Roberto chuckles as he rests his arm on a wooden fence post, an amused expression on his face. Two helmet-and-harness-clad middle school boys swing back and forth precariously in front of him, suspended on a tightrope between two tall pine trees. “Vamos chicos!” he cheers as the boys regain their balance and cautiously advance further along the high ropes course.
“This is a great place,” Roberto says, tipping back his baseball cap as he looks around. This is his third time visiting Hacienda El Refugio, an outdoor retreat center just north of Quito, Ecuador, and today he is chaperoning a group of 30 kids from the city. All come from the same neighborhood, Roberto explains, but half are from a church youth group while the other half are at-risk kids. “Being here gives these kids a chance to interact and be out in nature, which they don’t often get living in the city. But mainly, it gives them a chance to hear the gospel in a totally different way.”
Roberto nods his head toward a group of middle school boys navigating a series of swinging platforms a few hundred feet away. “See that boy there?” he says, pointing out a youth wearing a bright red t-shirt. “He’s run away from home eight times and been expelled from three different schools. But this is his second or third time here and each time he’s really risen to the top as a leader. You put kids in this kind of challenging and fun environment and you see things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”
As the boy finally reaches the last platform, Roberto adds, “And you know what? Since coming to El Refugio, that kid has started getting involved in the youth group too.”
Stories like Roberto’s are the reason that International Teams’ Hacienda El Refugio ministry exists. In 2012 alone, nearly 2,500 individuals visited the 320-acre outdoor retreat center nestled in the rolling green mountains above Quito. For all who come, whether church missions teams, corporate retreats, or local Ecuadorian school groups, the center seeks to be both a place of true sanctuary and true adventure.
Paul Reichert is the current Director of El Refugio and for him, the strategy is clear. “Everyone comes to El Refugio at a different place in life and we try to meet them right where they are,” Paul explains. “Some people who come really need risk, but sometimes what others need is a refuge. Our goal is to determine which and try and facilitate the right kind of environment.”
While the programs and activities at El Refugio vary based on the needs of each group, the basic goal remains the same. “We want to see authentic life change,” Paul says. “To be a resource for schools, businesses, and the Church here in Quito and abroad.”
Neither tranquility nor adventure is in short supply at El Refugio. For those seeking the former, the serenely sloping property is dotted with multiple secluded benches and quiet vistas, not to mention an enormous Swiss-Family-Robinson-style tree house deep in the woods where individuals and groups are welcome to spend time in reflection. And for adventure seekers, the sprawling property is home to a 40 foot climbing wall, a high ropes course, a zip-line, and numerous hiking trails.
Leaning back in his office chair, Paul gazes out the window at the sloping green property outside, wisps of cloud rushing over the tops of the hills above. “There’s just something about this place that makes people immediately drop their guard,” Paul adds. “I want this to be a place where people feel safe and free to ask tough questions.”
Hacienda El Refugio is one of several different ministry avenues in Quito that International Teams operates under the banner of Youth World. Whether it be through an outdoor retreat center, a skate park, or a home for Quito’s street boys, Youth World aims to train and disciple the next generation of youth leaders in Ecuador. For Paul Reichert, that vision for leadership development has become an increasingly important part of the vision at El Refugio.
“I’ve realized over the years that developing leaders is really one of the central purposes of this place,” he says. “Both for our staff and local volunteers as well as for the groups that come.”
Outside Paul’s office, the kids from Roberto’s group have finished with the high ropes and gathered on the lower lawn for a series of team building activities. Laughter and amused shouts fill the air as the youths work together to untwist human knots and guide their groups through an obstacle course without touching the ground. After the games, they gather together on the lawn to talk about what they learned.
“So how was it?” asks an Ecuadorian staff member named Esteban. “Was working together harder than you thought?” Standing in front of the group, the 22 year old wears a black Hacienda El Refugio shirt with the Spanish word “Facilitador” on the back.
Esteban, along with nearly 50 other local Ecuadorians, is part of a leadership development program El Refugio launched several years ago to invest in the community and pour into the next generation. The program starts with local volunteers, called facilitators, who work under full time staff to gain valuable experience leading groups through the activities. Since 2005 the program has seen over 120 volunteers. In 2012 El Refugio launched additional programs called Alturas and Fronteras, intensive internship programs for promising facilitators focusing on spiritual development, discipleship, and more extensive training in outdoor ministry.
For Esteban, the experience at El Refugio has made all the difference in the world. “With all the facilitators, it’s like one big family,” he says. That reality is significant for Esteban who, like many young adults in Ecuador, grew up without knowing his father who left for Europe when Esteban and his three brothers were still young. “When I came here to El Refugio I found friends,” he says with a thoughtful expression. “Real friends, Christian friends. El Refugio gave me an objective. Since the first time I went into the mountains, I loved it and all these activities. Now I know I want to study to be a tour guide.”
After three years of working as a facilitator and moving through the Alturas and Fronteras programs, Esteban is now an official employee at El Refugio with the chance to disciple and mentor other younger facilitators down the line. “I look at myself now and I don’t believe this is my life,” he says with a wide grin. “Three years ago I never would have believed I would be here.”
The difference of depth
As the day winds to a close, Roberto’s group heads toward the busses, the sun melting into the mix of clouds and mountain peaks along the horizon. The group was only at El Refugio for the day, but Roberto knows they will be back. “What these kids experience here makes a difference,” he says.
Those at El Refugio hope that the same is true of every group. In the months and years to come, the staff plan to continue expanding and developing the programs they offer, with special new emphasis on reaching out to the immediate surrounding community, a rural town called Calacali.
“We have a lot of ideas for growth and breadth, but any new ideas we have are always checked by our commitment to depth,” Paul says with a firm nod. “We know that transformation is what God does. Here at El Refugio we are simply asking how we can be a part of that.”
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Please pray for El Refugio, that the Lord would use this beautiful center for His glory in Quito and beyond. Pray for Paul Reichert and the staff that they would have vision for the future and access to the resources they need. And pray the many individuals, groups, and churches would find both risk and refuge here.