Sarah Gaitens of Pittsburgh CAPA High School and Erick Rivas of Quito meeting in Ecuador.

Guess what visiting kids from Ecuador found most fascinating about Pittsburgh, by day two of their visit?


A new education and exchange program run by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has culminated during these past two weeks in half a dozen kids from Quito visiting Pittsburgh, following a visit by six Pittsburgh high schoolers to Ecuador.

The Ecuadoran middle schoolers are spending a day in the woods at Camp Guyasuta and exploring local neighborhoods and downtown, the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, City of Asylum, the National Aviary and other local sites. But their visit has also been educational for the local kids, since the Pittsburghers also discovered that their Latino counterparts had never heard of a burrito–that’s that’s another country’s cuisine.

The program is called Scaling the Walls, or Escalando Paredes, and is funded by a grant from the American Alliance of Museums via the Museums Connect program of the Department of State. It focused both groups on learning about healthy eating, the problem of obesity in children and the impact of local food availability on a community.

Throughout this school year, 25 teens from a variety of local high schools have met at the Children’s Museum weekly to learn about growing plants in dense urban spots, and to brush up on their Spanish. Once a month, they Skyped with the Quito kids at their Interactive Science Museum, exchanging photos and information about life in each country

The Pittsburgh kids also took monthly field trips to the East End Food Co-op and farmer’s markets, worked on the city’s Ballfield Farm, visited community gardens and learned how to cook healthily.

Their trip to Ecuador involved the first plane ride for four of the Pittsburgh kids. There they discovered Quito, camped in a lodge in the Amazon rainforest and studied sustainable agriculture. They worked with their new teen friends and local designers to make planters for local people, visited the ancient ceremonial site of the Yumbo people in Tulipe, enjoyed a trail inside a cloud forest, learned how to make chocolate from cacao pods and sampled traditional foods.

Their focus on healthy eating came from Kimberly Bracken, the Children’s Museum’s community programs manager. “There’s a huge lack of education among young people” on this subject, Bracken says. “It’s very important to introduce lots of ways for people to grow food when you live in a really dense urban environment.

“Just getting out of Pittsburgh has been a big moment for our teens,” she adds. “They bonded instantly” with their new South American friends, despite the language barrier. “There were these moments on our trips where they realized we both want the same things. We want to be happy. We want to be safe. We want to be loved.”

But only North America has squirrels: “Small details of being in another culture reminds you that it’s easy to become complacent with what’s familiar,” Bracken notes. “We sometimes lose the wonder in it.” The cultural exchanged helped bring some of that back, she says.

The Pittsburgh teens also discovered, when their visitors asked, that they couldn’t name American foods besides hotdogs, hamburgers and pie. But at least pie was something unfamiliar.

“I think the biggest thing they’ve gotten out of this is to try new things,” Bracken reports. “Our kids all want to move to Ecuador and go to college there. I think they will all keep in touch.”

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He teaches magazine writing for Creative Nonfiction magazine.