Doing the Right Thing the Right Way: Case Study – Project Ecuador

by Paul Dunning, Founder Project Ecuador

The concept of creating a self-sustaining lifesaving organization worldwide was well defined in the Winter 2009 American Lifeguard Magazine. The article focused on the key elements of success and how the International Life Saving Federation can help direct the efforts. Chris Brewster and Peter Davis, both leaders in the USLA and ILSF presented the key strategies in an outline form and this article defines how Project Ecuador implemented these strategies with positive results within a short time frame.

Project Ecuador background

Project Ecuador started in late 2006 during a surfing trip by Paul Dunning and John Pearce, seasonal lifeguards for Long Beach CA and Los Angeles County, CA. The local tourism officials in Playas discovered that we were lifeguards and pleaded us to help start a lifeguard program in this sleepy seaside town. It was August, the slow season, and the “need” appear to be minimal. However, we were told that the town is the destination for tens of thousands of people during the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival. As lifeguards do, we took action when we heard Ecuador’s call for help.

John and I returned to Ecuador in November 2006 to conduct the first training session. We returned 3 more times during Carnival 2007, 2008 and 2009 to conduct on the job training and to solidify our efforts with government officials to promote public safety. California lifeguard volunteers joined the effort in growing numbers each year with 28 in 2009. Project Ecuador has become an international outreach program for USA ocean lifeguards; helping the new Ecuadorian lifeguards save lives in a foreign country.

The results have exceeded my own expectations impacting 2 provinces and 5 beaches. As of 3/2009, total rescues since the project’s inception is 632 with over 1,000 preventions. In the province of Guayas, Playas has 20 seasonal and 10 full time lifeguards earning a living wage as of 2/2008. Playas recently created the first Ecuadorian Lifeguard Association, “Corporacion de Salvavidas del Guayas-Capitulo Playas” In the province of Santa Elena, 51 seasonal lifeguards are earning a living wage as of 2/2009. They have 2 clubs; Salvavidas Zona Sur and Zona Norte de la Provincia de Santa Elena. Local and national government support has been overwhelming and Ecuador is well on its way towards creating a national lifeguard association and entry into the International Life Saving Federation family.

1. Sustainability is the Key.

About one year after the project began; John and I met with the Ecuadorian Consular General, Eddie Benton in Los Angeles, CA. John, fluent in Latin Spanish, passionately discussed the merits of our mission for over an hour and requested Benton’s support. Benton agreed and forwarded our letter to the Governor of Guayas requesting professional lifeguards. Concurrently, the mayor of Playas, Rodrigo Correa was asked to support our mission through the efforts of Senora Esperanza, the Playas tourism official.

John and I returned to Ecuador 3 months later in February 2008 hoping the first year lifeguards would return even though they were all volunteers. We were ecstatic after learning that the lifeguards were being paid by Playas city hall. Plus, a nationally sponsored program, Programa de Ordenamiento de Playas (POP) came forth to fund an additional 10 seasonal lifeguards. Mission accomplished? Not yet. POP completed their initial goals and is moving to another region, thus funding has ended. National elections in April unseated the Playas mayor with Michael Achi to take power in August 2009. John and I have met Achi prior to the election and he vowed his support. We need to nurture this relationship as we move forward.

Letters of thanks, guidance and support have been sent to several Mayors, Ministry of Tourism leaders and Ecuador’s President. Mayors and business leaders have opened their homes to us in appreciation and unity. Sustainability is an ongoing task.

2. Coordinate with the national lifesaving organization.

Project Ecuador is a standing committee of the Long Beach (CA) Lifeguard Association (LBLGA). In April 2008, I made a slide show presentation of our efforts to the California Surf Lifesaving Association in my home town of Long Beach. Chris Brewster, USLA President, pulled me aside and offered his advice and specifically stated our goal should include entry into the International Life Saving Federation. I scanned through the ILSF website and pulled out new member application information, international training standards and membership fee data to be prepared for my next trip to Ecuador.

Peter Davis helped by providing his Spanish training manual used in Mexico. This manual was used in our 2009 training and given to lifeguard leaders in Playas and Santa Elena. I was made aware that a Spanish training DVD is under way by a group in Florida. If I didn’t communicate with USLA or ILSF, then we would have duplicated our efforts. Bottom line: Since our meeting, I have kept Brewster and Davis informed along each step of our project and implemented all directives.

3. Promote existing local entities.

John and I agreed at the onset that we needed to help Ecuador, then step back and let it roll. Several entities were involved; the hotel owners, the Navy, the Army, City Hall and the lifeguards as a group. We aligned our project with Senora Esperanza, who provided free room and board for 2 years at Hotel Arena Caliente. She created a local foundation consisting of local hotels, business and military leaders to oversee the lifeguard operation and dispersed wages to the lifeguards. Her relationship with City Hall soured when the mayor bulldozed her tourism / foundation building for the new malicon (boardwalk). Subsequently, wages were disbursed directly from City Hall to the lifeguards and a new leader emerged, the 19 year old lifeguard Gabriela Munoz Ocana.

Gaby is a 2nd year lifeguard who we trained in 2008. Gaby, a University student is fluent in English and is our Project Coordinator in Ecuador. She is responsible for the legal formation of the first lifeguard association in Ecuador and has developed strong relationships with government officials. Gaby was my translator in Ecuador as we traveled north into Santa Elena to meet mayors, tourism officials and lifeguards. Gaby continues to promote professional lifeguards in Guayas and in Santa Elena along with budget forecasts and needs assessments to the government entities.

4. Make donations carefully.

Early on, John and I heard stories from our LBLGA alumni about their missions to Mexico and how, over time, the buoys disappeared and rescue boards were being rented out as surfboards. Similar stories from other agencies emerged and we knew we had a major obstacle forthcoming. The answer was point 3; promoting local entities. Esperanza’s hotel kept the donations at first and now the Navy is responsible for all donated equipment in Playas. Inventory shrinkage has been minimal with about 40 rescue buoys, 30 two way radios and 20 fins on hand.

In Santa Elena, 16 rescue buoys, 15 two way radios and 14 fins were given directly to lifeguards in 4 beaches for safekeeping. The leaders of Zona Norte took note of the donations and our expectation to keep the equipment in good condition. Like the Viper Fins motto, “tools not toys”. I’m confident that our donation shrinkage will be minimal as the Ministry of Tourism in Santa Elena also donated equipment to the lifeguards; back boards, C-collars, flags, rescue boards, binoculars and PFDs (I requested PFDs to be replace with buoys).

Lastly, we have been very successful in our fundraising efforts with over $9,000 in cash and $7,000 in product donations. It is our responsibility to donors that the money goes to where it was intended and stays there.

5. Listen to the locals.

Ecuador is not similar to the USA. It is a socialistic country with a leftist leader, Rafael Correa and the majority love him. My observations is that each community is “self governing” meaning, they get what needs to be done and everyone chips in to make it happen. In our case, everyone wants to help Project Ecuador. We listen, learn and do what we can to help.

The top local is Evelio Baquerizo, our surf guide in Ecuador, past swimming champion and surfing expert. He has kept in close contact with John over the years and guided us along the Ecuador’s coast pointing out dangerous regions in need of lifeguards. He introduced John to local lifeguards in Manta, a region well north of our current area of influence and target area for expansion.

We are now listening to the lifeguards as they now have a voice through the new association and can communicate their needs, problems and goals. Gaby is now the ears, eyes and voice for Project Ecuador. We have empowered her and her performance has been outstanding. The future looks bright.

6. Coordinate your efforts

The history of Lifeguarding in Ecuador is limited. The Navy has been responsible for the safekeeping of beaches for many years. This Navy responsibility ended in 2008 moving the responsibility the City Halls, thus our current focus on civic leaders. In the wealthy city of Salinas, the Navy trained a group of lifeguards for many years, but only for Salinas. Lifeguards in other regions were volunteers without training.

With the shift to City Hall, the lifeguards were abandoned and lacked structure. The Navy officer responsible for training was Marcos Lara. He is now retired, but is the unofficial leader of all Santa Elena lifeguards. He has witnessed the demise of his beloved lifeguards and wept openly when I pledged my commitment to Ecuador’s lifeguards.


We are 2.5 years into Project Ecuador and exceeded our original goal of institutionalizing lifeguards in Playas, Ecuador. Our next goal is to spread Lifeguarding to all coastal provinces, institute annual national lifeguard training and entry into the ILSF. Project Ecuador has a website dedicated to this mission and lifeguards are invited to volunteer during Carnival and now Easter too.

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