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When 17-year-old Becki Maurio stepped off the plane in Quito, Ecuador, in 1990, she realized communication was going to be more difficult than she expected.

"Do you speak English?" she asked her host family.

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"And they just looked at me," Maurio said.

All of a sudden, there was this big noise, and all of the Ecuadorians went running out. Maurio said she thought a big plane had landed and all of the people were excited to see it. A few minutes later they all came back in and were talking up a storm, but she had no idea what was going on, she said.

"I said 'que pasa?' and my host sister was talking, talking, talking. So I pulled my dictionary out of my backpack and she flipped through and found the word and it was 'earthquake,'" Maurio said. "So that was the first word I learned [in Ecuador]. And, at the point I definitely knew that I was going to have to learn a lot in order to be able to survive."

Recently, Maruio, of Westminster, traveled back to Ecuador in February as a translator with The Ecuadent Foundation's 21-member dental team.

The foundation takes a group to Ecuador every year to provide free medical and dental care to impoverished children in the country. Maurio attended for her first time this year as a translator. Her experience in the country when she was in high school led her to make the decision to join the foundation on this year's mission to give back to the people.

Maurio, a Pennsylvania native, graduated early from high school in 1990 and was accepted to a rotary exchange program. The group tries to match students with a country that has a student in America, but also would be of interest to them. Maurio's host family had a son who was in the United States so they were matched up.

Communication was difficult for the first few months, with good and bad days, Maurio said, but eventually she was proficient enough to talk with her family and classmates.

"I think I had a good basis from what I learned in high school," she said. "I didn't think I could communicate very well, but I kind of understood the structure. ... I got there in August, and I want to say that by the end of December I felt like I could talk ... really participate in a conversation."

When Maurio got back from her exchange program she knew she wanted to use her newly formed language skills in her career. Now the director of adult education programs for Carroll Community College, Maurio works with the immigrant population of Carroll County. She didn't always know that was exactly what she wanted, though.

"I actually started out as a journalism major in college," she said. "I had this vision of jetting all over the world, reporting from interesting, exotic places."

Maurio ended up teaching Spanish in Connecticut for a few years, but quickly decided that wasn't what she wanted to do. She got her Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages certification a few years later, while she was working part time at Carroll Community College.

"Because of my experience of living in another country and learning the language in that immersion way, it felt hard to sell that idea to my students of learning a language here," she said.

As for her connection to The Ecuadent Foundation, Maurio said there were several times when she felt drawn to the group, but wasn't sure how she would be able to help a dental group.

"All these paths kept leading me to Ecuadent," she said. "I love Ecuador, I love the idea of helping the people in that country and the idea of being there in a different capacity, but I'm not a dental person. It just felt very outside of my realm."

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About three years ago, she began orthodontic treatment with Dr. Bob Scott, who has been a part of Ecuadent for a number of years. Maurio talked to Scott about his trips several times over the course of her treatment, and thought maybe she could go after all, she said.

This past summer during a fundraiser at Scott's house, Maurio was convinced to apply to go with the group and was accepted as a translator in the fall. Scott had previously shared his experiences with her, and said he was really glad she was thinking about going on the trip.

"[Becki] and her husband came [to the fundraiser], and I was surprised to see them because I didn't know she was interested," Scott said. "I was happy to see her, and then she told me later she was going to go. I was really happy about that."

Maurio would get the chance to come full circle; from being a teenager and getting help and support from the people of Ecuador, to going back to help the people of the country she fell in love with at 17.

"I'm a helping person by nature," she said. "There was just something exciting and fun and very challenging about helping in such a different way."

Even though she is fluent in Spanish, Maurio said she did do some studying before leaving and that her language skills were pushed every day of the mission. Having spent a handful of hours listening to dental terms in Spanish on CD on her way to work and meetings, Maurio said she felt a little better prepared. However, it wasn't until she worked with Lindsay Paul, of Ecuadent, to translate kid-friendly dental terms to Spanish, that she felt a little better about it.

"I joke with people that I don't speak dental English, so I definitely don't speak dental Spanish," she said.

Maurio's husband Joe is happy that she got to go on a trip like this, but a little jealous that he couldn't go and have the experience with her, he said.

"I told her several times how proud of her I am," Joe said. "I know she is amazing. Becki can do just about anything and she proved that. She was there to interpret, but she was telling me how she helped with a tooth extraction. ... I am amazed by her."

When the mission ended, Maurio took a few extra days in the country to spend with her high school friends. After a couple of days reuniting with her friends, some of whom she had not seen since she was 17, she returned to reality in the United States, but continues to process her experiences from the mission.

"Even now that I'm back, it still feels a little bit like a dream," Maurio said, of the trip. "I was so excited to be able to participate, I am still so impressed by the focus that the team had. ... That was really exciting to be a part of."

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