A young activist finds her calling

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It took us two days to rebuild a roof on a school in Baltimore, in rural Peru. Photo: Caroline Bond.

Hello, my name is Caroline Bond. I live in Montreal and I am in grade 11. This past summer I earned the opportunity through Lifeworks International to go to Peru for 21 days along with 18 other teens from around the world.

It was an adventure I'll never forget. We worked about eight hours a day on four main service projects in and around the city of Cuzco. These included finishing building a preschool and community centre, constructing ceramic and mud stoves for health, economic and environmental benefits, working at a teenage mother shelter (Casa Mantay), and aiding in a variety of ecotourism projects in the Amazon.

My expectations

I anticipated arriving in Peru, specifically Cuzco, to find a small quaint city with a lot of hustle and bustle. I expected it to be very underdeveloped with too many people for such a small area of land.

What I actually saw

The first thing I noticed as the plane landed were the never-ending mountains completely surrounding the surprisingly large city of Cuzco. The mountains rose to majestic heights above the short squat buildings below. The second was the sheer number of stray dogs that roamed the streets, weaving their way through passersby and sneaking into open doorways.

How I expected to feel

Nervous, excited and awkward were my feelings on the plane ride to Peru. I was to arrive in Lima at 2 a.m. by myself and meet up with the rest of my group at 6 a.m. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, I didn't know anyone else on the trip and I didn't speak a word of Spanish.

How I truly felt

I quickly realized as soon as I stepped onto our rickety lime green bus departing the airport that I was no longer nervous or awkward, but instead adrenaline was coursing through me.

As the days went on my emotions were constantly shifting. They varied from pride after building my first stove out of only mud, bricks and water, to sadness at the realization of how desperate the family was in need of this new stove.

This trip was incredibly challenging for me. Many days I was so overcome by emotion that I didn't even know how to feel. While building stoves in a small neighboring village we interacted with the locals. One of the women that we built a stove for had lost her husband and brother the previous day in a transportation accident. She sat with us the entire day with her newborn baby watching us, constantly asking whether we needed help or more mud and thanking us profusely.

What was the most incredible thing?

One of the most incredible things that I witnessed was the Peruvian women's textile skills. Out of simple threads of an assortment of colors they were able to create the most magnificent tapestries, carpets, scarves and many other extraordinary pieces of art. These items were sold in the local market and provided the only income for many of these families, especially families headed by single mothers.

What was the most challenging?

Our third community service project, working in a teenage mother's shelter, was for me the most challenging and heartbreaking. We traveled a short distance to the shelter on the outskirts of Cuzco. Here we met 12 mothers ranging from 12 to 17 years old, all with young children, some with more then one.

In Peru over 25,000 girls are raped each year and those only include the ones that have been reported. For me, as a 16-year-old girl, it's difficult to even consider the possibility of having a 4-year-old baby! At 12 years old I was barely capable of taking care of myself, let alone having to be responsible for another life.

What can I as an individual learn from these people?

There are so many amazing things to learn from these people, although one thing always stood out to me, was their work ethic. They seemed oblivious to their hardships and worked tirelessly everyday.

While in Peru, our group stayed in a small hostel run by a man in his early 30s. He not only owned the hostel but a school and restaurant as well. All proceeds from the hostel and restaurant went towards funding his school. This man grew up in Cuzco raised only by his mother. At the age of 17 he decided that he needed to somehow help his country and determined that the best way to help was through education. Never once did he stray from his goal. He worked every hour of every day to make sure that his dream was achieved.

To this day he says that all of his success is because of his mother, that he owes it all to her.

How can they help us?

If you were to ask any individual in Peru what time it was they would most likely say morning, midday, or night never really knowing the exact hour. For many Peruvians as long as they are efficient and doing what they need to be doing there is no point in worrying about the time. Unlike us, they are capable of living in the moment and not rushing to get through life.

How can we help them?

The greatest gift that we can give them is education. They already have an education system but it is need of some work. Basic life lessons are not taught at the schools leaving some children unaware of such things as how to treat family or friends.

Traditionally in Peruvian society women are not viewed as equal, therefore are often mistreated. This is one thing that many of the new schools are trying to fix.

Would I go back?

There is no doubt in my mind that I will at some point return to Peru, whether it is to see the mountains that I fell hopelessly in love with, or to build more stoves for the communities in need. I'd also like to look into teaching English or volunteering at a school in Cuzco.

It is amazing to me after only spending three weeks in Peru, the attachment I now feel to this country. Even though I have been back for many months Peru now feels more like home than Canada ever has.

Almost everything reminds me of the culture, people and smells of Peru. I can't go for more then a day without thinking back to those three weeks that had an enormous affect on me.

Caroline Bond is in grade 11 and lives in Montreal.

Lifeworks International offers overnight summer camps, called service-learning travel programs, for teenagers between 14 and 19 years old. Lifeworks emphasizes community service, cultural immersion and outdoor adventure. 

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