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From the MEDLIFE office in Riobamba, Ecuador, we took a taxi to the bus station and a 1-hour bus to Columbe, another city near Riobamba, where MEDLIFE has held several mobile clinics and projects. We then spent 30 minutes on a truck to Llinllin, a community within Columbe that is so large, a community member says it had to be divided into several "llinllins”, Llinllin Colegio, Llinllín Las Juntas, Lllinllin Hierba Buena.
“Llinllin is so big that it should be converted into a parroquia (district) instead of being part of Columbe" said the truck driver. “So many little Lllinllins communities confuses people, when actually all of the Llinllin communities are different."
Once we got to the outskirt of Llinllin, we saw the huge wall MEDLIFE built for the local school, thanks to the donations from our chapter at the University of Brown. After 20 more minutes driving, we finally got to the community of Llinllin Pucara.
Llinllín Pucara is home to just over 500 residents, most of whom have only completed their basic studies. In Llinllin Pucara, you find yourself surrounded by vast valleys and rivers making for a priceless view. At every corner, Llinllin Pucara's landscapes are breathtaking.
The community, as we said before, is one of many "llinllins”. Although these network of small communities are a bit far away from each other, they often work together, especially when it comes to sharing resources.
One of the largest schools in the area is located in Llinllín Colegio where hundreds of students study. About a 20 minute drive away, in Llinllín Pucara, a smaller and humbler school is located, where just over 100 students fill their classrooms. The students that attend Llinllin Pucara live in remote communities and cannot make the trip to Llinllín Colegio, which takes over 1 hour each way.
Pedro Yacosa, president of Llinllín Pucara, talked with us about how a new road allowing car access to their community has helped their local economy grow. "The main economic activity here is raising cattle, especially the production of milk and cheeses. There are still some families who grow corn and potatoes, but the production of milk and cheese is something that everyone here in Pucara Llinllín is proud of. Now with the new road, we are already selling our products in larger cities, and some large companies are purchasing our products to resell," he says.
Though these new and accessible roads provide safer access to community members' homes, using these roads to reach the local school from the Llinlin Pucara town takes 40 minutes to an hour of walking.
Located about 400 meters above the new road, lies an old path that is still being used by many community members to save time. This old path shortens the commute to only 15-20 minutes. This old path, however, is quite dangerous, especially due to the poor conditions caused by Llinlin’s unpredictable climate and daily rain showers. Despite these dangers, many community members still opt to use this path to save them time. This leads to daily accidents due to mud and stone slides.
"This path is very important for us because it saves us a lot of time to get to the road and to the school from our town. Everyday we use this path and we cannot use it anymore in its current condition. We need to build a staircase to replace this path, a staircase that is safe and allows us to access the path without fear of falling down", says Pedro.
As we walked along this old path, we found ourselves slipping and nearly falling many times. Laughter from children also using the path surrounded us, as they watched us struggle. These children were much more experienced in using this path and knew how to navigate it with much more grace than we did.
MEDLIFE is planning to build a large staircase along this path to help support this community. This staircase will be made during several mobile clinics in Riobamba. In addition, we will be building a hygiene project in the local school in Llinllin Pucara at the foot of the future stairs. Together with the community, MEDLIFE hopes to achieve its goal of giving the Llinllin Pucara community an improved quality of life and greater security for all.
The hills around Lima where MEDLIFE works are arid and desert like. Access to healthy food like fresh produce is scarce for most residents. When a community in Via El Salvador expressed interest in working with MEDLIFE to creating a community garden, MED programs intern Jessica Danker jumped at the opportunity and decided to work on this as her intern project.
This community had tried to start a garden project in the past, but were unable to complete it because they lacked the resources to purchase proper soil and to modify existing infrastructure to create a good space for the garden.
Over half a billion people worldwide suffer from chronic food insecurity, and many more lack access to healthy foods. The communities MEDLIFE works in are no exception. Community gardens can be an effective way of addressing this problem.
Along with the obvious benefit of creating access to affordable fresh produce, and the health benefits that follow, community gardening has a host of other benefits that are supported by research in a variety of settings. The positive effect that urban green spaces, something that is very scarce in the communities where work in Lima, have on mental health and overall well being is heavily documented. Participation in community gardens increases civic engagement, and has even been shown to be related to reduced crime and juvenile delinquency in some studies.
The local elementary school was chosen as the site of the Via El Salvador, garden so that the community could get the children involved and use it as a learning tool for them. They can learn where their food comes from and about nutrition with hands on experience. The parents, teachers, and children involved with the school are responsible for the upkeep of the garden. The harvest will be distributed to the families with children in the school. MEDLIFE will check in with the school periodically.
The garden is an eco garden, meaning it is grown naturally without the use of pesticides and other chemicals. It has six garden beds planted with lettuce, carrots, cilantro, aguaymento, celery, Swiss chard, beets, and more. Jessica gave an educational workshop about nutrition in November of 2015 after the garden was planted. She talked about the impact of dietary choices like Inca Cola vs. fruit juice, white rice vs. brown rice, how to combat anemia with improved diet and how to use foods from the garden to combat common nutrient deficiencies in children.
As of December the project is going well and Jessica is hoping to do another garden project during her work with MEDLIFE.
Groenewegen, P., van den Berg, A., de Vries, S., & Verheij, R. (2006). Vitamin g: effects of green space on health, well being, and social safety. BMC Public Health, 6(149),
Alaimo K, Packnett E, Miles RA, Kruger DJ. "Fruit and vegetable intake among urban community gardeners."Journal of Nutrition Education & Behavior, 40(2): 94-101, 2008
Ober Allen, J., Alaimo, K., Elam, D., & Perry, E. (2008). Growing vegetables and values: Benefits of neighborhood-based community gardens for youth development and nutrition. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, 3(4), 418-439. doi: 10.1080/19320240802529169
Teig, E., Amulya, J., Bardwell, L., Buchenau, M., Marshall, J., & Litt, J. (2009). Collective efficacy in Denver, Colorado: Strengthening neighborhoods and health through community gardens. Health & Place, 15(4), 1115-1122. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1353829209000598
Each group of volunteer affairs interns takes on a project of their choosing along with their personal projects. This group of year-long interns has chosen to do a project in a community MEDLIFE has never worked in before called Urucancha, located in the district of San Juan De Miraflores.
“It’s really cool that we are taking it upon ourselves to be the first contact with Urucancha,” said Volunteer Affairs intern Leigh Cohen.
The community is the highest on the hillside. It is located on the other side of the same hill as La Molina, one of the wealthiest areas of Lima. A large wall runs the length of the hillside separating the two communities, physically dividing the hillside by social class.
This will be the first of many projects in the community. Urucancha had heard of MEDLIFE by word of mouth and reached out to Director of MEDprograms Carlos Benavides to see if MEDLIFE would do a project with them. Carlos promptly organized a night meeting.
The interns hiked up the hills through the mud and cold to meet with this new community. The trip had a profound effect on the group as a whole.
“It was kind of like the climax of our internship, the enthusiasm, dedication, and perseverance of the people of Urucancha was unforgettable.” Leigh said. “We really got to see the hardships the community faces every day.”
They asked the community what they needed, and they responded by describing a host of problems they face in their daily lives, mainly due to the complete lack of infrastructure and city planning that is typical in the pueblos jovenes.
The whole community of 143 families share just one outhouse. This leads to poor sanitation, which causes a host of health problems. MEDLIFE is going to construct eight eco-toilets.
Although Urucancha has a community center, it is unusable because it is falling apart. MEDLIFE is going to renovate the community center so that the community has a space to gather. MEDLIFE is also going to hold educational workshops there in the future.
They have no access to health-care, if an accident or emergency occurs, they have a long and hazardous trip down the hillside to get any kind of medical care. So MEDLIFE is going to stock the community center with first aid supplies, that way, if something occurs, the few nurses who live in the community can at least provide first response care before getting the patient to a doctor.
In order to get water, community members have to hike far down the hill and carry water up to their homes. A primary objective of the project is to build a system to pump water up the hill to tanks in the community, so there is water available within the community of Urucancha.
Urucancha is located very high on the hillside, the only path that reaches it is so steep that several interns fell during the hike up. MEDLIFE is also going to build a staircase to make the commute easier.
The path passes through Urucancha’s garden, which has been planted with the Peruvian President’s favorite flower. The community maintains the tribute despite the lack of government support and the many socio-political forces that conspire to marginalize and physically separate Urucancha from the wealthier districts of Lima and a decent quality of life.
With such a lack of infrastructure and no outside support, life in Urucancha is a daily struggle. MEDLIFE is committed to working hand in hand with the community of Urucancha to improve their quality of life. This year’s intern project is the first step. They need to raise $11,500 to complete all of these improvements. Please help by donating here.
Imagine walking into your kitchen, the place where you keep all your food, where you cook and where your children and family “hang out”. You walk into this area and see nothing but blackened walls and ceilings, all covered with soot from the cooking fires you build every single day. Imagine that when you walk in, the air is thick with particulate matter from a fire that is burning under your pot of soup. The smoke is trapped in your kitchen because you don't have any windows or ventilation because your house is safer from thieves this way. After spending tireless days working over the open flame your lungs hurt and your throat is sore.
Imagine not being able to attend school because you have to spend all day collecting wood for fires. You often have to collect wood in dangerous places, away from other people. All too often, if you are a young boy or girl, you are beaten and possibly raped while you collect firewood for your family. This is what it is like everyday for women, children and men living in the developing world.
Over 4 million people a year die from issues caused from cooking over open flames. Rates of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and many other diseases are dramatically increasing in developing countries. Health issues are a major concern but also of concern are the high rates of burns caused by accidents from having open fires in the kitchen areas. Families do not have a choice but to cook over open fires. The majority of people in the developing world do not have electricity in their homes for electric stoves and gas stoves are way too expensive. Wood and other biomass fuels are free and therefore the fuel of choice.
An alternative to the use of open fires for cooking is the use of fuel-efficient stoves. While these stoves continue to use wood for cooking they burn much more efficiently and at higher temperatures. Cooking over open fires, the traditional cooking method in most developing countries uses about 10kg of wood a day on average. Most fuel-efficient stoves use less then 2 kg of wood per day. These types of stoves also produce 80% less smoke and particulate matter. These are the leading causes of health problems associated with the use of open fires for cooking. Many fuel-efficient stoves incorporate an outside chimney in their design, which releases smoke and particulate matter outside the home.
Providing families in the developing world with the opportunity to use fuel-efficient stoves for cooking is an excellent solution to a significant problem. If families were provided with fuel-efficient stoves, not only would health concerns be addressed, but children would be able to attend school more consistently, safety concerns associated with fire wood collection in unsafe areas would be addressed and the terrible burns caused by open fires would be diminished.
MEDLIFE is very interested in addressing the issues associated with traditional cooking methods. Most recently we worked in Cusco, Peru. The goal was to not only design a stove that was fuel-efficient but one that could be built by both community members and volunteers who work with MedLife. The stove we designed has two burners and an oven, is fuel-efficient and will reduce the amount of smoke and particulate matter in the homes of Peruvian families.
While providing fuel-efficient stoves is an important goal for MEDLIFE, we know that in order for the project to be successful we must first educate people about the hazards of open fire cooking, and the benefits of fuel efficient stoves. During our first trip to Cusco for the project, we devoted a lot of our time to educating the community that will receive the stoves.
When visiting one community, a woman stepped out of the crowd and explained how she desperately needed a stove because her daughter was very sick with upper respiratory problems. She already knew that her traditional form of cooking was having a negative impact on her daughter, but she did have the means to switch to an alternative. Throughout these community visits and educational programs we also discussed the medical clinics that would be available in their communities, the importance of preventative health care and how the construction of fuel-efficient stoves would be part of these clinics.
Throughout our work in Cusco, we traveled to many communities, one of which was Yuncaypata, a small community with less than 80 families, 30 minutes outside the city. During that visit we met Susana, a mother of 5 boys. They have lived in Yuncaypata for many years and have always used open fires for cooking. Two of her sons are very sick, suffering from respiratory illnesses. Susana desperately hoped for a stove that would be less harmful to her family. Having developed a stove design weeks before, we built a stove for Susana. Needless to say, she and her family were very grateful.
I learned the importance of using fuel-efficient stoves instead of traditional cooking methods while working in Guatemala at a medical clinic for malnourished children. While there I saw first hand the significant health problems caused by smoke inhalation from the use of open fires for cooking. I knew this was a growing concern in communities in the developing world and also knew that this was an area in which I wanted to continue to work. I am grateful MEDLIFE has given me the opportunity to work alongside local communities in Peru to solve the problems associated with traditional cooking methods.
The clinics MEDLIFE is developing in the communities around Cusco, Peru will help address health issues, provide preventive health care and enable community members to receive fuel-efficient stoves. Together with the help of volunteers and the community, MEDLIFE can help solve the issues caused by traditional cook stoves.
The day of the Wawawasi (daycare in Quechua) inauguration in Union Santa Fe was dark and gloomy, the community appeared to be stuck inside a cloud, the air inside turned foul by the nearby animal processing factories. The bus MEDLIFE staff arrived in was parked above the community. From this vantage point, dozens of other communities could be seen in the distance, fading into the mist and dirt.
I knew I had been to some of the places I could see on other field visits, but I couldn’t tell them apart. The shanty-town’s all looked the same to me obscured in the mist from afar. Shacks, dirt paths, stray dogs and hills, the same impoverished patchwork blanketed the desert as far as I could see.
But when we approached Union Santa Fe, although I had never been, I could immediately identify it. MEDLIFE had done a lot of projects here, and the results of all that work were immediately visible on approach; a house there, red staircases leading down the hillsides on all sides and in the center the new Wawawasi project. The tall sturdy walls and clean white color it was painted cut through the mist and made it stand out against the dark muddy pallet of colours surrounding it like an apparition.
Amidst the typically bleak environs of Union Santa Fe, with the community gathering around it in celebration, it looked like a symbol of hope.
In its first weeks of operation a few months later, the Wawawasi was full of children, some laughing, some crying, all being cared for by the two full-time staff running the place. For the kids here, the center really did represent a big step leading to a better future for their families.
Quality childcare simultaneously addresses the needs of both parents and children living in poverty. The parents, many of whom are single mothers, with kids at the Wawawasi, are free to pursue more productive daytime work that would be an unsuitable environment for a child. Many of the poor in Lima walk the streets all day working in the informal economy. Can you imagine canvassing chaotic and dangerous parts of a city with a preschool aged child in tow? “The people of this community work a lot, all week.” said Maria Contreras, a caretaker at the Wawawasi. “Mothers with young children are waiting for their children to turn three so they can bring them here and get jobs.”
A lot of evidence (this article discusses and cites a lot of interesting research and is not behind a paywall) suggests that children’s long-term social and cognitive development benefits greatly from quality early childhood care (pre-school age, the Wawawasi does not accept children younger than three years old.) Numerous studies have found that quality center-type early childhood care (as opposed to informal arrangements, neighbors ect.) is associated with higher future cognitive and language scores on standardized tests, and better overall school performance. The activities and environment within the Wawawasi; arts and crafts, reading to the children, puppet shows, games and even just a social environment with other children all foster cognitive and social development.
The center also provides two nutritious meals a day to the children, breakfast and lunch. For families struggling to get the basics, not having to worry about two of your children’s meals on a work day is a huge relief.
A phrase often heard in conversation and in the speeches given at the inauguration was “seguir adelante,” which means to move forward, towards a better future for the community and children of Union Santa Fe, an idea that both community members and MEDLIFE hold dear. MEDLIFE is thrilled to have completed this project with the community of Union Santa Fe, taking another step forward with them towards a better future.
See all the photos in the timeline below!