Quechua Benefit started in 1996 when Don Julio Barreda, a famous Peruvian alpaca breeder asked if his fellow alpaca breeders from the United States could do anything to help the children of his village. From this simple request funds were provided to give dental care to many of these children from impoverished backgrounds. Over the years the scope of Quechua Benefit?s operations have steadily grown. Today Quechua Benefit delivers medical, optical and dental missions to more than 40 small communities, most with populations of less than 10,000. In addition, they support three orphanages/boarding schools and two programs that feed approximately 1,000 people per day.
These operations are mostly focused in and around the Colca Canyon in Peru. Although parts of this area have grown impressively in recent years due to the increased tourist trade there remain many isolated and impoverished communities who have not benefitted from the greater incomes and opportunities. In these communities people often live in terrible poverty amongst difficult weather conditions. Alcohol and domestic abuse issues are rife. Infant and child mortality rates are high and those children who make it out of their early years ok often leave school early.
Realising that they needed to have a more permanent presence in the Colca Canyon to make the greatest impact on peoples', and particularly childrens' lives, Quechua Benefit began constructing a boarding house and school for local children in need. Work on this facility finished in 2011 and earlier this year Casa Chapi, as it was named, officially became a state-recognised school. It now has 40 children between the ages of six and twelve on site, a mix of boys and girls, and a total staff of fifteen. The children eat, sleep and learn on site. Their days are well structured between teaching them the state curriculum and giving them time to practise more creative impulses and to indulge in more fun activities. It is a wonderful facility where the children learn responsibility, receive a quality education and hopefully improve their prospects for the future.
Since I began my time here I have been involved in a number of projects all aimed at improving the quality of the children?s life at Casa Chapi whilst also improving the functioning of the NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) as a whole. The latter of these objectives has involved updating the organisation?s internal policies to bring them in line with best practise. While this is extremely important work, for it ultimately dictates how the entire setup will run going into the future, I would be lying if I said it has been the most satisfying or inspiring work I have done here.
Day to day my time has largely been filled with teaching English and Physical Education to the kids. This is a lot of fun as it gives me time to enjoy the children?s company and get to know them better as people. It is a beautiful experience to build real relationships with such intelligent and charming kids. Like most Peruvians, young and old, the children were somewhat shy and unsure around me at first. Over time though I have gotten to know them personally; I have learnt what they love and where their talent lies, I have learnt of their often tragic backstories, I have sometimes gotten frustrated if they don?t behave but mostly I have marvelled at their endless energy and abundant spirit.
Because of this connection with the children the two most inspiring projects I have been lucky to have been part of have been the creation of a sports program and a fortnightly English camp. These projects have been the most immediately beneficial to the children in the time that I have been here.
As it seems with every male on this continent the boys at Casa Chapi adore football, or soccer for any readers from the States. When I arrived all they had to play with were two footballs and a rocky, dusty pitch with two small goals hammered into the ground at either end. There was no team, the boys had never played against another school and the closest that most of them had ever gotten to a training session were the chaotic kick-arounds they would have every day at lunch time.
From my first week here we set up training sessions three times a week, four when we have time. Although the response from the boys was overwhelmingly enthusiastic at the prospect of having a real football team, it took them some time to properly adapt to the rigours of the training session as many of these boys had never been exposed to the idea of standard training practises, warm ups, drills etc. All they wanted to do was play another tumultuous game like they were used to. Slowly but surely they came around to these ideas until we reached the point where I could leave the older kids with the responsibility of marshalling the younger ones through many of the simpler drills.
Eventually it came time for them to play the first match, against a set of children organised by the local parish priest, Father Marcos. Their first match was a total success, a 3-0 victory against boys who were older than them. Unfortunately their second match went the other way,losing 0-3 to a better organised side. Still all the boys played with heart and a surprising degree of organisation, not a bad performance after just 10 weeks as a team. Now all their thoughts have turned to November when they will take part in a tournament of local teams. To say they can?t wait for the next challenge is an understatement.
Of course our sports program did not only extend to the boy?s football team but in the same time as we have been training the boys we have set up a volleyball team for the girls also. To be honest, when I arrived there wasn?t a great deal of interest in volleyball from the majority of the girls, though this is not all that surprising when you consider that we didn?t even have a volleyball net. Still once we organised a squad and began practising their enthusiasm slowly built and built. Early training sessions were a bit messy seeing as I have never played volleyball before in my life. Probably realising this from my comical efforts to try and rally with the girls some of the female staff thankfully stepped in and matters immediately began to improve.
Once we got a net set up in the school yard the group of girls truly became a team. Now no one was late for practise, a new feeling of seriousness developed and the training sessions were more focused than ever. This could be seen during their first game playing against a team of girls who were significantly older than them. Our girls played a brave game eventually losing by the respectable margin of 25-18, a score that is quite impressive when you consider they were playing a team of girls who had been playing for years while they had still not been playing the sport for even three months.
The most important aspect ultimately with this sports program has not been whether or not the children?s teams win or lose. Instead it has been the great feeling of fun the children clearly derive from football and volleyball and the social and teamwork skills they learn at every training session and at every match. Through sports they learn new responsibilities and have begun to develop a greater pride in themselves, their teammates and their school.
As the school?s English teacher for the past two months I have been consistently surprised by the children?s desire to learn this second language. The vast majority of the kids genuinely love to learn and can?t wait for English class. I never expected to have children running up to me begging to know when their next English class is, even though they know full well when it will be, same time every week.
Their enthusiasm is a far cry from how I remember my French lessons in school; bored, tired and dreary. I believe that says a lot about the expectations of people such as myself who come from first world countries and who have gone through better quality education systems. Education to us is seen as a right, we expect it and maybe that?s part of the reason kids hate it; it?s something they HAVE to do, an obligation. Here the situation is quite different. I can?t speak for children in the cities, for all I know the attention span of students in Lima may be just as short as those generally found in Europe or the States. But out here in the countryside that is not the case. Here education is not quite at the stage where it is simply expected as a fact of life. Parents want their kids to be in school, and the kids for the most part want to learn. School here is an opportunity more so than a chore.
From early on it was clear that it would be ideal to institute a long term English programme for the children. So in conjunction with Extreme, a reputable English institute in Arequipa, Casa Chapi recently began a fortnightly English camp for the children and staff here. Every second Saturday five teachers are sent out from Extreme to teach the kids and lead activities with them along with conducting a special class for Casa Chapi?s Peruvian staff also. The children?s response to this camp has been fantastic, as we expected. Not only is this another chance to learn more English but the group of teachers, the majority of whom are from North America, are another set of people with whom the children can play and have fun. They are another set of positive role models.
Luckily the teachers themselves love the experience too. In their day job they have to put up with lethargic students who are forced to attend private classes by their parents. Here they have a class of energetic young pupils who can barely stay in their seats they are so excited by the prospect of learning. Of course this can sometimes lead to problems controlling the class but for the most part it?s a positive.
Both of these projects, the sports program and the English Camp, have started on a hugely positive note. The children love them and there is potential for these two programs to benefit the children a lot going into the future. For me personally it has been an absolute pleasure to watch these projects come to fruition and to see the positive response they have already garnered from the children.
Casa Chapi is an exciting organisation to be a part of right now. It is still very much in its youthful stages and there is a tremendous amount of work that must be done to make it everything I?m sure it can be. Still, every day this NGO is improving, gathering steam, instituting new ideas and bettering old programs. To see that process take place is perhaps the most inspiring thing of all. The future for Casa Chapi, and most importantly the future of its children, is bright.