“Peru has not only changed me as a person, but it will change the rest of the decisions I make in my lifetime…This experience has made me aware…that I need to dedicate my life to others.”(Ali Brundrett)
“Continuing to find ways to empower, serve and befriend others is vital for my own growth.” (Sonja Eberly)
“Seeing such immense poverty has really opened my eyes to the reality of life away from America… I feel changed from this project, and I like that change.” (Emily Reuter)
San Juan del Alto, Peru is a small, relatively young farming community of just over 3,000 residents, located in a remote part of the largely desert province of Arequipa. Its residents live simple lives, most without running water, sewage systems or electricity. Many struggle to feed their families while working land that belongs to others. In July of 2008, however, the simple community of San Juan was host to a remarkable event that brought young men and women from three continents together in a project to improve the village while learning about the challenges faced by its residents.
The Discover True Friendship Service Tour 2008 began on July 6th, when 14 participants from across the United States, one from England and one from Peru met to begin their two week journey together. They would spend the first week working with residents to build a community center in San Juan that would be used by the village for community meetings held by the local government, as a community kitchen to provide the more needy families with affordable and nutritious meals, and as a facility for organizations that work in the community to run trainings and workshops. In addition to this, they also restored and improved a playground for the children of San Juan. The second week was spent meeting with government agencies and organizations that work in Peru, as well as visiting some of the many cultural, natural and historical sites of the country. Through the entire experience, the group experienced life in a developing country firsthand. They saw the everyday challenges faced by the residents of San Juan firsthand, and had opportunities to talk to families about their needs. They met with government officials and heard from them about the challenges faced by their jurisdiction. They also learned from non-profit organizations about what was being done to address these challenges and what still needed to be done.
On their first full day together, the 16 participants spent some time getting to know each other and learning about what awaited them over the next two weeks. After lunch, they left the town of Pedregal, where they were staying, and made their first of many trips to San Juan where they were welcomed by the village’s president, mayor, and governor, as well as by some of the residents of the community themselves. They then met with the architect and lead builders of the community center who had prepared for the groups arrival by laying the foundation and putting in the supporting pillars. They received an overview of the project and some training in necessary skills and soon were divided into teams to begin their work.
For the next eight days, the group labored for long hours under the strong Peruvian sun to build the community center and restore the playground. They mixed heavy sand, rock and cement – at times by hand, at times with the help of a mixer – to make the needed cement mix, and bucket by bucket they poured the floor of the building and the sidewalk around it. They carefully laid the bricks for the walls of the octagonal structure. They spent countless hours sanding off the stubborn old paint and rust on the playground equipment and then painted it anew. They staked the territory of the new playground with an outline of large stones, dispersed tons of dirt throughout it and then laid down thousands of pieces of sod to transform it from a dirt lot into a an attractive grassy park. They dug a trench through hard dirt and rocks for an irrigation pipe to bring water to the park and did countless other necessary tasks.
During these eight days, the group took occasional breaks from their work for other important activities. They got a chance to visit the local primary and secondary schools and meet with the students to talk with them about their experiences in school. They toured a nearby university’s agricultural program where they learned about the local farming economy. They met with the local and national media (and were later featured on two national news programs), as well as with the mayor and legislators of the district of Majes, of which San Juan is a part. The group was also honored to be invited into the homes of some of the residents of San Juan to see how they lived and to speak with them about life in the village.
The group’s time in San Juan ended with a touching closing celebration where the community expressed their gratitude for the project and their work, and a meal hosted by the mayor of Majes who similarly thanked the participants for their contribution to the village. While some work was still left to be finished, the group did more than was expected of them in the time scheduled, and the building was left in the good hands of the lead builders and the people of San Juan.
After the work section of the Service Tour was finished, the group left Arequipa for the historical city of Cusco and the mystical Machu Picchu. Upon their arrival in the historical city, they met with Bartolome de las Casas, an organization dedicated to the protection of the rights of Peru’s indigenous populations. The former mayor of Cusco who now works with the organization presented to the group about the past and current challenges facing indigenous peoples in the country, and what his organization is doing to help them. Following his fascinating talk, the participants were led on a horseback tour of the area surrounding Cusco where they saw the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman, a fortress and sight of one of the last major battles against the Spanish, and where they were able to explore the network of tunnels and caves the Inca built in the hills to hide from the Spanish conquistadors.
Early on the second day, the group boarded a train for the scenic ride to Machu Picchu. There, they learned from their guide about the history and the hypothetical purposes of the mysterious city. They walked in the footsteps of the Incan priests who lived there over 500 years ago as they wandered through the paths and structures, and they marveled at the skill of the architecture and the remoteness of the fascinating city itself.
The next morning, the group toured the city of Cusco, learning a bit about its history and getting a chance to experience its unique culture. That afternoon, they boarded a bus to Peru’s capital and largest city, Lima. In Lima, the group was met by representatives of the Universal Peace Federation, one of IRFF’s partner organizations whose Peruvian chapter is based there. They had arranged a meeting with a Congresswoman, who thanked the group warmly for their work and spoke to them about the importance of what they had done. From there, the group was given a tour of the Congress building and then spent the evening visiting some of the other historical sights of Lima.
On their second day in Lima, the participants visited the Children’s Hospital, where they learned about some of the common health problems that children in the more underdeveloped parts of Lima often suffer from, and then spent some time with the patients. From there, they traveled to the outskirts of the city to visit a community kitchen that provides meals at very low cost to needy families in a poverty-stricken community. After that, they had a chance to wander around some of the more touristy parts of the city before dinner, at which the representatives from UPF presented all of the participants with a certificate naming them “Young Ambassadors for Peace” for the work in San Juan.
Throughout their time in Peru, the participants were struck by the warmth and the resilience of the Peruvian people. They were amazed by the simple lives that they led and the kindness that they showed. Many of the group members saw what extreme poverty really looks like for the first time and gained a new perspective on their own lives. They realized that their actions can make a tangible change in the lives of a community and that as young adults living in a society of privilege, they have the responsibility to act for the benefit of others. Above all, the young men and women of this year’s Service Tour realized that their lives are connected to those of the people they came to serve. They came to understand very clearly that the superficial differences of race, nationality and language that separate people are not as strong as the commonality that we all share and the love and respect that we can hold for each other.