FORWARD OPERATING LOCATION Manta, Ecuador --
Four months ago, the Urbirios community kitchen on the outskirts of Manta, Ecuador was struggling to serve low-cost lunches to the 100 children and adults who walked through its doors each day.
The industrial stove had only one functioning burner, and much of the food donated by local stores would spoil before it could be cooked into a bowl of soup or stew.
Today, with $7,000 in donated equipment from U.S. Southern Command's Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP) and the heavy-lifting of Forward Operating Location (FOL) Manta volunteers, the kitchen opens its doors to serve more members of the community better quality and portions of food.
Asunción Barreto, a licensed social worker from Eloy Alfaro University, and her husband, Galo Esquettini, began running the kitchen six years ago to bring inexpensive, hot lunches to neighborhood children and adults, many of whom are unemployed or disabled.
"We had trouble with the equipment we had before," said Mr. Esquettini through a translator. "Twice each month, we received plenty of groceries, but we didn't have the refrigerator to keep them."
Through contact with members of FOL Manta, Mr. Esquettini and Mrs. Barreto drew attention to the kitchen's needs.
"Their facilities were poor at best," said Senior Master Sgt. Greg Moore, FOL Manta first sergeant who first visited the facility in November. "Without this donation, the kitchen would most likely have closed within months because they lacked the right infrastructure."
Sergeant Moore initiated HAP support by working with the military group at the U.S. Embassy in Quito. HAP partners with local organizations to help strengthen and prosper communities and is typically in the form of infrastructure and education improvements, donations, or disaster preparedness and relief efforts.
Beginning in January, equipment began to arrive at the kitchen's doors in Manta. One-by-one, a new refrigerator, freezer, stove, cabinets, and hardware for the sinks and restroom were installed, and the kitchen began taking on a new face.
The new equipment has greatly benefited the kitchen, according to Mr. Esquettini. "We can store more food here and serve more fruits and vegetables," he said.
Knowing the kitchen's owners and children in need living nearby now have more security that its doors will remain open is satisfying to Sergeant Moore.
"My assignment to Ecuador has been so rewarding," he said. "I wanted to make a lasting contribution before I leave, and this kitchen is a great cause."
To complete the kitchen's makeover, the First Sergeant coordinated a weekend in late March for over 20 FOL volunteers to paint its walls and ceiling.
FOL volunteers helped with four HAP initiatives in 2008, and in 2009, they also brought HAP materials to a daycare in Colón and a school in Manta.