By Ralph Kurtenbach, Special to ASSIST News Service
SHELL, ECUADOR (ANS – May 30, 2017) — With books turned in and desks cleared, nary a child would say that bittersweet describes the end of classes … except perhaps for the students of Nate Saint Memorial School (NSMS). At this small school in Shell, Ecuador, the last day of school is just that — the last day.
The school’s closing at the end of the 2016-2017 term was announced in March by Reach Beyond, pointing to declining enrollments given as a decisive factor. NSMS has educated missionary children for 51 years.
The 12 full-time pupils at the school — along with their friends who drop by for extracurricular activities — have enjoyed a pupil/teacher ratio low enough for plenty of personalized help.
“I’ve felt spoiled being a teacher at NSMS,” said Reach Beyond’s Randy Umble who has been an instructor for 15 years and whose children attend there. He has taught mostly seventh- and eighth-graders. With class sizes ranging from three to 10 students, he says, “the kids are fun, and the most difficult class management problem is students talking out of turn!” The projected enrollment for 2017-2018 would have been just three pupils, down significantly from this year. In the last few years, school attendance was in the 20s, including 29 students in 2012-2013, which was the year that Reach Beyond closed its Shell hospital after five decades of medical service.
Umble said he and his wife, Melanie, have not firmed up plans for the future, but they “are praying that God would guide us to our next place of service.”
“When you have small classes,” agreed former NSMS teacher Carolyn Wolfram, “much more time is spent on actual learning and only a very small percentage of time on ‘crowd control’ and getting in line and getting their attention.”
“When I told my kids that there won’t be school any more after the summer break, they were really sad and couldn’t believe it,” said Birgit Schmale, whose children Amelie and Ricardo are homeschooled in German and Spanish.
The Schmales have enjoyed sports, music and outings at the school which is just blocks away from their home in Shell. “It was always wonderful to cross the hanging [suspension] bridge and then go to the Reach Beyond property,” Schmale said. “There they met monkeys on their way to school. And snakes.”
The final day of classes will be on Tuesday, June 6. A commemorative assembly will close the institution after decades of being pupiled and staffed by missionaries from various agencies that minister in the nearby Amazon rainforest.
Tyler Schmidt found during eighth grade (1997-1998) that “the school really contributed to me because I have struggled with a learning disability, and having the one-on-one time with my teacher Mr. Hopkins really helped make it a very special and fun year.”
Schmidt now serves as a pilot/mechanic with Mission Aviation Fellowship in Tarakan, Indonesia. He remembers being one of two eighth-graders, with another two pupils in seventh grade, to total four in what some would term “middle school.” Later attending senior high school Alliance Academy International (AAI) in Quito, he said the Shell school allowed “an atmosphere of greater personal relationship with the teacher.”
“The students have received a quality, Christ-centered education, and have had the opportunity to go to school on the edge of the Amazon rain forest,” Umble said. “They’ve experienced many different cultures as they’ve made friends from other parts of the world.” All NSMS classes are in English, but “we were blessed with Señora Rocío Salas who taught Spanish for 30 years,” according to Umble.
He cited such fun times as eating special bread (guaguas de pan) for All Souls Day in November and “having the pleasure of dousing their teachers with water on Carnival” even amid a good learning environment. “Bible memorization has been an important part of student life,” he said, “and it has been exciting to see the students grow in their Christian walk.”
Kathleen Buurma recalls receiving word from Christian Service Corps of a need for teachers at NSMS and joined the staff in 1978. After three years she returned to the U.S. where she earned a graduate degree while teaching at a Christian school in Georgia. She is now in her fourth year of teaching at Destino del Reino, a Christian school in Honduras.
Don Davis said of the school’s earliest class sessions more than a decade earlier, “I was taught basic, standard second- and third-grade correspondence courses by parents and friends, then later by [Char Swanson] an American doctor’s wife, in her home near the Shell hospital. There were approximately seven students during my education there.”
In the fall of 1964, Char Swanson began teaching from her home while her husband, Dr. Wally Swanson, treated patients at the nearby Hospital Vozandes-Shell. Some 16 months later on Jan. 8, 1966 — the 10th anniversary of the slayings of five evangelical missionaries — Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Nate Saint — who had envisioned the school, a new building was dedicated. Saint and his wife, Marj, had donated property for mission endeavors; the school was given the name Nate Saint Memorial School.
Davis went on to attend school in the U.S. and elsewhere, to total 10 schools by the time he graduated from high school. Currently living in Israel, he is a published Middle East analyst. Of his early Ecuador years, he says, “I loved living in the jungle region and could hear the ongoing jungle noises, including an occasional jaguar screaming throughout the school day. In those years the town of Shell was much smaller, and the jungle wildlife was often seen and heard.”
From a small school at the edge of the Amazon jungle, people have fanned out across the globe. Dozens returned to Shell in 2016 for the 50th anniversary celebration of NSMS.
“I have wonderful, deep friendships and memories from my time teaching and living in Shell—both with the families who lived there, my fellow teachers and the students I taught,” said Wolfram who carries the privilege of being both an NSMS alumnus (1967-1971) and teacher (1984-1990).
Having taught computer classes at AAI in Quito for 25 years, she now plans to take a sabbatical in Canada. Asked how often she thinks of NSMS, Wolfram said, “Very often these days as I’m going through old pictures in preparation of cleaning out my apartment. Also, many of my Facebook friends are from those Shell days, and so that brings up reminders of ‘way back when.’”
Sidebar: A Special Visit to Nate Saint Memorial School
(By Gary Meier*)
Nate Saint Memorial School was one of the all-time favorite stops of the many (up to five a year) Reach Beyond (formerly HCJB Global) tours to Ecuador. We were told that the students considered a visit one of their highlights of the year.
The group usually congregated on the concrete play area to meet the principal and receive an orientation. Then each student — even the first-graders — were assigned a visitor to whom they gave a personalized tour. The school was named after missionary pilot Nate Saint who in 1956, along with four of his fellow missionaries, was martyred in the Ecuadorian jungle by a tribe then known for savagery.
Before departing their homes in Shell for the last time, the five men and their wives gathered for a time of prayer and praise. Then before walking out the door, they all sang their favorite hymn, “We Rest on Thee.”
As our guides concluded their tours, everyone eventually ended up in the assembly room. There a presentation by the children sometimes consisted of a skit, a special story and of course, singing. Before the tour left, they always sang, “We Rest on Thee.” There never was a dry eye in the place as the tour members filed out to their bus.
On one tour as we stood on the concrete play area, the sun beating down on us unmercifully, everyone was drenched with sweat. The principal gave a talk on the history of the school and its education philosophy. As group members squirmed from the heat and shielded their eyes from the intense sun, she explained that one day they would erect a roof. With careful planning, it would cost about $6,000, she stated.
The group then met the students assigned as their special guides. This was followed by the program in the much-cooler meeting room. After everything had concluded, it was imperative that the group board the bus for the other scheduled tour activities. As usual, it was nearly impossible to pull the group away as they wanted to see more of the school, visit with the kids and ask the teachers more questions.
Finally, they began heading to the bus. Before getting in, however, they gathered in a circle and asked me to come into the center. The appointed spokesperson handed me a wad of checks and cash. You guessed it … $6,000. God’s people had again responded to a need. The children, and all the subsequent tour groups, enjoyed the covered play area for many years.
* Gary Meier is a retired Reach Beyond missionary living in Young Harris, GA, USA.
Photo captions: 1) “The Waodani aren’t ready for heaven — we are.” – Nate Saint. 2) Teacher Charlotte Swanson with some of her pupils in 1963.3) Carolyn Wolfram (third from left) along with current and former teachers at Nate Saint Memorial School: Rocio Salas, Rachel Hahn, Beth Montero, Flo Friesen, Bailey Espinoza, Randy Umble, Dorothy Nelson, Katie Williams, Jennifer Kendrick and others. (Photo by Chad Irwin). 4) Birgit Schmale and her adopted children, Amelie and Ricardo, who live in Shell, Ecuador.5) Basketball court at Nate Saint Memorial School with a cover funded by tour guests. 6) Gary Meier gives information on a tour bus in Ecuador.7) Kathy and Gary Meier. 8) Ralph Kurtenbach at the microphone.
About the writer: Ralph Kurtenbach and his wife, Kathy, have lived in Ecuador since 1992, where they minister with Reach Beyond. Ralph blogs at www.calloftheandes.wordpress.com, and helps to mentor Latinos who want to join in taking the gospel to other parts of the world. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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