By Gayle Harrod
There comes a point in a person’s life when you start asking yourself, “What difference am I making in this world?” I was at that point earlier this year when I began to plan my annual vacation and decided to put my free time into something worthwhile. I had heard about volunteer vacations, although I have never known anyone who has actually participated in one, but decided to try to find something that incorporated the best of both worlds…a dream vacation to a destination I’d always wanted to go, and a volunteer project that spoke to my desire to do good for others. I began searching the internet and browsing the hundreds of volunteer organizations when I came across one that caught my attention…Globeaware, an organization based in Texas with projects around the globe. Something clicked.
As I read through the list of projects I saw that they had many to choose from…Thailand, Costa Rica, Nepal, Japan, Hawaii, and Peru…BINGO! I had always wanted to see Peru for the Inca ruins and incredible scenery and after seeing the photos of a friend that had traveled there last year, it was at the top of my “Must See” list. As I read further, I was excited to find that one of the two projects taking place in Peru was located in Cuzco, a city that was the heart of the ancient Inca civilization. It was icing on the cake to find that the Cuzco project involved working with deaf and mentally disabled children in an orphanage there. What could be more satisfying to the do-gooder in me than working with children?
I began the process of gathering information immediately and discovered that volunteer work didn’t come cheap, but it was a good cause and I was getting the trip of a lifetime to boot. I also decided to take my 12 year old son Cody along on the adventure, hoping to give him a better appreciation for the kind of life he’s privileged with and a better understanding of the world we live in. I signed us up and started the complicated process of booking flights and hotels and coordinating dates and times ( I would recommend using a travel agent) and by the end of April the details were set for a trip in August, the height of the tourist season. I had some difficulty scheduling flights on exactly the days we needed for the program, but decided to take advantage of it and spend a couple of days just exploring the city of Cuzco on our own. We would spend a total of 12 days there, 8 of which we would live and work in the orphanage.
We arrived in Cuzco on a Friday morning. We didn’t quite know what to expect, whether the people would be friendly, or how different the accommodations would be from what we were used to. I had taken Spanish in high school but hadn’t used it in years, so it was a little intimidating to try to communicate with the locals at first, but most were very patient and we managed to make our way to the hotel and got settled in. It had a rustic feel to it but was actually quite nice and modern. We set out to do a little exploring around town and found that American visitors were quite popular with the locals. We were swarmed by local street vendors all competing to sell us their wares, introducing themselves with almost comical American names like “George Washington” and “Julia Roberts”. Most were women and most noticeably, many young children worked the streets selling everything from jewelry & woven items to post cards. Women and children in traditional dress, usually complete with a llama would pose for a photo and then ask you for a few sole’s for the privilege. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but even in the chaos everyone we met was warm and friendly and I realized these people were all just out there trying their best to make a decent living, so rather than being put off by their persistence, I decided to embrace the experience.
Most of the items for sale were relatively inexpensive, so we took the opportunity to stock up on souvenirs and talk to the locals, many of whom spoke great English and took great pride in being able to tell me the names of important American political and historical figures. We found that if someone took a liking to you, they would tell you their real names and give you great bargains on whatever they were selling. We met a group of local boys about my son’s age and they made fast friends. They gave us a guided tour of the main Plaza, showing us to good restaurants, picking local herbs that would help with our altitude headaches, and even exchanging addresses and emails so they could write after we went home. After that it seemed that every time I went into town I would be greeted by one of his buddies with “Hi Missus Cody’s Mom!”
The next morning, we set out dragging our bags up the cobblestone street and headed to the orphanage or “Hogar”. The doors opened and we were met by many smiling little faces. Within minutes we were surrounded by children all eager for hugs and affection. Again, it was all a bit overwhelming, and I immediately knew that this was going to be a very intense experience, but it was also clear how much these kids needed us to be there. I went with few expectations, knowing we were not going to change everything for these children in week’s time, but hoping that our presence there would make some small difference. We were greeted in Spanish by Madre Consuelo, the Franciscan nun who runs the Hogar and shown to our quarters. It wasn’t fancy, but it was adequate. Three beds, closets and drawers along one wall and a modern looking bathroom. Cody and I shared our room with another volunteer from Colorado. We also met the rest of the volunteers, a mother and daughter from Wisconsin, another mother-daughter team from Delaware, our Globeaware coordinator who was from the U.K., and a deaf student from Gallaudet College that had been living at the Hogar for 2 months to document Peruvian sign language. Lunch was prepared for us and we were offered a choice between the local cuisine, fried guinea pig, or something a little more familiar, chicken. Cody and I were the only brave souls that embraced the cultural experience and decided to have the guinea pig. It actually wasn’t half bad….cliche’ as it sounds, it really did taste like chicken!
We all gathered in the volunteer lounge, a comfortable stone walled room which although it had a fireplace, was surprisingly cold all the time and began to plan our projects for the week. Among our goals were a photo album project, to record the photos and names of all 90 children for future volunteers, a mural to be painted in the children’s dining room, classes in computer skills and geography for older children, story and puzzle time for the smaller kids and health and hygiene classes for all the kids, as well as helping them with their daily routines, helping them get ready in the mornings, helping to feed the younger children and taking selected children on several planned outings. During out meeting Madre Consuelo spoke to us (in perfect English this time) about the origins and purpose of the Hogar, how most of the children come to be there, as well as their sources of funding and how that money is being spent. We learned that the majority of the children at the Hogar were deaf, but had no other disabilities, a smaller percentage were mentally disabled but hearing, and about a dozen or so had no disabilities whatsoever, and had been either orphaned or abandoned.
We learned that there was no heat in the Hogar, despite the fact that temperature often dropped to the low 30’s at night, and there was no hot water for the children either, but they did have plenty of warm blankets and slept in close quarters, with dozens of little beds lined up in a row. They got 3 meals a day that were reasonably nutritious, but the majority of which consisted of bread and some kind of soup. We also learned that the children’s hair was rarely washed with soap to discourage lice, which actually prefer clean hair. There were separate dormitories for the boys and the girls and another room specifically for the babies. There was also a play room with communal toys, a television and educational videos. We learned there are about 16 children under the age of 2 living at the Hogar and another 75 or so ranging in age up to about 20 years old. We were astonished to find out that aside from the 2 nuns that run the place, there is one full time care giver, Karina, an amazing young woman with a teaching degree who lives at the Hogar and works 6 days a week, 24 hours a day, and only 3 or 4 other helpers, including a cook and a nurse that come in and work days to care for all those children. The older children are expected to help care for the younger ones and they also have government paid teachers that come in during the week to hold classes which only last about 4 hours a day.
Most of the children leave the Hogar by the time they are 17 or 18, but have few opportunities outside and many will end up on the street. Older boys are allowed to stay beyond 18 if they work on the farm that is owned by the Hogar and most of the girls are expected to enter the convent. Adoption in Peru is difficult at best. Although it is common for parents to leave their children in the care of an orphanage, it is considered a stigma for them to actually sign away their parental rights. Many of the children have families that they visit occasionally on weekends or holidays. It is also made more difficult by the fact that in Peru you are not allowed to choose the child you want to adopt. When you apply to adopt a child, one is assigned to you by the government and usually the most severely disabled are given priority. Because of this most of these children will spend their entire childhood lives living at the Hogar. We would also come to find that the Madre was quite a character and not at all what most of us expected from a nun. She had a wicked sense of humor, could be quite irreverent and we learned she had spent a number of years studying at U.S. colleges where she learned her nearly impeccable English before returning to Peru and being asked to take over the Hogar.
Sunday we woke at 6 am and began helping the children get ready for their day. I had been a little concerned about how my son would handle this experience, especially given the dual language barrier, since he didn’t know either sign or Spanish, but he seemed quite at ease with the children, and actually seemed to have less trouble communicating with them than we adults. He immediately acquired a small group of pals, boys about his own age or a little younger who followed him wherever he went. One of the volunteers had brought a bag full of barrettes, ribbons and pony tail holders which we began to hand out to the girls, who were ecstatic over the gifts, but we also found that the boys were more than eager to have them too. Saying it was a mob scene would be an understatement! When all the goodies had been handed out, we helped the girls to braid their hair and then went down to the dining room to help feed the babies their breakfast of milk and bread.
When breakfast was finished we were told that we were to take the children to a weekly parade in the main plaza and then to Mass. All but the most severely handicapped children were lined up and marched down the street to the plaza….58 children in all, including babies, with only about 10 volunteers to keep track of them all. We were all nervous wrecks! The children were incredibly well behaved though and seemed to enjoy their outing. One of the older residents, a young man of 20 years old, deaf but otherwise mentally very capable, took the opportunity to give us slip to go spend a few hours unsupervised with his friends, but to our relief returned to the Hogar on his own a few hours later. The rest of the afternoon was spent playing with the children and we collapsed into our beds at about 9 pm.
Monday we divided up into groups to teach our classes. Cody and I were given the task of teaching computer skills to some of the older children. We took groups of 4 to 6 kids into town to the internet café got them all a computer and began trying to show them how things worked, how to surf the web, send emails, print, etc. The first group was a challenge since I don’t know sign language and am not very good with the Spanish either, but eventually I worked out a system, sometimes having them watch while I did things, sometimes writing instructions for them the best I could in Spanish and before long they were surfing the web like pros. I tried to guide them to sites that I thought would be interesting or educational, pulling up pages on Inca history or the Gallaudet College home page. Most of the boys seemed more interested in looking up the local soccer teams. It was extremely gratifying to see their faces light up when they managed to find something that truly interested them. The highlight of my day was when one girl on her own was able to find a web page for her home town and saw photos of places close to her home. She was so joyful in showing me where her home was in relation to this or that landmark and it brought tears to my eyes to know that this small thing had made her so happy.
That afternoon we took a slightly smaller group of about 30 children on a hike to a local Inca ruin called Sachsayhauman, which was situated on a hillside just above the Hogar. It was a challenging hike which took about an hour, the first half up the steep streets of Cuzco and the rest was straight up a rough and rocky path. I was seriously struggling with the altitude and had to take frequent breaks to catch my breath. The children got quite a laugh out of it and took to helping me out by pushing on my back side like I was a stubborn mule. We finally made it to the ruin and it was truly a breathtaking sight. Situated high on a hillside above Cuzco was an ancient city of enormous stone walls, some 2 stories in height and 12 feet wide that were all placed so tightly together that you couldn’t slide a finger between them. We were all in awe at the engineering marvel and speculating as to how the giant stones had been brought to such a high place and cut and placed so perfectly. Just below the ruin was a wide flat plateau where we played tag and leapfrog with the children before climbing the rest of the way through the ruin to the top where we sat for a long time overlooking the city of Cuzco.
On Tuesday morning the volunteers were taken on an outing to the town of Pisac where there was a huge market place for shopping. It was a kaleidoscope of color and we all returned with arms loaded down with bags of souvenirs. We were also taken to the Pisac ruin, our van chug-a-lugging up a steep, narrow, winding road to the top of a high mountain. Another ancient stone city that was as our guide explained, built in this location for its amazing views in many directions, a sort of lookout point for the Inca civilization to defend against their many enemies. Across a gorge from the main ruin was a hillside that was pocked with hundreds of holes that contained ancient tombs of the Incas. The afternoon was spent back at the Hogar working and playing with the children and working on our photo album and mural projects. We utilized the knowledge of two of the older girls, who helped us in identifying the children and were able to tell us a little history on many of them. Some of the stories were heartbreaking.
Wednesday morning we were taken on another outing to the town of Tipon, where there is a farm where many of the older boys go to work. The farm provides much of the food for the Hogar by raising pigs, cows, chickens and guinea pigs. Madre Consuelo told us they hope to eventually build on the site and move the Hogar out of Cuzco to the farm where the children will be able to have more freedom to run and play unconfined by the walls of the current Hogar. We toured two more ruins, the one at Tipon a marvel of engineering, which consisted of 12 large flat terraces and included a system to provide fresh running water to its ancient inhabitants. The other not quite as impressive was surrounded by stone walls and as we were told its name, which I cannot remember, loosely translated to “Lice Town”. Needless to say we didn’t spend a lot of time there. Our last stop was at a historical church which is commonly called “The Cistine Chapel of Peru. An unimposing chapel from the outside, the interior was positively aglow with and astonishing amount of gold work and gorgeous frescoes adorning the ceilings. Again we returned to the Hogar for the afternoon to spend time with the children and work on our projects.
Thursday was set aside for our trip to Machu Pichu. We boarded a train at 6 am and set out across the Peruvian countryside which was a strange contrast of incredibly beautiful scenery intermingled with scenes of poverty and disorder. We passed through areas with ramshackle mud brick homes where trash littered the hillsides and yet other areas held some of the most pristine mountain views you could imagine, with enormous white snow capped peaks looming overhead. The trip took over 4 and a half hours from the highland region of Cuzco, where the average temperature ranged from about 65 degrees during the day to the low 30’s at night, to the edge of the Amazon region where is was a steamy 80-90 degrees. It was fascinating to watch the scenery change from the dry and often barren looking highlands to the lush green forests of the Amazon. We arrived at the base of Machu Pichu and boarded a bus for another half hour ride up the steep mountainside. We arrived at the top to an absolutely breathtaking sight, an enormous ancient city, so remotely located that it was only discovered by explorers in 1911. Another engineering marvel with wide terraces set aside for farming, a system of canals to provide fresh running water and urban areas where the Inca’s ruling families lived, including temples, public squares, tombs and even an observatory. We hiked the many long, steep staircases for several hours, exploring the ruin but still could not manage to see all of it in the time allowed. We had a delicious late lunch in the little town at the base of the ruins and boarded the train again for the long ride home arriving back in Cuzo late in the evening and collapsing into our beds.
On Friday we planned a big party for the children, with a special menu, toys, gifts and games for the children. I spent Friday morning combing the shops of Cuzco for things we needed to purchase for the party and returned with shopping bags full of candy, balloons, all the jump ropes I could find, a soccer ball and enough finger puppets for every kid at the Hogar. We filled a bag for each child with candy and finger puppets and other small items found by the other volunteers. Another of the volunteers made animals out of the balloons for each of the children. We had a wonderful lunch, beef skewers marinated in a delicious sauce, potatoes and the standard at every meal, soup. For desert there was a sort of donut…fried dough made by hand that were especially light and delicious. After the meal, we gave them the jump ropes and the ball and played games for the rest of the afternoon. The children especially seemed to enjoy doing the Limbo, using the jump ropes instead of a pole. I can’t describe how much joy it gave me to see all the smiles on the little faces as they played with their puppets and slurped on gummy worms. It’s amazing how such small things can make such a difference to kids who have so little.
Saturday morning came much too quickly. We helped the girls with their hair as we did every morning, but the mood was somber as they made motions with their hands like an airplane taking off and we nodded our heads to confirm that we would be leaving today. They made sad faces and rubbed their hands in the corners of their eyes to let us know we’d be missed. I could barely hold back tears. I hadn’t gone there with any thoughts of adopting a child, but in one short week I had become extremely attached to many of them and found I’d developed a special connection with a few of the older girls in particular. I didn’t want to leave them and it was breaking my heart not to know when, or even if I would see them again.
When it was time for us to leave, all the children were gathered in the courtyard for a final goodbye. We made our way through the group of children hugging each one tightly, trying no to let them see us cry. We were all given an opportunity to say some final words to the children through a sign interpreter and I told them how beautiful and special they all are and that I loved them all very much. Leaving that place was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but I know that just being there was also the best thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t change the world, but I did show a few kids that there are people out there that care about them and hopefully helped a few to see new possibilities and potential in themselves they might not otherwise have seen.
My son and I left feeling that we were a part of something good, something that will continue to make a difference for those kids as new volunteers come and continue to build on what we have done. We are both working on ideas to hopefully continue to help the children there until we can physically return, which we plan to do as soon as it is possible for us. Cody is planning a presentation for his school to make them aware of the need that exists and is going to challenge the 600 students in his school to contribute 50 cents a week to help the children in the orphanage. If he is successful, it would mean $1200 a month for the orphanage, an enormous amount of money by their standards that would provide much needed resources. I am currently working on finding a way to sponsor several of the children to come study temporarily in the U.S. as exchange students and am writing this story in hopes of inspiring some of my fellow co-workers to get out there and volunteer their time and resources to help these children as well. I promise you won’t regret it.