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A Unique Celebration
Last week's staircase inauguration ceremony was one of our most exciting yet, as we celebrated the completion of five new staircases in the community of 8 de Diciembre with the usual speeches and champagne bottle-breaking -- plus some special surprises from the community. Three of the staircase projects were sponsored by student chapters from Stanford University, University of Chicago, Ohio State University, San Francisco State University, and University of Georgia, and built by the community. The other two projects were built during last week's Mobile Clinic, with the help of student volunteers from Florida State University, University of Miami, and George Washington University.
Thanks to the remarkable work ethic of community members, 8 de Diciembre now has six staircases, in just over one month. A relatively new community made up of young families, they have worked tirelessly to improve the humble, isolated settlement located near the top of a rocky hill. They are still struggling to get basics like roads, electricity and running water. Even delivering raw materials to build the staircases turned out to be tricky, as few drivers were willing to risk the steep, dusty path to 8 de Diciembre. But MEDLIFE and community members persisted, motivated by cases like 13-year old Thalia, who fell and broke her leg on her way to school a few months ago and has been afraid to walk down the hill ever since.
It was a festive atmosphere at the inauguration thanks to music provided by the municipal band of the district of Villa Maria de Triunfo. In keeping with the mischievous traditions of Carnaval time, local women dressed up our participants by smearing everyone's faces with talcum powder. But the real treat was the yunza, a unique Peruvian tradition where presents are tied to the branches of a large tree. In this celebration, usually observed during Carnaval in the highlands, everyone holds hands and dances around the tree. Eventually, the tree is cut down, bringing the gifts down with it.
Students and community members alike were in high spirits, though exhausted from the week's hard work. The day ended on an emotional note as the community expressed their thanks for the new staircases, and the students said goodbye to new friends. Group leader Marlesa was presented with a special present on behalf of the community: a handmade carving depicting the hills and houses of 8 de Diciembre.
Three Staircase Projects Complete, Thanks to Student Chapter Sponsorships
1. 8 de Diciembre II - Sponsored by UGA
UGA sponsored a staircase project for the community of 8 de Diciembre, where Ítala lives with her young son Greco. When she moved with her family to Lima, Ítala's community lacked basic infrastructure, electricity, and running water. Yet, little by little, residents are working toward several improvements.
"I'm very thankful," said Ítala on the day of the inauguration. She asked us to communicate to the group that even though she never met the students in person, she will always carry them in her heart. She hopes that some day some of the students will be able to come visit.
Stanford University and the University of Chicago teamed up to fund a staircase project for Soledad's family, as well as her fellow neighbors living in 8 de Diciembre.
"The stairs are a relief," says Soledad. "The truth is, I never thought they would be constructed so quickly; I always imagined it would take months or years. Maggie and I are truly grateful for this gift."
On March 18, 2013, members of the community inaugurated this staircase, breaking a bottle of champagne on behalf of volunteers from Stanford and University of Chicago.
Thanks to students at OSU and SFSU, Yoni is just one of the several beneficiaries of a new staircase project in 8 de Diciembre.
Yoni’s house is one of the highest on the hill, and the pathway leading to it is dangerous, especially when it rains. She has fallen several times as she carries Rodrigo on her back to retrieve water. In order to receive medical attention in case of an emergency, they have to travel to the only clinic in the area, located far from their home.
With their new stairs, Yoni and her neighbors can go down the rocky hill to get food and water without fear of falling. Thanks to the MEDLIFE chapters at OSU and SFSU for your support!
"That's my birthday!" said one of the students, when we told her the name of the community we were going to be working with, named for the date of its founding.
The excitement at the staircase project this week was contagious, spreading to everyone in the community of 8 de Diciembre. Men, women, teenagers and even elderly people came out to work on the stairs. "I'm still strong," said Natividad, when we asked her not to carry the heavy bags of cement. "After what happened to Thalia, we need to finish this quickly." Natividad's daughter fell when she was walking up the rocky hill that leads to his house a couple months ago. She's now recovering at home, but she's afraid to go down the hill and unable to go to school.
The student volunteers were excited to work with the community members of 8 de Diciembre, often called the "ant workers" by MEDLIFE director Carlos Benavides for their exceptional work ethic.
"You know Raul, people have been saying bad things about your community," Carlos said to Raul Flores, the community leader of 8 de Diciembre. Raul smiled but stayed silent, waiting for Carlos to continue. "Nobody wants to work with you! They say your community never stops working, not even to take a breath." Laughing, Raul replied, "Well, I would rather be hated for a good reason than for a bad one." Still smiling, he walked over to his taxicab and turned up the volume of the radio. That was the signal we were waiting for: time to get to work!
"What's the record for the most work completed in a single day?" asked one student. The work usually goes slowly, I told him. Normally you can work with ten bags of cement until the first "Break, please" is heard, usually because of the sun. I explained that after mixing the cement, it must be passed bucket by bucket up the hill to create the staircase. "Well, we're going to break the record," the student said, undaunted. I translated this to the members of the community. "Then we have to use 15 bags!" they said.
Amongst the community members who came out to help, we found Betsy, Eloy's mom, dressed in a Peruvian pride shirt. "I need the work," she told me when I asked why she was helping out in a community that's not her own. "Their community is helping me by paying 25 soles (about $9.60) a day, and I still need to buy the school supplies for my kids."
Working with Betsy is a lot of fun, because she's always cracking jokes. "I'm going to charge you for every joke," she said to me when she saw me laughing. Even the students were laughing, sometimes without even understanding what she was saying.
A week ago we bought some school materials for another patient, Leonel, and even with our bargaining skills, we spent more than 200 soles. I couldn't imagine how difficult it must be for Betsy, a single mother, without a job and with three more kids to worry about. But Betsy still keeps up her sense of humor from her youth in Pucallpa, in the Peruvian jungle. She started joking around with one of the students, Thomas, who was next to her in line.
And while carrying the heavy cement buckets, Thomas told me something. "I brought some school materials from home, and I don't know who to give them to," he said. But I already had someone in mind. Betsy was was in for a great surprise.
At the end of the day, the students celebrated breaking the record, having finished the entire 15 bags of cement. "Now you won't forget about us!" they said. It's true; we never forget the hard work and dedication of the student volunteers.
As we were leaving, we passed by Betsy taking Eloy to school and stopped to talk. She showed us his schoolbooks. "He gets straight A's, and I'm asking his teachers to place him in third grade," she told us. Eloy lost an entire school year because of his illness, and is now repeating the second grade.
As she was putting the notebook away, we gave Betsy the school materials that Thomas had brought. That might have been the first time that I have seen Betsy speechless. "Thank you," she said without looking at anybody. When they reached the bus stop, Betsy turned back smiling and yelled out, "Thank you, handsome." Everyone laughed, and Thomas responded, "Adios, mi amor" (goodbye my love). Betsy, still laughing, held Eloy's hand as she waved goodbye.
Other school supplies brought by students on this trip will be delivered on Friday. If you're a student going on a Mobile Clinic with some extra space in your suitcase, you too are welcome to bring donations of school supplies, art materials, or toys for the children in the communities where we work. Your contributions will be greatly appreciated.
This week, the MEDLIFE team completed our first staircase project in 12 de Junio, a community located right next to Laders de Nueva Esperanza, where we have already completed six staircase projects.
This particular project was organized for one of the community's residents, Carmen Solano, who is also a MEDLIFE follow-up patient battling breast cancer. Since 2011, MEDLIFE has been helping Carmen receive treatment for her illness, as well as helping to support her family while she is unable to work. Carmen has always shown incredible positivity in the face of her disease.
At the end of the week, two of the hardest-working students were asked to break the ceremonial bottle of champagne alongside Carmen, as part of the inauguration of the staircase. After a loud round of applause for the student volunteers, the students asked for an even louder one for the community.
"I will continue to fight against this disease, with more strength and without giving up," said Carmen. "Thank you for this beautiful gesture."
Read more and see more photos here.
This week's Mobile Clinic in Lima is one of our biggest to date, with almost 100 volunteers from schools all over the United States. That means we can serve twice as many people with double Mobile Clinics and community development projects! The project this week is two more staircases in Laderas Nueva Esperanza, and as the student volunteers learned yesterday, building a staircase in a week is not easy.
Our 50th staircase project in Lima, Peru is a special one for a number of reasons. Like our very first staircase project, this one came directly out of the relationship developed between a patient and MEDLIFE staff members after a Mobile Clinic. And although the initial idea that sparked these stairs came from one small boy, the project will benefit many families for years to come.
Virgen de Cocharcas is a community located in the hills of the Villa María de Triunfo district. With seventeen years of settlement, it's a relatively established community, having recently gained recognition from the local government in the form of electricity and water. But as the community continues to creep higher into the hills, it still lacks accessible roads and stairs. The community is built on a sandy slope, and branching off of it are steep hills composed of loosely piled rocks that lead to small wooden houses that about 350 people call home.
One of them is eight-year old Eloy Britto, who came to Lima just months ago with his mother and younger siblings from the jungle region of Peru, and is now living with a relative in Virgen de Cocharcas. Eloy was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart condition that results in low oxygenation of the blood. In the US, it is usually corrected with an operation within a year from birth. But Eloy had been living without any medical treatment until his mother brought him to a Mobile Clinic in their community last summer.
The terrain leading to Eloy's house would be dangerous for anyone, but going on home visits over the next few months, MEDLIFE's patient follow-up team was especially affected by the sight of Eloy making his way up and down the hill. Every few steps, he had to stop to catch his breath and then start up again.
The process of building these stairs was not an easy one. Though the students who come on weeklong Mobile Clinics work together with locals to help get stair projects built, the groundwork is laid weeks in advance at late-night meetings with the community. MEDLIFE provides building materials but requires a commitment of labor from the community before construction begins to ensure that the project will be carried out. Director Carlos Benavides says that this community was a more difficult case because most of the able-bodied adults were busy working far from home and had to be convinced of the necessity of building these staircases to benefit the community as a whole.
Yet, once the community finally came together to clear the site and begin construction, the staircase progressed rapidly. In just two weeks, residents of Virgen de Cocharcas and students and parents from Dana Hills High School laid the foundations, poured cement, painted and even planted trees. At the end of the week, the formerly barren, rocky ground was almost unrecognizable. To inaugurate the project, Eloy's mother and a mother from the Dana Hills group broke the champagne bottle together, and the community treated everyone to a dance performance and some typical Peruvian appetizers.
Having seen the change from just this one project, Carlos is sure that nearby families will soon begin requesting stairs of their own. And sure enough, the next project planned for our first Mobile Clinic in December is a second staircase for Virgen de Cocharcas, a few blocks from Eloy's house.