By Bailey LeBlanc (Western University)
As I reflect back on my trip to Peru, I become overwhelmed with emotion. It has been the single greatest experience of my life so far. Prior to submitting my application to represent Western University abroad, I thought I had a good understanding of what to expect on a trip of this kind. I had some experience traveling to developing countries and volunteering with other organizations. I decided to apply for this trip because I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to change someone’s life. Thankfully, I was accepted. So caught up and determined to make change for others, I was completely unaware of the impact this trip would have on my own life.
Before leaving for Peru, I was filled with excitement. I couldn’t wait to embark on what would be an incredible journey. Upon arrival in Urubamba (a small town in Peru), our group was welcomed graciously into the home we were going to be staying in for the next two weeks. Gabriela and Maricarmen (Nexos Comunitarios) opened their doors and showed us a kindness that was truly remarkable. At this point I was completely unaware of how much these sisters were going to mean to me in such a short period of time. Gabi and Mari, along with others,work for Nexos Comunitarios, a non-profit organization founded in 2014 in Lima, Peru. Their mission is to promote the exercise of rights and civil liberties though Responsible Human Development, alongside the populations that live in poverty and social exclusion.
We arrived in Urubamba in May 2015 and the organization was supporting Kiya Survivors Rainbow House, an organization that supports children, some of which have mental or physical disabilities. Most of the children living there were not related, and through various circumstances, had been separated from their parents. A woman named Luisa lives with the children and takes care of them every day, treating them like her own. The house was small for the amount of people living in it, but it was decorated with drawings and crafts the children had made and contained many donated toys and school supplies. Comparing this to my childhood, these children had a fraction of the luxuries that I had grown up with. Despite all of this, I saw a family. Everyone offered to help without complaint and worked together in the ways a family should. I saw huge amounts of love, kindness, and true happiness. Everyone was interacting with each other, there was no television, video games, or cell phones to distract anyone from being together. The kids would play together and with us, we would all help cook and reorganize the school supplies. They would help us learn some Spanish, and in return we would teach English. My favorite part was painting the outside of the home yellow and orange, so it was as bright as the people inside.
There was an obvious language barrier between us. However, I was amazed at how easy it was to communicate without using words. A smile, a laugh or a hug is universal and understood in any language. We were able to play games for hours without understanding what anyone was saying. We got to know each of the children on such a personal level. Who knew that saying so little could say so much. I would have never expected to make such tight bonds, or care so much about someone I couldn’t communicate with. It was incredible.
In addition to the work we did at the rainbow house, we were invited to Amilkar’s (one of the older children at the rainbow house) home in the mountains to meet his family and also to Mafers home to build an accessible bathroom. Both of these experiences were extremely moving in very different ways. Amilkars family prepared a traditional meal for us, only made on special occasions. We learned that Amilkar could not live with his family anymore because of his low mobility; he was unable to complete the two-hour walk into the city each day with his siblings. We also learned Amilkars sister was the only source of income in family and had to support everyone’s needs. This was the first time on the trip I had become visibly emotional. I’m not entirely sure what it was about that day, but when it was time to get on the bus to go back down the mountain I began to cry. I was so unbelievably grateful for that experience and Amilkars family’s hospitality and kindness.
Mafer and her family will always hold a special place in my heart. We were sent there to build an accessible bathroom for her (she had cerebral palsy) and her family. At the time they were only using a hole in the ground. With everyone doing their part this project was completed, and the family now had a functioning bathroom for their children to use. Sadly, A few months ago, we were informed about Mafer’s death. It was extremely heart breaking and tragic. Her family and those in the community all loved her so much; she will never be forgotten by any of us.
My life in Canada compared to my experience in Peru was very different in many ways. However, one is not better than the other. In Peru I saw so much more interaction, kindness and love between people. There was no technology or social media splitting people apart, there were no video games keeping children from experiencing what the environment has to offer, there was no TV at the dinner table preventing families from communicating. There were genuine conversations, people were interested in what others had to say, people went above and beyond to help others and were not thinking solely about themselves. There was true happiness and kindness. We often have the impression that those in the Western world need to help the “less fortunate”, when in my opinion it is equally the other way around. We have A LOT to learn from people like the ones I met in Peru. They may not have as much in a materialistic sense, but in many ways they are much, much richer.
Coming back from the trip, I can honestly say that the people I met in Peru had a bigger impact on me than I did on them. On the last day at the rainbow house and while saying goodbye to Mari and Gabi at the airport there were tears streaming down my face. I was terrified I would never see these incredibly amazing people again. The time went by much to quickly and I wish I did not have to leave. All of the people I met in Peru made such a large impact on my life it will be impossible to forget them or what they taught me about life. I am forever grateful for what they did and I know that one day, I will see them again.