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Difference Maker

People making a difference: Emily Pozo

Living in the Galápagos, famous for exotic wildlife, this educator turns her attention to the needs of its people.

By / Staff writer / August 3, 2009

American Emily Pozo focuses on education through her nonprofit group Galápagos ICE (for Immerse, Connect, and Evolve). The group’s efforts include a playground it built using tires pulled from a local dump.

melanie stetson freeman/Staff

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Santa Cruz, Galápagos Islands

Giant tortoises sun lazily on uninhabited beaches. Exotic blue-footed boobies carry out their elaborate mating dances. These are images the Galápagos Islands conjure.

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In fact, most people are surprised to learn that humans actually share space here with the remarkable creatures that helped shape Charles Darwin's ideas on natural selection after he explored the islands in 1831.

Emily Pozo, a social worker from the United States, is no exception. She first visited the archipelago, some 600 miles west of Ecuador, on a trip while working for a study abroad organization. Like most of her colleagues, she fell in love with the varied and unusual wildlife here that may draw 170,000 tourists this year. But unlike many visitors, she saw something beyond the natural wonders: thousands of people struggling to make ends meet every day.

"I was enamored of this place," Ms. Pozo says, "but I also saw how much there is to do here."

She's speaking at her simple home in the middle of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, one of the islands that form the Galápagos. The town, away from the tourist strip, resembles many in other Latin American countries.

Humans first stumbled on the Galápagos 500 years ago, and since then the islands have served as a hideout, supply depot, and harvesting area for buccaneers, seal hunters, and whalers.

In recent years, a new kind of adventurer has come onshore: economic migrants from mainland Ecuador seeking lucrative jobs in tourism. In the past decade, the population has doubled to about 30,000 today.

When it comes to the islands' human population, most government efforts have been centered on controlling it, resulting in some of the toughest immigration laws anywhere. In 2007, Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, signed a decree denying babies born here the right to automatic permanent residency unless their parents were residents, too. For some, it's become harder to get into the Galápagos than to sneak into the US.

Pozo focuses her attention on those who have managed to arrive. Three years ago she created a nonprofit group called Galápagos ICE, which stands for Immerse, Connect, and Evolve. It draws on a network of volunteers, including visiting college students, missionaries, English teachers, and artists. So far, some 150 of them have passed through, paying their own way and contributing in various ways.

Galápagos ICE focuses on education. Pozo was inspired after visiting an elementary school that had only one tiny globe for a world map. Galápagos ICE collects supplies, builds furniture, and fixes safety hazards in elementary schools. At least 50 volunteers have headed to classrooms to support and improve English teaching.

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