As Changes for New Hope celebrated its 4th year anniversary, it was a time for deep contemplation and we shared a sense of gratitude. Charlie, our long time coordinator, smiled at me and said, Four years! Congratulations!" My response was one of contemplative reflection, "Not yet, mi amigo, not yet." I am acutely aware that there is no finish line in the work that faces us everyday. We must be better today than we were yesterday. While we open new pathways to the children every time we gather, we are also building walls behind them to prevent regression back into old ways, old habits, bad patterns and defeatist attitudes. The neat trick is to guide their attitudes to a place where positive changes and developments are characteristics that they themselves want to step up to and look forward to becoming. The longest journey in the world is from the head to the heart, and you best pack a lunch for the trip. When you see faces light up as you arrive everyday, you know the hearts are with you.
I recently met with a volunteer coordinator of the NGO that I originally came to Peru to volunteer with back in 2009. In the 4 1/2 months that I was there I came to the disturbingly vivid conclusion that their concept of humanitarianism was severely anemic, their president/director a lecherous miscreant and donations expected to be used for the poor children were funding adult debauchery. They considered my efforts and comments to correct the situation ''inadequate and inappropriate''. We parted company deciding that what I wanted to see in an NGO, which later was the bases for Changes for New Hope, was a far cry from their objectives.
My meeting with the new volunteer coordinator was equally disturbing. Alex told me, "Jim, come on man! Do you really think that any of us are actually making real changes in the world? When volunteers come to Peru and help some kids with their homework and hug them, is it really the turning of the tide of poverty or despair? Let me tell you how it is; we bring in volunteers who pay a fee to the NGO and spend some time with children they work with. They feel good doing it and feel that they made some altruistic accomplishment to put on their resume' when they return to their home countries. It is mental masturbation for them. They pay us to feel good for a month or two in South America. If you believe anything to the contrary, you are deceiving yourself."
My response came from a vortex of passion which surprised him. "If I thought for a minute that the daily efforts that I have spent my time and personal assets developing was merely mental masturbation or that the children that we engage are not actually developing into better human beings with opportunities and intrinsic character that never before existed, I would pack up tonight and head for a beach somewhere warm. We have children who were trained little thieves, liars and con artists, who no longer consider that way of life an option. We have children with better grades in school, better attitudes, better self esteem and believe that they have a future in front of them. They are healthier because we give them vitamins and medicines, they wear clothes that fit and are not shabby. They sleep warmly under thermal blankets that we provide, use wind up lanterns that gives them light in homes where there is no electricity. School supplies, recreational games and toys, as well as love and security that we provide for them as we teach them how to become fine young men and women as they grow up.
I suppose that is the difference between believing in what you are doing as a humanitarian and just using the faces and stories of the children to create a parking space for young impressionable volunteers to arrive and spend their time and their parents money."
He said that we will have to agree to disagree.
I shared with him some numbers. While numbers are not the end-all-be-all gauge of success or progress, it has to account for something. While there is no competition among organizations, I reviewed with him that we have created a project for poor children living in desperation in October 2009 and have helped twice as many children, in four times as many locations, provided eyeglasses, medicines, vitamins, wind up lanterns which enables the children to study after dark, thermal blankets, new shoes because theirs are destroyed during each rainy season, dental help, psychological help, self esteem classes, art projects with two art exhibitions, two chess tournaments, continuous academic help, clothing, recreational games and equipment, family violence assistance, created the Haz lo Correcto-Do the Right Thing campaign which was endorsed by the mayor and became a citywide project for the betterment of Huaraz and engaged the international community in awareness to help the children and add more children as sufficient support allows. We accomplished this and much more with a fraction of the volunteer staff, and a fraction of the donations. We did it in half the time. ''By contrast,'' I concluded, '' Your NGO, by your own admission, was simply engaged in 'mental masturbation'. Meeting adjourned.
Four years. Every step has been earned. Trial and error with what works and what doesn't. Learn Spanish on the fly. Share our plans with parents and children in a credible way that they won't consider it to incredibly impossible. Make it happen. Listen to every child, learn what makes them smile and why they might be crying. Spend money on materials and specific needs of the children without knowing when or where more money is coming from. Believe, hope and trust that everything that you have invested your heart and life into will move the children toward the goals that you have set for them. And you hope that your passion moves people, some who have never met you or seen the project, to believe that what you are doing is genuine and effective to change the part of the world that you have decided to touch. Ignore every negative, approach everyday as a new opportunity. This day is better than yesterday, regardless of how good it was. Each volunteer is making a real difference, an actual shift in the wind from where the children would have been without them. Every sponsor and donor is delighted to receive a small drawing from one of the grateful children for their compassion in action that is so appreciated. Four years with no end in sight, we are not even looking for the finish line because, for us, it doesn't exist. Every stumbling block has become a stepping stone.
Charlie looked at me across a table at our monthly meeting. ''Four years, we have accomplished more than anyone could imagine. Ok amigo, what is next?" I lifted out a clipboard from my backpack, there was a starburst of circles and notes and ideas filling the sheet. "2014 looks like it is going to be a busy year, Jim" Charlie observed. His eyes widened at my response,
"Just next month amigo."
When the concept for Changes for New Hope began to gel in my mind, it began to fulfill a long time dream of mine to create a project that would effectively reach the most serious needs of children living in destitution here in the Peruvian Andes.
The adventure to date has been incredible. While we managed to jump through a few extra hoops and dodge a few extra obstacles, we never lost sight of the goals that we had established early on. The issues were numerous and complex.
Nutrition and hygiene issues were one of our first targets. Education, building self esteem, values and creative thinking were next. Every child needed decent clothing, shoes, school supplies, and a deep sense that we were there for their long term benefit and development. Building confidence took time.
So many people, not just here in Peru, want to see results immediately, admittedly, I was one of those impatient people. We should be able to step off a plane in Lima, arrive in the Andes a day later, unpack and take out our Harry Potter magic wand and give it a wave. Here is what you need, thank you for your attention and off we go to collect our humanitarian awards. On a larger scale, countries like the United States, airdrop shipments of food and medical supplies into 3rd world countries, send billions of dollars in aid and are frustrated at the minimal results. "They need it, we sent it so what's the problem?" The answer is simple, "It isn't Harry Potter magic." There are some delicate issues that need to be addressed before money or supplies can be effectively used. Building a relationship and trust among the people is imperative. They will use what you give them with respect and appreciation, not wasting it and not selling it for beer, if you are there as a permanent presence, expect results and monitor the distribution. Otherwise it is like finding a wallet on the sidewalk with $1000 in it. Windfall! Splurge, party time for everybody! Too much too soon creates debility, laziness, a beggar mentality. Counter productive.
We needed to build a trust/bond relationship among the children and their families. We had to manage our resources wisely. We had to establish our credibility not only among the people of the Andes but out into the international community that we were asking to help us with materials, volunteers and donations. We have had some wonderfully compassionate people step up to the challenges we face. We have also been ignored by some who feel our project with children just isn't worth the time and postage to mail in the equivalent cost of a MacDonald's Happy Meal. Either way, we are grateful that they at least gave us a listen.
We also had to become creative with what materials we had. Every sheet of blank paper was gold. Every crayon, pencil, eraser and bottle of children's vitamins, box of Play Doh and ball was gold as well. Nothing goes to waste. We made our own flash cards for learning games. We wrote numbers in egg cartons and tossed stones into it, added up the numbers for math games. For ten Soles (about $4USD) we bought a length of plastic sheeting in tube form and made a tunnel for the children to run through. We required every child to attend classes regularly, show development and be consistent in their progress. We learned how to do a lot with a little bit. When more children joined our groups, we needed a lot more little bits. We also needed more boots on the ground in the form of volunteers. Money doesn't buy compassion, hope or love for the children, only human arms can hug them. But it is those step by step advancements that got us to where we are today. With materials coming to us from Toronto (Thanks Richard!), postcards from around the world with messages of hope, and the success of our new book, A Gringo in Peru-A Story of Compassion in Action, we hope to be able to do as much as our hearts and hands can possibly accomplish.
Every step we took was earned, nothing fell into our laps. There is no Harry Potter magic wand to wave. This is why we cherish every member of our team who has joined us, either from where they are in the world, sending us messages and materials, or visiting us here in Peru to give us hands on help. The progress of the children, which we have now seen over our four plus years here, is amazing. Little thieves have become honest children, who consider taking what isn't theirs unthinkable. Children who were mediocre and apathetic in every aspect of their lives are now motivated and eager to see what should happen next. Happy children, breaking out of depression and despair find solutions to their challenges and believe that the best is due them. School grades are up, living conditions are better, cleanliness is a priority now. Children's vitamins, thermal blankets and proper fitting shoes have eliminated health issues.
If you think that $5 in an envelope is a waste of a stamp, guess again. If you think a postcard sent with a message encouraging children to be their best is a waste, guess again. If you think that a box of crayons and a coloring book will sit on a shelf for weeks, guess again. If I take out a pack of tissues I have ten little hands in my face asking for one. Everything is appreciated, nothing goes to waste and nothing is Harry Potter magic. Join our team, make a difference, today. Feel great about yourself in a whole new way.
Recently, I was engaged in a conversation with someone I had known many years ago, lost contact with and was reconnected to him. He asked what I was up to these days. Of course that ignited a conversation about this project, what I was doing in Peru with the children of Changes for New Hope and the progress we are making with them.
Having known him from a church group years ago his comment was marinated with christian accolades and admiration that I was doing a good work for the Lord. The fuse was lit. As patiently as I could, I explained that this is a work that needed to be done. There are children here in the Peruvian Andes lacking the very basics of what was necessary to maintain a healthy or normal life. It did not require a devout man of incredible faith nor a "beam of light from above" to move any person with an ounce of compassion to come to the aid of these children. It was within my power to come here and start a project to help them and I did.
I challenged his accolades by saying that those individuals that we both knew in the church, himself included, who knew of this project, have done nothing more than "pray for us". While the sentiment is appreciated, it is severely anemic when considering the degree of human suffering being endured by these children who lack food medicines, a warm place to sleep, educational inequities and racism. I was well aware that the people I was referring to had substaintial means and an abundance of material wealth, yet were not moved to do more than bow their heads and pray. I posed the question, "Do you know what happens to a hungry child when all you do is pray for them? They will die of hunger."
While I would never denigrate anyone for their sincere religious beliefs, I take personal exception to those who would use that same religion as a means to abort the very tennants of their religion. Case in pont, my friend advised me of the saying of Jesus, "The poor you shall have always." He was not the first to use this verse with me. In fact he was about the fifth "christian" to use the Bible to step away from following the concepts that the Bible teaches. The reasoning is that there will always be poor people, therefore you can not help them all. True enough, but does that mean that we should not help any poor people? Using that same line of thinking, if doctors can not cure every disease, perhaps they should not cure any diseases. I did not care to debate the issue with him. I believe that what you do with what is yours is your own business. No excuses are necessary. Conversely, many christian friends of very limited means have helped this project immensely by putting their faith and compassion into action in many different ways as they were able. I am filled with sincere gratitude for that.
I recently read a quote made by talk show personality Stephen Colbert. He said, ´´ If this is going to be a christian nation that doesn´t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we´ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don´t want to do it.¨
There are some wonderful people around this globe of every walk of life, belief and conviction who have touched the lives of the children of this project, providing them with shoes, clothing, medicine, food and milk, vitamins, school materials and even space blankets. Our hats off to those volunteers who selflessly came to Peru to be a hands on help side by side with me. I agree, the poor we will always have. It is a heartwarming fact though, that there are many many people out there who will do whatever it takes to make sure one less child goes to bed hungry tonight. -- Jim Killon