Volunteer Abroad 2013
What We Did
Approximately 24 hours later than our Thailand-bound counterparts, a group of twenty EGL students arrived at our destination of Cusco, Peru. We comprised nearly half of what was the largest group of volunteers (41) that had ever participated in the annual EGL Volunteer Abroad trips. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Selvy before being transported to the Santa Maria house where we would be staying. Selvy and Jane are the co-founders of Peru’s Challenge and, as explained on their website (http://www.peruschallenge.com/), “The Peru’s Challenge Program is dedicated to developing sustainable schools and communities in impoverished mountain villages surrounding Cusco, Peru. We work in long term partnerships with local communities to empower the poorest and most vulnerable rural populations. This is achieved through a series of development projects and social and educational programs, with the invaluable help of our volunteers.” Before any construction work could begin, our first tasks were to acclimate to the high elevation and thin atmosphere and to gain some understanding of the history and culture of the city of Cusco and of the community of Pumamarca where our project was located. We toured a few local sights which included other projects that had already been completed by Peru’s Challenge, e.g., the school at Pumamarca and other greenhouses similar to the one we would be building. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Selvy! Over the course of the next two weeks, we worked alongside local volunteers and under a group of locals employed by Peru’s Challenge who were already experts in the art of greenhouse building. We certainly couldn’t have done it without them! Their positive attitudes and encouragement were invaluable to us and helped sustain us through what was, at times, physically demanding work. By the end of our short stay in Peru, we had not only constructed a greenhouse in traditional Peruvian style (please see http://eglva.blogspot.com/ for a pictorial progression), but we had also helped at the local Pumamarca school by teaching “hygiene and gym,” topics similar to health and wellness. Not all of our time, however, was spent on the greenhouse or in the school. The first weekend saw our group split into two, with one enjoying the thrill of paragliding and the other testing its skills with white water rafting. The second weekend we visited Macchu Picchu, scaling the heights of neighboring Wayna Picchu to experience a grander view. It was incredible! And, then, it was time to leave. After two full weeks of service, sightseeing, and camaraderie, our Peru contingent returned to the States, a group of individuals changed and connected by our shared experience.
As part of our tour we were invited into Maria’s home to see where she and her three children live and to hear more about her story. Maria became a single mother after her husband was killed in a construction accident. To make things even more difficult, she has also been diagnosed with breast cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. For every appointment she has to travel by bus all the way to a clinic in Lima which takes valuable time away from her livelihood of growing and selling flowers. Selvy explained that generally greenhouses are built for an entire community and that each person has his own section of the land. However, given Maria’s situation, the community leaders of Pumamarca made an exception and supported the building of a greenhouse solely for her use so she can grow flowers and participate in the 1000 Flowers Campaign of Peru’s Challenge. She will now be better able to earn money to support her family and to pay for her medical treatments.
None of the twenty students who participated in the VA trip to Peru had ever visited the country before, so each individual brought back a new set of experiences and a much greater appreciation and understanding of Peruvian culture. Katelyn Rowley spoke for all of us when she wrote, “I am thankful to be a part of EGL. I am thankful I was challenged by all of the fellow EGLs to push my body for six hours a day. I am thankful to have seen something purely wonderful. I am thankful to Selvy, [Jane], Maria, Angelica, and Ramiro….I am so thankful, and I won’t forget this day.” Indeed, our memories will last forever.
What We Did
Our volunteer work was centered on building a new childcare center in the Wat Tung temple compound in a rural area of Surin, Thailand. The current center has severe structural damage, and is actually unsafe for the children to be in during rainstorms. The basic foundation of the new structure that we worked on was completed by some contractors several months ago, but was left unfinished due to poor financing. While working on construction of the building, we mixed concrete, laid bricks, and installed windows. The tasks were first demonstrated and then lead by the monks of the compound, who spoke nearly no English, but taught us by example and through translation via one of our coordinators when necessary. Other EGL students worked in the old classroom, where we assisted the teacher in managing around 30 kids through educational songs and activities. After lunch, the kids took a nap, and it was all hands on deck for construction. Over the course of the first week, we completed the front four walls of the new center, and made further progress on interior stairs and walls.
One aspect of our impact was easy to define: we had completed a significant portion of the building that would serve as a safer place for these children to learn while their families worked to support them. While the monks certainly had expertise for the job, they lacked the manpower necessary to execute the construction in a reasonable time frame. Accordingly, they were very much appreciative for our help. More important, however, was the impact we made on the children themselves. When we first entered the classroom, many of the children were cautious, nervous, or downright terrified of us. It was an incredible experience to gradually gain their trust, each child requiring a different approach. By the end, we were universally loved, making it easy to make small headway in the kids’ understanding of English and improvement of fine motor skills. Because our presence was something different, and because we had youthful energy to spare, we made the classroom learning experience exciting as well as educational.
A major takeaway EGL brought back from Thailand was the value of something as simple as a smile. Thai people are notoriously easy-going and cheerful. The unofficial national motto is “mai pen rai”, which roughly translates to “Don’t worry.” This merry and carefree attitude was contagious, and we began to recognize the value of a positive attitude, whether in placating a crying child or dealing with mixing concrete in the muggy heat, or getting assaulted by angry red ants while cutting sugar cane. Every Thai we met had a smile for us no matter the circumstance, and we learned to return the favor. Hopefully we’ve internalized some of the sunny disposition, and can make impact back home through keeping positive through difficult situations.
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