Posted by: calloftheandes | May 24, 2017

Bell Tolls for Last Time at Missionary School in Ecuadorian Rainforest

Missionary Charlotte Swanson began teaching children in her home Shell, Ecuador in 1964. A school building and the name “Nate Saint Memorial School” was added later. (photo compliments of Don Davis)

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 by Reach Beyond in March, 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.

Randy Umble (left) with Reach Beyond’s Gary Meier (photo compliments of Gary Meier)

“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.

Birgit Schmale with her adopted children, Ricardo and Amelie

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.”

Pictured at the original MAF compound (that had what is known as ‘the Big House’) in Shell Mera are Steve Saint (standing with parrot and wrist cast) David Davis, Don Davis (on go-cart) and Phil Saint kneeling with MAF 180 in background. (The plane’s prop is showing. Photo compliments of Don Davis.

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 1963[corrected], 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 including 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.’”

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)


  1. Correction from Jeffrey Swanson, PhD: I read with interest the news of the Nate Saint School closing in Shell, and especially enjoyed seeing the pictures of my mother, Charlotte Swanson, with that small group of children that she first taught in our home.

    My older brother, Tod, and I both appear in the pictures. Other students pictured include: Becky, Mary, and Anna Johnston (daughters of Dr. Art and Verna Johnston who worked at Hospital Vozandes); David and Donny Davis (sons of MAF pilot Cecil Davis and his wife); Mark and Lorra Beth Schubert (children of GMU missionaries Ken and Barb Schubert); and Becky Osterhus (daughter of MAF pilot Dave Osterhus and his wife Carol).

    I noted one small error in Ralph Kurtenbach’s article with respect to the date of the school’s beginning. Mr. Kurtenbach writes that my mother began teaching in her home in Shell in the fall of 1964. From personal experience, I know that began teaching in our home at least a year earlier than that, because I started first grade in the fall of 1963. Indeed, I vividly recall may dad, Dr. Wally Swanson, coming over from the hospital on November 22, 1963 and interrupting our class to tell Mom (our teacher) that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

    Mom returned to class after speaking to Dad in the hall. Ashen faced, she told us that something terribly, terribly sad had happened. In fact, she said, what had happened as SO sad that she was going to cancel school for the day. She didn’t say what had happened. She asked the children to walk home immediately (everyone lived close by) so they could hear the news directly from their own parents. After the other kids had left, she told me and Tod that the President of the United States had been killed. Dad came, and we drove to Puyo for some reason and all along the road there were flags at half-mast.

    Blogger’s Note: I have modified the story to reflect your note, Jeffrey. I apologize for the error. -Ralph

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