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Life's gifts

Life's gifts

Dominic SanFilippo '16 December 01, 2022

A SMALL, WELL-TENDED GARDEN AND COBBLESTONE WALKWAY LEAD us into the breakfast room each morning we awake in Quito, Ecuador. Its windows peek onto a sleepy side street of a bustling neighborhood. Vespa scooters and taxis pass every few minutes, and the smell of fresh bread occasionally wafts from a panadería down the way. 

The room contains only a few things, including a long, roughly hewn table that seats several dozen people. It is within the headquarters of the Otonga Foundation, which has a mission to protect biodiversity and support the many communities of the cloud forests. 

For a generation of University of Dayton students who have traveled to Ecuador through Campus Ministry’s Center for Social Concern, however, the breakfast room is no mere gathering space. It serves as a portal to understanding and appreciating life’s little moments and the people who inhabit them, including Brother Giovanni Onore, S.M., the foundation’s maestro. For alumni, mention of this room and this man conjure memories of simple, delicious meals, important conversations and quiet revelations. 

Among them is a realization that human hands and the natural world can work together to maintain the fragile spaces that all the Earth’s peoples and creatures call home. It is a lesson the students take to heart and carry with them, no matter where they travel next. 

UD students pose in front of a mountain range in Ecuador.
Dayton students during the Spring BreakOut Immersion in Ecuador


WHEN I HEARD THE ECUADOR TRIP would happen in 2022 after a pandemic hiatus, I jumped at the opportunity to participate as the trip’s graduate assistant. I traveled to Quito alongside seven undergraduate students from a variety of majors and UD professor emeritus Patrick “Kelly” Williams — or PK, as most people call him — a native Texan and environmental biologist who arrived at UD in 1973. He founded UD’s Ecuador immersion trip, one of many BreakOut trips available to students each year over UD’s spring break. 

Every morning at 7 a.m., Onore, our 81-year-old guide, would stroll into the breakfast room whistling or singing in an Italian-tinged baritone, his arms laden with fresh fruits he usually had picked himself. On our first morning in Quito, he presented a ripe Ecuadorean varietal of passion fruit he’d brought from Otongachi, a research and educational reserve several hours from Quito in the cloud forests the Otonga Foundation protects. 

“Look carefully at this fruit, amici; see the color? It is singing!” Onore exclaimed, cutting into the fruit with a small knife and passing slices of it down the table for us to share. “A gift from nature. ... It reminds us that we cannot start the day without celebrating all the gifts around us.” 

I bit into the fruit and savored its sharp, slightly bitter aftertaste. In the days afterward, Onore strolled in the door with one new fruit after another, sampling from the hundreds of species scattered throughout the rich regional biome that makes Ecuador one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. 

From Quito, we journeyed to Otongachi, the nature reserve spread over nearly 400 acres that Onore brought to life with partners from the small towns dotting the cloud forests. Our group bonded over shared wonder (and, admittedly, some shared nerves) as Onore and his team led us on exploratory night hikes. During daytime, sunlit walks he pulled an array of fruits and herbs off trees and plants for us to taste. 

“Don’t worry,” he said to us on our first night at Otongachi, the eight of us huddled around the light streaming from his headlamp. He pointed to moths and other winged creatures as they descended onto a large sheet that looked like a makeshift movie screen, and he named each creature’s species and genus off the top of his head. 

“None of these are poisonous ... except that one,” he said, pointing to a greenish moth that had settled on my arm. (He was joking ... I think.) 

Liv Westendorf, one of the trip’s students, misses those moments of discovery with Onore. 

The view of the city of Quito's rooftops.
UD students explored the city of Quito.


“Oh, absolutely, I miss the fruits of the day,” said Westendorf, a sophomore premed major. “My first breakfast when I came back to Dayton seemed pretty boring by comparison.” 

Like many of the students on the trip, Westendorf carried those experiences in Ecuador into her life back in the States. In August, she returned to campus after working as a trail guide and educator for an outfitter in Glacier National Park. 

“I had always been keen on protecting our natural environment, but when I traveled to Ecuador in March, that drive for preservation was amplified,” she reflected. “While out West, in those beautiful mountains and climate, I couldn’t help but share an awareness with guests about the struggles the Earth is facing because of us.” 

“While out West, in those beautiful mountains and climate, I couldn’t help but share an awareness with guests about the struggles the Earth is facing because of us.” 

Rachel Sales ’15 joined a past BreakOut on the advice of her adviser, professor Williams. Months later, as she approached her UD graduation and discerned her next steps, Sales recalled the vivid wildlife, landscapes and people she encountered in Ecuador. 

“I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I wasn’t sure for what ... to be honest, I felt a bit lost,” she said. “Then I started thinking more and more about how I really fell in love with these forests that are so rare — how they’re some of the most biodiverse places in the world, that there are so few of them and they’re threatened, and that we know so little about them. That all stuck with me.” 

Sales applied to a master’s program in ecology and a subsequent doctoral program with a paleoecology research group in a lab at the Florida Institute of Technology; she earned her doctorate earlier this year. Her project assessed how different civilizations and human communities shaped the forest ecosystems over different time periods, such as clearing large swaths for agricultural production. 

“It’s fascinating to think that many of the current trees throughout the forests are probably regrowth from the time when early communities abandoned the area when the Europeans arrived,” she said. 

Sales’ research would take her back to Ecuador six more times on field expeditions; in the years since she started graduate school, she’s explored much of the country, hiking on foot and paddling down rivers to remote lakes and clearings away from much of the bustle of the modern world. 

“I look at really large time scales, like 12,000 years or so,” she said. “I’d encourage people to think on how our actions, even small ones, can leave lasting effects … far beyond our lifetimes. They ripple and outlive us.” 

Students hike through the cloud forest in a single line.
Travels through the cloud forests were sensory adventures, with Brother Giovanni Onore, S.M. as guide.


ONORE WAS BORN IN THE NORTHERN Italian countryside in the shadow of the Second World War. His family were farmers and vintners; like millions of others, the war affected their livelihood and introduced uncertainty into their everyday lives.  

His descriptions of some of his earliest memories — walking through forests and streams to school each day and crushing grapes underneath his feet to make wine — are full of the same sharp attunement to sensory detail that would propel him throughout his life. With a chuckle, he remembered the “astonishing butterflies and insects around home and in the fields in summertime. ... I wanted to use my brain to figure out how they fit into life.” 

As a teenager, he fell in love with the Marianist ethos of education and seeking to build community, and he eventually pursued a vocation as a Marianist brother. He headed to university in Turin, Italy, where an influential professor spurred him to pursue both entomology, the study of insects, and agricultural engineering. Eventually receiving a doctoral degree, he has kept this professor’s influence close to his heart throughout his career. 

“The best gift someone like a teacher can give another person is not money, or an object, but an idea,” Onore said. 

“The best gift someone like a teacher can give another person is not money, or an object, but an idea.”

After studying in Italy and ministering for nearly a decade in the Congo, Onore flew with one suitcase to Ecuador in 1980 to join a mission the superior general of the Marianists had started the year before. 

In the 42 years since, the Marianist scientist founded Ecuador’s largest zoology museum at Pontifical Catholic University. He developed lifelong friendships in the country’s capital and in the quiet, hardworking towns throughout the cloud forests. He built the Otonga Foundation, where his team works daily to preserve the fragile balance of the region’s biome, supports students from local schools, and stands in solidarity with the activists, researchers and indigenous communities that decry the damage that larger industrial and political forces have inflicted on their common home. 

Nick Cardilino ’89, who serves as the director of the Center for Social Concern, notes that even though the trip predates Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, this notion of care for God’s creation is at the heart of the immersion. “It’s an integral ecology where there’s not a separation between caring for God’s creation and caring for God’s people, particularly those in need,” he said.

Mary Niebler ’98, coordinator of cross-cultural immersions in the Center for Social Concern, helps organize BreakOut trips to more than a dozen locations in the United States and abroad. 

“Brother Giovanni believes in the importance of exposing students to the natural world — and human destruction of it,” Niebler said. “He is an educator and wants to share in both the beauty of where he lives and what he studies, as well as share in how we need to conserve that.”

Brother Giovanni Onore, S.M. talks to students.
Brother Giovanni Onore, S.M.

The Ecuador BreakOut was born from fieldwork and student trips led by Williams. In 2005, both the biology department and the Center for Social Concern staff agreed that students with different academic backgrounds and interests would mutually benefit from a trip fusing scientific exploration, cultural immersion and spiritual questions about discovering vocation in a complex, interconnected world. Like Sales, many of today’s students come thanks to Williams’ encouragement. 

“Half of the students are there because of him, the relationships he’s built in the classroom, and biology in general,” Niebler said. “Experiential learning is where PK shines, and his openness to having a spiritual component on the trip makes it exciting.”

And it gives students a glimpse into the global Marianist community. 

“Any time we work with Marianists in the States or abroad, every student comes back and talks about the hospitality that’s shown globally, in Ecuador, India, Zambia, East St. Louis, San Antonio, L.A. — the feeling of being welcomed is a constant theme,” she said. 

I RETURNED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF Dayton last year as a graduate research assistant in the department of religious studies to study polarization and extremism at home and abroad. I’m trying to parse out what drives people apart — and, reciprocally, how strong community ties and relationships might bind them back together. 

During one memorable, humid summer in my undergraduate days as a UD human rights major, I worked as a policy intern for the justice, peace and human development team of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that carried to legislators in Congress the message of Laudato Si’. The landmark document decred the debilitating effects of climate change amid a technocratically dominated, throwaway culture. 

The political response was varied. At a policy briefing and news conference, one senator wearily shared with me how a congressional colleague had skipped the briefing because, he said, “He told me the pope probably doesn’t know much about the environment anyway.”

At one point in our March BreakOut, we met with local farmers near Otongachi who had worked with Onore for years. We watched them distill alcohol from corn while discussing the potential to change from gas to solar to power their process. They seemed skeptical in light of their experience with losing power to industrial forces in Ecuador. 

Standing in that muddy field with those men and women, I realized the common good is a living force, placing us together on one ship navigating a stormy sea into an opaque future. As the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” 

Students cross a suspension bridge in the forest.
Learning about the local communities — and growing in community with one another — were goals of the trip. 


IN ALMOST ALL MY CONVERSATIONS with current and former UD students who have made the BreakOut journey to Ecuador, the deep friendship and respect Onore and Williams have for one another came up again and again. “They’re so funny together, and they’re both passionate about research and exploring the world around us,” Sales said. I agreed, noting that their joint forest walks simultaneously functioned as real-world ecology classes and stand-up comedy routines.

Near the end of our trip in March, we celebrated a farewell dinner at a familiar spot overlooking Quito’s hilly, cobblestone streets. At one point, Williams stood and said he was grateful to have returned to Ecuador with another UD group that had become a community. He paused for a moment, gazing out a large nearby window into the night, and added that he was also grateful for “all the adventures that I have been lucky to go on with my old friend Giovanni.”

There’s a worn, wooden table in the kitchen at the Otonga Foundation that also looks out over the city boulevards and sweeping hills of Quito. It’s smaller than the breakfast table, but it fits three chairs comfortably, all facing out toward the horizon. Although months have passed since I last sat there with a bowl of freshly cooked pasta, I can picture the sun sinking over all the sights and sounds that give the city its pulse. 

I will always remember sitting at that kitchen table with Onore and Williams in the inky near-darkness after dinner. The reds and oranges in the ether, streaked throughout the skyline over treetops, church bells and forest cover, somehow communicated the next day would bring newness, if only we would pay attention to it.

The late American poet Mary Oliver, one of the chroniclers of the small, searing moments that make up our daily lives, once wrote, “attention is the beginning of devotion.” If this is true, then Onore and Williams are two of the most devoted people I’ve met, having helped so many Flyers and others notice, defend and celebrate brief glimpses of paradise, starting with the little moments that enrich and sustain our lives. 


Dominic Sanfilippo represented Flyer News at the inaugural White House College Reporter Day in April 2016. He is grateful for all the Flyers near and far whose stories continue to shape his own.