It all started with a chance meeting with another Australian in a hostel in Buenos Aires in 2009. Lismore-based academic and lecturer at Southern Cross University, Vivian Walsh, had been travelling around the world for 12 months. Viv wanted to finish her trip doing some volunteer work in South America, but was unsure where and how that could happen.
Viv asked her fellow travellers if they knew of any good organisations that she could donate some time to. Viv recounts, “This woman had just been to Cuzco for work and had been associated with Peru’s Challenge. She raved about the non-government organisation (NGO) and the amazing work they were doing in small communities outside Cuzco. I applied online and was working for them within two months,” Viv said.
Located in south-eastern Peru, Cuzco is famous for its Inca ruins, in particular Machu Picchu. Cuzco is the first port of call for many travellers to South America as it offers a great starting point to discover the history of the amazing Incan civilisation. Less well known however are the surrounding impoverished rural communities of Cuzco that see little of the money that comes pouring into Cuzco from tourism.
Peru’s Challenge is a not-for-profit organisation working in partnership with locals to develop sustainable communities in Peru. Started in October 2003 by Australian Jane Gavel and Peruvian Selvy Ugaz, Peru’s Challenge has helped nearly 500 families, as well as educating over 1000 children in four different communities. Working with volunteers, Peru’s Challenge is able to improve health, education and general living standards for the children and communities living in the Peruvian Andes.
“I wanted to share some of my time and money with people who needed it way more than I do,” Viv explains of the motivation behind her involvement with Peru’s Challenge. “I’ve enjoyed a really fortunate and privileged life, and I joined the program because I’ve always wanted to help people less fortunate than myself. Working with Peru’s Challenge has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I know that my contribution has made a real and lasting difference to the children and families of these extremely poor communities.”
But what exactly do the volunteers in Peru’s Challenge do? According to Viv, the volunteering work involves activities such as teaching English, art, music and computer studies at a primary school at Pumamarca – about a half hour drive from Cuzco. Volunteers also work on construction projects at the school, painting new classrooms, and one-off activities such as building a bread oven.
“That will hopefully become a source of income for the school,” Viv explained. “The volunteers also put up a new tank stand because the old one was destroyed in the recent flooding. We also tend the school vegie garden that supplies the school kitchen with lunch – the only meal that many of the children eat each day.”
The group of volunteers that Viv volunteered with also worked in the communities of Pumamarca and Quilla Huata, helping to repair or rebuild the mud brick houses that were damaged or destroyed by recent flooding and mudslides. The volunteers also worked with the Talleres group, a women’s craft group that makes traditional crafts which are sold to tour groups that have an affiliation with Peru’s Challenge.
Viv says she had many special experiences working with Peru’s Challenge.
“We made community visits with the social worker called Iris,” Viv said. “These were very sobering experiences, going into homes where six or eight people were sleeping on dirt floors with no electricity or water in the freezing conditions of the Peruvian Andes. Many donations that come through Peru’s Challenge are put towards beds and bedding for these families. I’ll never forget the tears of joy and the many hugs we received from an old woman in Pumamarca when we delivered a bed and mattress for her.”
For Viv and the other volunteers, “There wasn’t much spare time,” she said. “But when we weren’t out at the school or community, we had Spanish lessons, Peruvian cooking lessons, salsa lessons or we were travelling. The volunteering program includes a number of tours, including the Inca trail or train to Machu Picchu.”
When asked about the locals she met in Peru, Viv emphatically describes them as, “Incredible! Cuzco is one of the most beautiful cities that I’ve been to. Despite the terrible
poverty, there is an atmosphere of hope and development there that I guess comes with the tourist dollar, although most of these dollars don’t trickle through to the people who really need them,” she said. “This is where NGOs like Peru’s Challenge are so vital. The local people are beautiful…so generous and appreciative. They really would give you the shirt off their backs if you needed it. They have so little to give, but will always have big smiles and hugs for the volunteers.”
Peru’s Challenge volunteers are given the opportunity to enjoy a number of tours around Peru as part of their volunteering program, including the Inca trail.
“I not only got to make a difference to those most in need, but I was lucky enough to also visit some of the most amazing parts of this magical land,” she said. “Reaching Machu Picchu was a definite highlight, but I also loved Lake Titicaca, the Sacred Valley of the Incas and visiting the jungle around the Tambopata river in the Amazon basin.”
The whole experience is something Viv will never forget.
“Working for Peru’s Challenge was really hard work, and living in a developing country like Peru can be extremely challenging at times,” Viv said. “I made friends from all over the world, and it was incredibly humbling to be able to work with the local people.
“The children are just delightful and we were made to feel so welcome and appreciated by all members of the communities who always greet their ‘amigos’ from Peru’s Challenge with big smiles and hugs.”
Peru’s Challenge received a highly commended award in the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2009 for best volunteering organisation, and they have been recommended by Lonely Planet as one of the five best volunteer destinations in the world.
Anyone can become a Peru’s Challenge volunteer; you don’t have to speak Spanish, or to have worked with children before. Volunteers are asked to contribute around 25-30 hours per week at their designated placement. Volunteers can join the program for three to nine weeks and are asked to pay a nominal charge to become a Peru’s Challenge volunteer, this covers much of the cost of living.
Normally when travelling in South America you need to budget for approximately US$60 to $80 per day to pay for tours, Spanish lessons and accommodation. If you join the Peru’s Challenge volunteer travel program you can still do all of this while also directly helping local communities for approximately US$40 per day (depending on which program you join).
Walsh would like readers to know that they can also make a small (or large) donation. Peru’s Challenge is a non-profit, non-government funded organisation, so every cent comes from volunteers or donations. For people who are interested in volunteering with, or donating to the organisation, visit www.peruschallenge.com.
Asked whether she’ll be going back to Peru to work with Peru’s Challenge again, Viv laughingly replied, “Si, definitivamente!”