I volunteered with MySmallHelp in Ollantaytambo, Peru, in the heart of the Sacred Valley of the Incas for just under one month. I had entered into Bolivia around 4 months earlier and I had free time to start searching the internet for a program I hoped to work with. At the time, I had never done any volunteer work and I didn't really know what I would fit into best. Why did I want to volunteer? It's honestly not something I can answer. It's just a feeling inside, a feeling to share, and to me it doesn't come with any cost.
Brenden with the children defore going to school in the bus.
I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a loving Christian family who have raised and guided me in ways I can only dream of. The have supported me in every decision I have made, including to travel for one year on South America. It hasn't all been rainbows and lollipops though. We have fought and endured through tough times of my youngest brothers premature birth, loosing our home to a house fire, depression within the family, unexpected death of my 25 year old sister and soon to follow my grandfather due to aggressive oesophagus cancer.
At times we were in way over our heads and we received countless support from our local churches, families, charities and companies we worked with. It was a real blessing to have all of this support during these times and I honestly think at times we would have struggled to regain our footing without all of this support.
Brenden with Alex and family
I was stuck in a rut, working my life in a constant loop that was forever the same and I always dreamt of travel, I just never pushed myself to make it happen. Finally in early 2013, I purchased my ticket and saved my money to go. In my mind I wanted to volunteer and do what I could to lend my helping hand, I just had no idea where or how?
I went to language school in Sucre, Bolivia to learn Spanish for one month in the mornings and I was staying with a local family who mentioned I could volunteer in an orphanage in the city. I thought this would be a great opportunity to try. I spent one month, in the afternoons spending time with the boys helping with homework, cooking, cleaning and playing sports. It was a wonderful experience and it was amazing to see the little changes in the boys. I always think they have helped me more than I ever did with them. It's great to receive mails from other volunteers with questions from the boys asking where am I and what I am doing. I will be returning in the future.
Brenden and Marina on their way to school
Ok, back to MySmallHelp. I was looking online for a volunteering opportunity in Peru. I was really getting frustrated with finding so many organizations with costs of $1000 for a week? Really what is this? Where is the money going? It doesn´t make sense to me to make volunteering into a touristic exercise. I guess the sad thing, is people just wanting to do it for the experience and they will pay for it without ever knowing where all the money is going. I’m sure there are some good organizations out there where the money is used effectively to help, but I am skeptical.
Well finally I came across MySmallHelp, a not-for-profit organization in Ollantaytambo, I read over the website and was interested instantly. There was no question for money. I sent off an email to Leander, the Director, and asked if I was able to help out with the School Bus Project. This is a project that helps special needs children so they can travel on a bus to a school around 35 minutes away in the Urubamba community.
With many emails and some questions here and there I finally arrived in Ollantaytambo at the end of July. I really had no idea about the place or how I would be able to help. I was blown away with the mountains and scenery when I arrived, and instantly felt at home.
Mayra, the Coordinator, who is living in Ollantaytambo came to meet me in the plaza and guided me around the town while giving me a detailed overview on what they are doing. I lived with Mayra and the other volunteers in the MySmallHelp home. We pay for accomodation which goes towards the projects. I think this is great, to have everyone living together really getting to know each other and bouncing ideas off each other about the projects.
Brenden visiting Natividad (Natty)
Within MySmallHelp we also help the local families in there homes to help make living more comfortable for them and their children by giving support and also information because a lot of them have been closed off from education and even now using computers, etc.
Some of the girls are working on the sewing project, teaching the mothers to sew and make things to sell and some of the mothers make cookies to sell to help raise money. I found there is a real sense of community between the families and those volunteering with MySmallHelp.
I was introduced to the bus project with Mayra on the first day and met the children who have a variety of special needs. Down syndrome, cerebral palsey, autism, deafness, Sturge-Weber sydrome. All of the children were so happy and warmed up to me super quickly, I felt at ease yet somewhat uncomfortable at the same time, why? I really had no idea how I was to assist the children, I had no expertise in any field that I thought would be benificial to them...
Within a few days this feeling was gone, I found I could help by just being me, a big brother, a teacher or a friend. I just needed to spend time with them to find different ways to stimulate and communicate with positive responses. I also helped them with things that they were not capable of doing themselves, like cleaning, sitting, assisting walking, etc.
During the two weeks I was voluteering, it was the school holidays and we spent time visiting families in their homes. Giving some entertainment to the children and advise to the families about exercises to keep the children entertained or information about hygiene, etc.
Some of the children are living in quite rough conditions. Alex for instance, is 18 years old with cerebral palsy. He attends school two times per week and on the other days we visit him in his home. A lot of the time he is left lying in his bed with no entertainment. We take him outside to wash and get some sun. We play music and practice exercises to get his brain thinking and practice hand eye coordination to pick up a ball. I also massaged his body as he really would get to move. This was the hardest for me to see, my first response was I should take him home to Australia. How could he be 18 and in this condition? He is living in a small town without doctors and his parents would have received little information that could guide them to giving him a more sustainable upbringing (physiotherapy, etc).
Now with MySmallHelp and regular volunteers, we can assist and give the families the assistance and guidance they were so long without. Recently, Mayra went along with a lot of the children to a local hospital for a thourough checkup.
Some of the children may only live to 15 years old. Young Marina has Sturge-Weber sydrome (a very rare syndrome) and is said she may only live another 7 years. She is living in rough conditions and the mother blames this condition on the vitamins she was given while pregnant. The family only speak the native language, quechua, and the parents are also alcoholics. This makes assisting and guiding even more difficult.
Marina was the first to come in contact with me when I arrived and hold my hand an walk with me. Marina is a wonderful artist who loves singing and dancing. She is unable to speak or walk without assistance but she lets you know what she wants pretty quickly.
Each of the children have a story and each of them have the most amazing personalities that shine like all of the colours of the rainbow. Without the wonderful work and many hours dedicated by Leander, Mayra and all of the other wonderful volunteers some of these children would still be living in the darkest of places.
What really struck me is that Ollantaytambo is the heart before everyone slips off to visit Machu Picchu, the place everyone would think about if you mention Peru. There is probably more money in Peru right there filtering through the expensive train and entry tickets then anywhere in Peru yet the region is lacking facilities and the assistance required.
Most days I visited a lovely older lady, Natty, who is unable to use her legs and spends most of her days on the ground out in her garden. It's amazing to see her smile and how she speaks of the fun she has had with past volunteers. She loves music and food! I can't seem to visit without her giving me something to eat, you can only say no so many times to your elders before you need to eat. She required an operation recently to remover her gall bladder and with the help of the team she was taken to a local hospital.
Brenden with Sayuri
Along with the projects MySmallHelp work closely with the surrounding villages working on different projects. I helped along with another organization, Life Works, to build a greenhouse in Phiry within a local school to help them grow fruit and vegatables at high altitudes.
We also assited in picking up rubbish along the local river and wow there was a lot. It's all about the education and helping the local people learn about what they have missed out on, the simple things of hygiene and how to care for the environment.
I went along with the locals of Camicancha to build a small vegetable garden in the school. It was an amazing experience as children, mothers and fathers all came during the school holidays to help make adobe bricks (mud and straw) and work the ground to plant the vegetables. We worked hard together, then we ate lunch together and shared chicha (a local alcohol made from corn).
To me the people of the Sacred Valley have very little in the sence of material goods, education (older generation), health care, etc. yet they work hard together and love to help each other, I've never seen so much love consistently within a community.
I think we tend to forget that it's not only in times of need that we need to give, but all of the time. This is what we lack in our first world, we have forgotten the importance of living as a community.
I fell in love with Ollantaytambo, the children and it's people. I felt at home and I enjoyed every moment with everyone there. I woke up excited to go and pick up the children for school... to see the excitement on their faces as they returned after school holidays!!
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I will continue to assist MySmallHelp as long as I am here because I see the positive impact it has had on many lives and I hope to return in the near future. Being a not-for-profit organization, they do rely on funding to pay for the school bus to continue running. If you can donate even a little money or your time it would mean so much: http://www.mysmallhelp.org/volunteer_in_peru.php
Thank you to the MySmallHelp team! You are all a blessing to those you help and you will forever be in my thoughts and prayers. Keep up with the amazing work.
“How would your life be different if... You decided to give freely, love fully, and play feverously? Let today be the day... You free yourself from the conditioned rules that limit your happiness and dilute the beautiful life experience. Have fun. Give - Love - Play!”
― Steve Maraboli, The Power of One.