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This week, MEDLIFE student volunteers are helping out with the construction of an auditorium at an orphanage in Cusco, Peru. Learn more about the girls benefiting from this project in the blog post below, written by Rosali Vela and translated by Rachel Goldberg.
Jessica has a shy smile, but when she starts talking no one can stop her. Living in the San Judas girls' home wasn't easy at first, especially when her mother left her there at the age of 9 in the care of the nuns that governed the institution at the time. It was hard to find a moment alone there, even in the bathroom, which is shared with more than 20 other girls. But in spite of it all, she says now she's never been happier.
Jessica looks at me doubtfully when I ask her if she is able or willing to tell me the reason why she lives in the orphanage. "My mom left me here because she couldn't take care of me, and her partner- her partner didn't want me," she tells me, her eyes misting. "I'm fine here, the mamis take care of us, they teach us to take care of ourselves, and especially to protect ourselves." The "mamis" are what the girls call the women who run the orphanage.
When I asked her what the girls needed protection from, she looked at me like the answer was obvious. "To protect us from people who want to hurt us," she says.
At 15 years old, Jessica is one of the oldest girls in the home. Her dream is to finish high school. Now she studies cosmetology in a government-subsidized institute and takes high school classes at night. "I want to be a lawyer," she tells me when I ask about her plans, and then she seems lost in thought for a moment, as if reflecting on what she wants to tell me. Finally, she adds, "I have two younger sisters who live with my mom and with him." She doesn't need to say more.
Like Jessica, almost all of the girls in the home were rescued from violent homes, where relatives abused them or abandoned them to seek a better future elsewhere. But not all of the cases are the same.
"Take my photo," says one small girl in the accent that is particular to the Cusco region of Peru. "I'm going to be famous," she says confidently. "I already have a band, and I'm the singer." Johana, 9, has lived in the San Judas home since 2012 with her younger sister. Their mother couldn't afford to take care of them after her husband left her for another woman, and couldn't find help in her small community. Now she is working in a market in Puno. She visits her daughters every other Sunday without fail.
The orphanage is currently administered by the government of Cusco, with Señora Maruja in charge of running the day-to-day operations. "We're always looking for support for the girls," she tells me. "Our dream has always been to have a big auditorium where the girls could exercise, visit with their parents on the weekends, or have classes and performances." Maruja is a strong woman who seems full of energy, and disposed to do everything she can for her girls. "We may be poor," she says, "but if I've learned anything, it's that the most valuable thing isn't money, but education and love."
One curious thing that caught my eye was the Barbie doll carefully placed in a glass case in a living room. With her long hair and pink dress, she seems to watch over the place from her perch high up on the top of a dresser. Rosacarmen finally gave me the answer to what I had been wondering. "The mamis put her there to remind us that we are all ladies," she told me. It seemed to me an apt analogy; these girls are all princesses.
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.
Our latest educational workshop was located in a small community in the Nueva Esperanza area of Via Maria del Triunfo. MEDLIFE will bring a Mobile Clinic to this same community in March of 2013.
During the workshop, MEDLIFE staff members presented on a number of health topics, including the importance of psychological health and sleep, preventative tests for breast and cervical cancers, and nutrition. Along with our usual preventative health topics, we also touched on – for the first time – the important issue of property rights.
As many of our supporters know, MEDLIFE Peru works primarily with low-income, informal settlements established just outside of the city of Lima. Poverty, terrorism, and a lack of opportunities in rural Peru have prompted thousands of residents to migrate to these urban slums. As these communities become bigger, more established, and better organized, residents begin to move toward legal formalization of their homes and communal spaces.
Yet, the country has struggled in developing a comprehensive plan for urban development. With changes in government administration, treatment of informal settlements has varied widely. The involvement of several different agencies, sometimes with conflicting policies, also makes the process of legalization a murky one to navigate.
Santos Abad, a government lawyer, explained the basics of acquiring land title, highlighting the primary agencies involved in the process: COFOPRI (government agency that deals with property formalization), the municipal government, and – in some cases – the court system.
Abad outlined an important law called the prescripción adquisitiva de dominio. This law states that an individual may gain legal land title simply by possessing the land, peacefully and consistently, for a minimum of 10 years. The government's 10-year rule is a seemingly adequate amount of time for legal owners to reclaim their land or, if they wish, take squatters to court.
Community members listened attentively and immediately began to ask questions. In addition to general information about legalizing their property titles, many wanted to know more about the intricacies of sharing property. What happens when you share a home but are not married? How can parents ensure that their homes get passed on to their children?
Residents have voiced a need for more education, in order to better understand their legal rights. MEDLIFE hopes to begin including this type of training, focusing first on property rights, in our upcoming educational workshops.
Stay tuned for more information on important issues regarding land rights in Peru, coming soon!
Last Friday we visited the community of 8 de Diciembre for a seminar on various topics regarding preventative health care, as well as to hand out the Pap smear results for patients who attended a previous Mobile Clinic. The turnout was a lot bigger than we expected, showing us that this community is eager to learn about preventative measures they can take to help protect themselves and their families. From the moment we arrived we saw a very organized community; they had taken the time to rearrange the room to be able to accomodate all participants.
Biz Shenk, one of our MEDLIFE interns, gave a short presentation about mental health, which the community appreciated enormously. Several residents had questions regarding psychological health, but felt ashamed to ask them publicly; for this reason, MEDLIFE is trying to organize visits so that community members can meet one-on-one with psychologists. Two representatives from Manuela Ramos, an NGO that works to secure women's rights, also helped MEDLIFE Field Nurse Meri Lecaros present information about sexual and women's health. Among the topics addressed were how to recognize and prevent STDs, how to prevent cervical cancer, and how to do a quick breast exam to check for breast cancer.
Although participants listened with interest to all of the topics, the one that seemed to interest them the most was malnutrition. Almost every mother in the room was asking for advice; they all wanted to give the best possible nutrition to their children. At the end of the seminar everyone was satisﬁed with the answers given to their questions, and conﬁdent that the information received was not just for them to keep, but to also be shared with others. This group's interest was so strong that they even asked for more meetings, and MEDLIFE plans to continue returning to the zone to provide information on additional health topics.
Inge is a Communications Intern based out of Lima, Peru