Marilyn Varn is a charming and vivacious woman who looks as if she is used to luxury. She loves her job as a Sales Representative for Mobilex and has a great life in Chicago filled with business and leisure travel. She has also been going to Ecuador on annual trips with Zully (the founder of Causes for Change), since 1996 when they made their first trip.
Marilyn and Zully found that they had something in common, a fairly rough childhood dealing with physical disability and painful memories of ignorance and humiliation. Marilyn was born with club feet, was in and out of hospital for months at a time, and suffered physically until she was about 15 years old. She missed school and had to have a private tutor. She didn’t completely release the psychological pain until much later. She wanted to turn her experiences into something positive and started looking for an opportunity to help kids with disabilities. Then she met Zully.
The two women decided to go to Zully’s tiny home town in Ecuador called Kilometer 26 (too small for a real town name) and see what they could do. They took with them a video that Zully had made about domestic violence. Marilyn smiled fondly as she recalled acting in skits portraying a woman who is beaten by her drunk husband. They called a meeting for women only which made all the men curious about what could be so important that they weren’t invited. The word she used to describe the challenges there was ‘overwhelming’. Almost everywhere they turned there was some issue that could benefit from their help. On that trip and subsequent trips they addressed domestic abuse, dental issues, medical issues, even things as simple as boiling the water before you drink it. Seemingly insignificant issues, like picking up trash, are trivial by themselves but add up to big changes in the quality of life. They also found that they were able to motivate the local people, especially the women, to examine how they could improve their environment by themselves.
Marilyn has returned almost every year since then with a short break after 9/11. She has many stories to tell. On one trip they ran out of soap. She ran out to a nearby stall in the town to buy some more. When you speak very little Spanish, like Marilyn, you may be tempted to say the English word ‘soap’ and simply add an ‘a’ for Spanish. So that’s what she did. They looked puzzled at the request but agreed to get her some. Some twenty minutes later, after Marilyn was wondering what was taking so long, they presented her with a delicious bowl of soup. On a trip into the jungle she decided to wait for the group to return from climbing some steep rocks rather than join them. She waited alone as night fell wondering about snakes, owls and bats hoping that they didn’t forget about her entirely. Luckily, her friend Kate came back to rescue her from the snakes.
The harsh conditions that they endure for a few weeks and is more than rewarded by the people they visit. Marilyn says that they are treated like rock stars everywhere they go and, of course, there is wonderful satisfaction from being able to make a difference. ‘After my first trip’ Marilyn said ’I was very happy to be back and actually kissed the ground when I arrived in Chicago!’ She had been very sick with diarrhea while she was there but still returned the following year. ‘I love the people who have so little but are so happy!’
‘This year, I am going with my friend Grace, an 11 year old. I hope that she will be able to see a third world country with different eyes when she comes back’. Marilyn also lights up when she talks about her dreams for the Exploration Institute. ‘If I won the lottery’, she says with a sparkle in her eye, ‘the dream of a school for kids with disabilities would become a reality’. Right now children with disabilities in Ecuador don’t go to school, their parents are embarrassed and there are no wheelchairs for them.
Causes for Change thanks Marilyn for all her many years of cheerful dedication, enthusiasm and fun-loving sense of adventure. We wish her and Grace all the best on their trip this July.