How do you find good, legitimate volunteering opportunities when you travel? I get this question all the time and like most things in life – it takes some work and some luck. When Megan said she wanted to spend some time volunteering abroad I was overjoyed. I was excited to do a volunteer project again as it had been 3 years since I had done volunteering in Jordan and I was mainly excited to introduce her to the concept as well as get her even closer to the culture and community we were traveling in. In all honestly – I think the volunteering was more her dad’s idea – however when he brought it up, she was all for it. This set me off on trying to answer the question above. Strangely even for a travel expert like myself, I found this question daunting.
I did a few searches on i to i and put out some feelers to friends, however I knew I had a challenge ahead since I was really only looking to spend a week volunteering in Lima and I needed to find something economical. I searched a few websites, followed a few leads but found most of the volunteering opportunities were around Cusco, and I was looking for Lima. I decided to send a note off to Intrepid to see if they had any advice. Intrepid is a travel company that puts a lot of effort into giving back to the local community. Most of their trips have some sort of community or charity component that links in with their Intrepid Foundation which allows travelers to give back to the countries and communities they visit. This is normally a pure fundraising process – you give money to projects that you may have visited and they match it. We wanted to do more than just fundraise, so I decided to ask my friends at Intrepid if they had any recommendations of good volunteering projects that Megan and I could potentially work with in Peru.
They came back and introduced me to Project Peru – one of their foundation projects. They weren’t exactly sure if Project Peru took volunteers, but they put me in touch with the founder, Carole from the UK. I learned from Carole that Project Peru actually takes on very few volunteers, and instead focuses on fundraising and keeping the projects going. I told her Megan and I were interested in building projects and helping out however we could if they would have us. We had a number of phone calls to clarify things and Carole personally talked to Megan too as well as checked all of our references. I think it’s really important for all parties in these types of volunteering situations to get to know each other well. And it was worth it, as by the end of all of this information gathering we all were in agreement that this would be a great fit and decided to move forward!
Project Peru runs a number of projects in the Lima area. In fact I could hardly believe how much they are involved in and how they keep the fundraising machine going. Their biggest project is the refuge in Zapallal – a community on the outskirts of Lima. The refuge is home to 50 children between the ages of 3 and 18. They come from extreme poverty or great moral risk. The refuge offers a place to live and grow up that is safe and supportive. They get educated in music, dance and theater by local teachers and volunteers from the area. In addition, the children receive support to go to the local state school as well as opportunities for their further education. Project Peru is focused on breaking the circle of poverty by offering opportunities through education, independence through responsibility, and dignity through employment.
Our plan was to stay at Zapallal with the kids for a week and help out wherever we could. During the day we would help build houses in the community via Project Peru. Megan did fundraising for Project Peru and was able to raise $1880 – enough to fund the building of two homes in Las Laderas. I also know that with this plan came a few challenges – everyone at the refuge spoke Spanish and since Megan only had a year of high school Spanish and me none – I knew it was going to be challenging to communicate. The other issue – I’m not always great with kids. I love them – but living with them 24/7 is a different situation. However I also know that after 8 years of traveling – one week isn’t going to kill me! I was thrilled Carole had arranged for Megan and I to have our own room at the refuge as at least we had a place where we could go and re-energize when we needed to.
We arrived at the refuge to a big crowd of smiling kids, a welcome sign, and lots of hugs. Karina, the Director of Project Peru in Lima, and her husband Josue gave us one of the warmest welcomes I can ever remember. The kids were excited to have ‘new blood’ to play with yet I’m not sure they were expecting 2 people who spoke very little Spanish! However – games are games – and language barriers seem to disappear pretty quickly when a kid takes your hand and drags you onto the soccer field!
The refuge was so much nicer than I expected – a large complex with lots of outdoor space for the kids, a good amount of resources for the kids, but most importantly it was the local ‘mothers’ and teachers who worked at the refuge that absolutely blew me away. Taking care of 50 children seems like an impossible task – but the refuge was a well-oiled machine full of love and discipline. I think I was most in awe of simply observing how everything was run and the people dynamics between adults and kids.
For that week were involved in whatever aspects of daily routine we could be in. We walked the kids to school, helped the older ones with English homework, got kids ready in the morning brushing hair and putting up pony tails, and playing games. But the thing the kids tended to be most interested in was simply getting our time to give us hugs and take our hands – the act of physical closeness – something that is often foreign to me in my solo life. In the morning when we’d get up at 5:45am to help get them ready for school, I’d groggily walk out of our room and freshly showered kids would come running to me with arms wide open say “Miiisssss – buenos dias!” nearly tackling me with a hug. Then they would continue to attach themselves to me all morning. I thought this a bit strange at first – but realized they probably had few adults to be close to intimately – they, like me, had little opportunity for hugs and love in their lives. I’m not a morning person – but this act of pure love in the mornings was my most memorable moment. Maybe just maybe I do have a few motherly genes hiding in me after all.
At times I felt as if Megan was a deer in the headlights – her world of upper middle class American suburbia colliding with dusty, impoverished Peru. Like American Pie meets Slumdog Millionaire. And on the other hand, I felt like at times she thrived in this environment. Overall, she did great for a 17 year old. The most impressive outcome of this volunteering for me was that I watched and listened as Megan’s one year of high school Spanish improved 200% over the course of 7 days. It started slow – but once she started feeling comfortable and was around it more she lost any inhibition to be wrong and started simply trying to speak it whenever she could. Her enthusiasm when she got a sentence right or remembered a vocabulary word was infectious. She would smile and laugh in delight and all of the kids around here were encouraging her. In fact – somehow she even came out of that week of intense Spanish immersion knowing how to roll her R’s – something she could never do before. This whole evolution made me a complete believer in the need to supplement language learning with language immersion. I was blown away by what an effect it had and the whole experience was worth it simply for that if you ask me!
One day Josue, Karina, and 3 of the other high school aged girls took Megan and I into Lima city center for a day of walking around and site seeing. I was overjoyed to watch Megan and the girls click – all communicating in a mix of broken English and Spanish. The beautiful thing is teenagers are the same all over the world – they were silly, giggly, and bonding – and I was beaming. They sang popular songs together and shared ipods – Megan in English and the girls in Spanish – at the same time. Megan taught them tongue twisters and helped them with English and they helped her with Spanish. We were exhausted after the whole day in the city as we road the van back at midnight to Zapallal with the girls in the back exchanging Facebook updates and Instagram pictures.
Every time I conversed with Carole, the founder of Project Peru who lives in England she would say to me, “Sherry, please tell people about us and don’t forget us.” Done Carole…I will gladly and enthusiastically tell the world about Project Peru, the work you are doing and the beautiful children there!
Learn more about Project Peru and the many, many great things they are doing for this community here – projectperu.org.uk
If you feel like donating, please consider giving to the Intrepid Foundation as they match donations!
Donate here www.theintrepidfoundation.org