted.

PHOTO: Saal and Clemencia

Manna Project International creates communities of young leaders that help break the cycle of poverty in underserved communities around the world. This non-profit organization, with locations in both Nicaragua and Ecuador, focuses on the issues of health, education and employment to improve the lives of people living there. Program directors serve a thirteen-month term and direct specific events and programs designed to meet the needs of community members.

Saal first traveled to Miami, Florida, for an orientation that provided insight into the experiences she could expect abroad. When she eventually arrived in Sangolqui, Ecuador, she and her fellow program directors stayed with a local family for the first week prior to moving into the Manna house. All of the program directors live together, allowing them to share their experiences and thoughts with each other.

Programs are run from the Centro, a location that acts as both a library and a site for events. Saal leads several events, such as a healthy living club for kids that includes short preventative health lectures along with a diabetes club that is a part of a local hospital. She also teaches an intermediate-level English class to adults; works shifts in the library; and works with a partner organization called Antorcha de Vida.

Saal’s work with Antorcha de Vida has been especially impactful. The organization works with adults and children that have special needs such as motor control impairment and Down syndrome, providing their clients with numerous resources to make their lives easier. They incorporate art and dance classes, theater performances and water therapy sessions. “Being an Exceptional Education minor I have had a lot of opportunities to work with individuals with special needs and am excited to continue my work with Antorcha de Vida,” she said.

Since moving to Ecuador, Saal has also quickly become immersed in the culture. Her job requires her to interact daily with non-English speaking people. She takes Spanish classes to improve her speaking and comprehension abilities. She faced other cultural obstacles as well, such as learning how to use public transportation and how to give directions in another language. “I wouldn’t say it was super easy to adjust, but I did enjoy the challenge. Small things, like having a successful conversation on the phone, become big victories,” she said.

PHOTO: Saal at equator

Saal believes she could not have been as successful in Ecuador if it were not for her time at JMU. “Without the experiences I had at JMU I wouldn’t have been nearly as prepared to volunteer abroad in Ecuador,” she said. While at JMU, Saal participated in the Nicaraguan Orphan Fund, eventually becoming president of the campus organization. A study abroad trip also encouraged her to continue helping people around the world: “In 2013, I went to South Africa with Dr. Deb Sutton and ten other JMU students to study International Health with a focus on HIV/AIDS. I loved every part of my experience, especially learning about a completely new culture and how people there live.”

After finishing her thirteen-month stay abroad, Saal plans to return to the United States and enroll in graduate school for Occupational Therapy. She will take her experiences in Ecuador with her, though. “Manna Project has taught me so much about the importance of teamwork and putting others first, and I can’t wait to see everything else it will teach me,” she said. 

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