In May, I had the honor of accompanying 12 seniors from Malvern Prep on their senior service trip to Chulucanas, Peru. Sharing this honor and responsibility with me was my colleague, Andrew DiDomenico. Andrew had chaperoned the trip the previous year, but I was new to the experience. “You are going to love Chulucanas,” Larry Legner, Director of Christian Service at Malvern, had told me several times throughout the months prior to the trip. And, he promised, the experience would be a life-changer.
He was right. In the weeks after returning home last May, I found myself still trying to process everything that we experienced on our trip. I’ve read through my journal every night in an attempt to put it all into perspective. I feel as though a part of me is still in Chulucanas with the people and the place I fell in love with for all of the warmth and sincerity and the true friendships I found there.
I could write of the town itself, and the beautiful plaza and the joy on the faces of both the children of Chulucanas and the Malvern boys
during a game of tag. And of our friends in the Obispado, who truly gave us a home for the two weeks that we were there. And of the wonderful people in the town, who welcomed us with open hearts and open arms. But I will save that for a longer article because here, I will tell of a moment that truly put the scope of our visit into perspective for me.
During the second half of our trip, we visited a small village in the San Jose parish zone. The parish has 52 different zones that extend out into a variety of rural areas. The place where we went is called Cruz de Campanas. The village is a collection of homes, some made from adobe and some from wood. Many have tin or clay tile roofs, but most have woven straw roofs. Despite their obvious poverty and simplicity of life, the people are immensely proud of what they do have, and they were so happy to welcome us and enthusiastic to show us around. There, we found that so many wonderful things are happening!
Upon our arrival, we gathered with the entire village in front of a brick structure that had a canopy draped over one side and chairs set up all around. We were seated in the chairs, and some of the adults from the village gathered groups of children to the front of the little patio. The rest of the villagers stood around the periphery, and the welcoming program began. The parish coordinator began with a warm welcome to us. She introduced us to the rest of the village and thanked us for leaving our families and traveling all the way from the United States just to visit the people of a small village. Then she gave a brief description of her duties in the village. Basically, she is responsible for the spiritual life of the village. Because the villagers live so far from town and can’t always get to church, priests and Augustinian Volunteers, like our own friend, Christy, come to the village to minister to the people. But it is the parish coordinator’s responsibility to disseminate information to the villagers and to keep their spiritual life alive on a daily basis. It’s a daunting job, but one she seems to do with ease, thanks to her natural warmth. She smiled and told us that the village’s hearts and doors were open to us, and then introduced a man who is the village coordinator for one of the most important projects in this village that she called a model pueblo: the well project.
We found out that the brick structure supporting the canopy overhead was the well. They are most proud of the well that they had installed in the town thanks to an American woman named Sister Betty, who works with an organization called Medicines for Communities. This September, the people will celebrate three years of having the well for the people. The well, along with the medical clinic Sister Betty also helped to establish in the village, has improved the quality of life of the people immensely in the past three years. After a welcome by the mayor of the village and a musical program performed by the children who had been standing with excited patience at the front of the patio the whole time, we were given a tour of the village and were able to see first hand all of the exciting changes the well and the medicine have brought to the people.
First, we saw the well and its electric powered pump, the reservoir, and the spigots where each family may draw water up to three times a day. This is a huge improvement for the health of the community, as well as a step towards modernization. Previously, the people had to walk a long way to get water from a source that
was not clean and not always accessible. Now, every family can have fresh, clean water every day. The well project coordinator, who is in charge of maintaining the project in the community, put it best when he said, ¨Water is life. Without water, we are nothing.¨ And evidence of the life the water has brought is everywhere. Small trees are growing; flowering vines have begun to twist around the wooden spokes of the straw roofs of houses. Animals and crops promise sustainability for these families.
After we saw the well, we were taken to the medical clinic, which is another major advancement for the community. It is in a small adobe building, with one room. In the room is a table with a few chairs, and a medicine closet filled with primarily first aid supplies and some pills. The mayor opened the doors of the medicine closet with a flourish and proudly indicated stocked shelves of clean, new medical supplies. He also told us that a woman of the village has been trained in emergency response, and all of this is due to the kindness of Sister Betty and to the people of the United States, he told us. And he thanked us.
As we walked back toward the well and the festive patio that the well building supported, the mayor explained to me why the accessibility of water and medicine is so exciting to the people. In addition to improving the basic quality of life of the people, the fresh water and medicine have helped the people build a community. I kept thinking of what the well coordinator said, “Without water, we are nothing…” And because they now have water, they can now maintain livestock and crops and plants. Micro loans by another organization have helped them to purchase the livestock, which they can maintain properly in pens and grassy areas, all thanks to the well and the presence of fresh water. As if improved quality of life and sustainability weren’t enough, the village will receive a great honor: a formal and official recognition of the community they have created. Thanks to the running water and the subsequent improved health and sustainability, the village has met the requirements to be considered an actual town by the Peruvian government. Previously, they were just a collection of families and houses. This month, they will be recognized by the world as a town with a name. I found it amazing that in three years, which is how long this project has been developing, the lives of the people in an entire town have changed immensely. The mayor said that for years and years they were an unknown, unnamed people, a forgotten people. Now they are forgotten no longer.
To celebrate, they took us to the biggest house in the village and fed us a snack that they prepared for us and carefully presented on the
table. It was chicken and yucca, which is one of the most important crops the people grow in the village. The other is corn, which had already been harvested. The women served us chicha morada, which is a drink made from the corn. The Malvern guys thought it tasted a lot like a cross between flat coke and kool aid, but many of them went back for seconds. Everyone had a wonderful time enjoying the food. The people also continued the welcoming program-- it was mostly kids singing and dancing. The mayor asked me to dance a traditional dance with him, and even though I had never danced it before, I followed along pretty well. The guys played with and talked to the kids and took lots of photos. When we all left, the people asked us when we would see each other again and invited us to come back anytime-- they said that their hearts were open to us, and that even though they are a humble people, their hearts are full of joy and happiness. And their doors are always open to us. Before we left, the mayor’s wife asked me again when we would see each other. She told us that our visit was so important to the people of the village. We are humble people, she said, and you recognize us. It means so much to us.
On the road leading in and out of Chulucanas, there is a sign that reads “Chulucanas esta cambiando; cambia tu tambien!” In this same sentiment, a Malvern student who visited Chulucanas for his service trip two years ago had remarked, “I went to change Peru, but Peru ended up changing me.” I think we change each other; in such encounters, we touch each other’s lives and leave an indelible mark. I will never forget the kindness of the people of Cruz de Campanas. In us, they saw the generosity of a people who thought enough of them to leave their families in order to pay them a visit. In the people of Cruz de Campanas, with their joy, their simple and sincere faith, their sense of community, I saw a richness of life and a purity of spirit that material wealth and our insatiable need for more—more things, more experiences, more money-- often obscures. The mutual ability to see Christ in each other across all of the lines we construct as humans to delineate difference, is to recognize the essence of our humanity. It is why this service trip was, indeed, a life-changing experience.