LEMONT – After spending more than three weeks in Ecuador this summer, Lemont native and Illinois State University student Molly Finnelly, 21, has a different view on how the United States treats its elderly citizens.
Finnelly volunteered at a senior citizens center in the capital city of Quito, where she said the elderly are often forgotten about in the South American country.
“Going to Ecuador gives me a fresh outlook on how other countries work with the elderly population. They don’t have the same resources as we do here,” the 2013 Lemont High School graduate said. “They don’t have a social security program, and I feel like in the U.S. the elderly are more of a priority. There, the elderly are often left to fend for themselves because families are poorer.”
Finnelly is a social work major at ISU and hopes to work with the elderly. She traveled to Ecuador through Spirit Cultural Exchange, which is an Oak Park-based organization that sponsors international volunteer opportunities for college students. Finnelly lived with a host family and took Spanish classes at a local university, where she met other college students from around the world who also were volunteering through Quito.
“Living with a family is a great way to become immersed in the culture,” she said. “They cooked all my meals and made me feel very welcome. The people are very friendly and very interested in America and what’s happening here.”
Finnelly spent every weekday volunteering at Fundacion A.B.C. senior center, which she described as a “day program.” Seniors would come to eat breakfast and lunch, play games and socialize.
While she wasn’t able to get to know the clients very well, Finnelly said she did feel like she made a difference in their lives.
“I played Jenga every day with the same elderly man and I was sad to leave him,” she said. “I saw how much they just wanted to talk and share their stories. I could tell how hungry they were, which was hard to see. I saw how much they needed that center, and I was glad they could come there and play games and eat. But they were all very friendly and wanted to get to know me.”
Finnelly left for Ecuador on May 15 and remained there until mid-June. Her trip unfortunately was interrupted when her grandmother passed away. Finnelly flew home for four days before returning to Quito.
She said she heard about the program through a friend of her mother. Finnelly went through the interview process in April and said she was “over the moon” when she received the email stating she was accepted into the program, which paid for all of her living expenses and Spanish lessons.
April Bakke, international business development consultant at Spirit Cultural Exchange, described the program as competitive. She said Finnelly was selected from a group of several finalists because of her passion for volunteer work and how she hoped to incorporate her experiences in Ecuador into her future career.
“[Finnelly] embodies the new generation of college students who are focused on how they fit into the world,” Bakke said. “It’s important for the younger generation to see how the U.S. fits into the rest of the world and see how everything is now globally inter-connected.”
Finnelly will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work in May, and she hopes to attend graduate school next fall to earn her master’s degree in social work. She said her experience in Ecuador confirmed her interest in working with the elderly.
“I want to work for positive social change,” Finnelly said. “I think, especially in Illinois, the lack of funding is frustrating for social-service agencies because they’re not getting what they need for services. Working with the elderly made me realize that it’s important to hear their stories, and I think that every person is important and deserves a happy, healthy life.”