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The expat who abandoned military technology to build an orphanage in Manabí

Published on March 09, 2021

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Ayampe’s natural landscapes – strewn with rolling hills, healthy forests, and screaming birds – bear a certain resemblance to those settings that Jenica Brigham has as happy memories of her childhood in Hawaii, where she lived from the age of 3 until she was 20 years old. Because of this, when she discovered southern Manabi province a decade ago, she built a strong emotional attachment to it.

“When I arrived in Ecuador I felt at home,” explained Jenica. At the time she was traveling in South America looking for the place where she would develop the greatest project of her life: to build an orphanage that provides the best living conditions for abandoned children, or those whose families cannot give them a decent life due to tragic circumstances and conditions of poverty.

She has had this dream since she was 13 years old, when she participated in a volunteer trip to provide assistance in a foster home for children in Mexico. “I knew in my heart that this was my path … I decided to follow it before I was 40 years old,” said Jenica.

A friend with a common goal joins the effort

Jenica Brigham has always been an extraordinary woman. She was schooled at home by her father, who, in addition to teaching her conventional subjects, such as mathematics and science, trained her in skills such as carpentry and manual arts.

Her adult life took her back to California, where she was born, to undertake a complex career in engineering that eventually made her the manager of a company that developed, for example, technology for space satellites and military aircraft (e.g., drones on surveillance missions in the Middle East).

She worked in the field for thirteen years but resumed her childhood dream when she finally decided to travel South America, buy land in Ayampe and, in 2017, give up everything she had in Los Angeles and settle permanently in Manabí. She was 39 years old. Just in time.

The plan sounded simple: First she would build a boutique hotel that would help her generate profits that would help her build and maintain the orphanage. The Villas Los Olivos hotel—the name he took from the area where she lived in Hawaii—began operating in April 2018, with three double rooms and three family rooms.

Helping her in running the hotel is Magnolia Gaerlan, a Filipina who Jenica met in Los Angeles as a member of the Evangelical Christian Church that they both frequented.

The Villas Los Olivos hotel has a swimming pool, three rooms for couples and three for families.

“Jenica and I really became friends in 2014 when we participated for two weeks in a volunteer service to expand an orphanage in Nicaragua,” says Magnolia. It was then that Jenica told her about her plan to operate an orphanage in Ecuador.

“I told her that I too wanted to work in an orphanage. And a few years later, when Jenica told me that she had already decided to move to Ecuador, I said ‘Are you serious? Everything is ready?’ And I made the same decision.”

And with that, Magnolia also moved to Ecuador in July 2017. “This is the place where I want to be and where God wants me to be.”

Magnolia had a background in hotel finance and management, skills that would come in handy in her new life. “Being here is according to God’s times … When God gives you a mission, he also gives you the tools to fulfill it,” says this kind 53-year-old woman, who is in charge of the guests’ care.

A new business helps locals grow

The Los Olivos hotel has been running well, with great reviews from tourists, but the original plan took an unexpected turn when funds began to run low, and they urgently needed another source of income to finish the orphanage.

The solution was very creative: the construction of the boutique hotel had allowed Jenica to form a team of workers that, as a way to generate more resources, she would permanently employ to start a company dedicated to meeting the demand for construction of vacation homes in foreigners and Ecuadorians.

She formed Anchundia Brigham Construcciones, and teamed up with Jairón Anchundia, a 33-year-old teacher who had the skills needed to help develop the company.

Jairón Anchundia (left) is Jenica’s partner at ABConstrucciones, which has about 40 workers.

 

“We started with 8 guys. Today we have more than 40 men who come from Puerto López, Las Tunas, Platanales, Ayampe… With Jenica we now work in a more organized way and, having a company, the client feels backed by a guarantee that was not there before,” said Anchundia.

“People give us the opportunity to build their houses and that is a source of pride because before we did somewhat rustic jobs, but now we show a very high quality. They are big challenges that we managed to meet and Jenica encourages us to surpass ourselves.”

Jenica came to Ecuador to protect and educate minors, but life has also given her the opportunity to help adults in the area, who receive training in various areas related to construction.

“It is incredible that all these people only needed a small opportunity, and now I see everything they have developed, everything they have changed, in their lives, in their families.”

The company also helps the community. “We do a lot of volunteer work. We have built the UPC, the school, the park … ”.

When asked how it was possible for a foreign woman to be in charge of a construction company, Jenica says, “I grew up doing construction with my dad… and without knowing it, I was preparing for this new stage of my life. God was giving me the tools.”

Jenica Brigham builds an orphanage near Ayampe, in Las Tunas, through the company Anchundia Brigham Construcciones. Her partner in that company is Jairón Anchundia.

The children will soon have a home

Jenica and her team say there is a about a year’s worth of work left to complete the orphanage, which will have space to accommodate 40 children who will come from organizations from different parts of Ecuador.

“The lawyer Carla Morales is helping us with all the legal aspects… We have been an NGO for three months. We call ourselves The Harvest of Dreams,” says Jenica, who says she feels truly blessed by the path she has taken in her life.

“I know that on the day I die I will have no regrets. I know I must be here. This is my passion… God is using me to change several lives.”

***

Rates at Villas Los Olivos run from $125 (couples) to $150 (families) on weekends. Contacts them 096-080-5169, @villaslosolivos (Instagram) and www.villaslosolivos.com

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