For 2 of our 4 weeks in Cusco, we have been volunteering at Aldea Yanapay, a social project set up to give children a safe place to go in the afternoons, to do their homework and have some time to play, be loved and be kids. Let me introduce one of the children we met:
This lovely 11 year old Peruvian girl is really kind and is always smiling, and she & our daughter have become good friends. At group time, she regularly stands up to give thanks for her mother, and recently also said a thank you to our daughter “for understanding, even though she doesn’t speak Spanish”. You would have no idea what her life outside school is like from this. However, I understand that she goes to school 7.20 – 12.45, helps out in the family shop until 3pm, comes to our ‘school’ until it closes at 7.30pm, then goes back home to help her mother with the laundry business before going to bed. On weekends, she spends her time working to help her mother. .. and she is one of the luckier ones. Children with disabilities and special needs are excluded from school, to attend ‘free’ schools costs money and domestic violence, alcoholism, abuse and abandonment are common here.
About 18 months ago, the charity we are volunteering with opened another site in the Sacred Valley, in Lamay, where life is also tough for the children of working families. We were lucky enough to visit this site last weekend; the setting is truly beautiful. However, similar social problems exist and children are expected to work really hard to support their families. Indeed, we saw many children with scythes working the fields, or running up and down hills collecting wood, wearing nothing but flimsy sandals on their feet.
Volunteering has been hard on us all: behavioral policies are unclear and impossible to enforce given our lack of Spanish, and our 8 year old daughter particularly has felt a little lost at times when she can’t understand what’s going on. However, you don’t need to speak to play and convey love, and there has been at least one moment in each day which has made it all worthwhile, be it a heart warming story about happiness to inspire the children – did you know it is hiding inside each of us, we just need to find it! – or the pure joy on the face of a child as you push them on a swing.
Despite all the ups and downs, this place will stay with us all …..