How I learned to be the change

Published in Whatever Magazine June 2008

n1109342144_30333077_4885On our first day in the town of Urubamba, Perú, under the snow-capped Chicon mountain, our Nexos Voluntarios project coordinator Maricarmen Valdivieso told us that the people we would meet in the next seven days would remember us for the rest of their lives.

As our group gathered on the wood floors of the organization’s local headquarters for orientation, we knew it was the beginning of a profound journey; however, we did not anticipate the tremendous amount of accomplishment, gratitude, and inspiration we would return to Canada with.

Our service project started bright and early the next morning with breakfast at local café La Esquina. The meal consisted of bread with jam, and coco leaf tea to help with the altitude adjustment – after all we were 11,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes!

We then traveled to Escuela Villa Marcelo, the local elementary school where we would assist in the setting up of a library and cafeteria.  As we stepped onto the rocky dirt road, we were greeted by many curious faces eager to know what this bus full of  “gringos”, as they so affectionately called us foreigners, was doing in

their community. Though a little apprehensive at first, I have never felt so welcomed by complete strangers, and within days I felt like a member of the community.

Our senses overwhelmed with the strong summer sun on our foreheads, crisp mountain air in our lungs, and the reflection of a vast green mountain range in our sunglasses, we made our way into the schoolyard to be greeted by some big brown cows casually enjoying their breakfast. We then met the school principal, Signor Hector, who would be working with us on the various tasks. He may have had the title of “director” at Villa Marcelo, but throughout the week we witnessed Hector as a painter, cook, tile setter, contractor and even a musician, going over and above his role as chief administrator to ensure our service learning experience would run smoothly.

“Hola!,” I greeted one curly-haired boy curiously eyeing our group as we made our way around the school, “como te llamas?”

“Me llamo Yahweh,” he exclaimed, so proud to introduce himself to our group. This was all the conversation my limited Spanish could handle, but the connections I made with Yahweh and the other children as we played soccer in the schoolyard or enjoyed some corn would not be lost in translation.

The organization we worked with, Nexos Voluntarios (www.nexosvoluntarios.org), promotes social development in Peru through impact-driven voluntary activity. They assist motivated individuals from around the globe who are looking to take part in health, business, education and environmental development projects that have the power to bring change to Peruvian communities and give volunteers an integral and well-supported experience of social immersion.

Every morning for the next few days we put on our purple “Be the Change” T-shirts and headed out to Villa Marcelo with the Nexos coordinators Maricarmen and Connie.

Four days, a bucket of grout, a few sheets of sandpaper, a 50 pack of travel wipes, and many coats of paint later, the library and caféteria were ready to welcome students. What a week! It was strenuous and sometimes uncertain, but none of us had ever been part of such a worthwhile project in our lives.

The purpose of the Alternative Spring Break program is to provide students with a hands-on experience that will enhance their academic careers and inspire their future endeavours.

I learned a great deal about the challenges non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Nexos Voluntarios in Perú are working with. Poverty affects 40% of the population.

The country is in need of social development, especially in rural areas, but the people do not lack talent and enthusiasm, rather they lack opportunity. As a volunteer I am proud to say I provided the students at Villa Marcello with the resources for them to become aware of the possibilities life holds, and to build the inspiration to attain them.

Whatever I have given to the children and families in Urubamba in time and effort, they have paid me back ten-fold with a new-found knowledge and gratitude I can incorporate into every aspect of my life. I found something in me that I didn’t know was there; it was the confidence to use the gifts I have been blessed with as a Canadian citizen to create positive change for others at home and abroad.

A week ago, 20 University of Western Ontario students were unknowingly walking past each other on campus, but in a few days we built a union, provided resources for the future of a school, and cultivated friendships and experiences that will be with us long after graduation. I know I could not fix the problems of an entire country in one week, but there is no denying I learned and shared more than ever expected.

Maricarmen told us the people in Urubamba would remember us for the rest of their lives. Six thousand kilometres away back home, I find myself thinking of my trip to Peru every day. My mind is filled with incredible knowledge, and my heart filled with memories of a community of people that I too will remember for the rest of my life.

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