Inca Kola or Crackers?

CCS alumna Joanna Schreck shares her moving experience while volunteering with the elderly in Villa El Salvador.

This past year, I hit a milestone: For every seven years of service completed where I work, the company gives employees a short sabbatical. I spent a good deal of time researching what to do with the extra two weeks off; I Googled “sabbatical” in all my free time and was getting increasingly excited about retreats and volunteering possibilities.

After much deliberation, I chose Cross-Cultural Solutions as the right company to partner with and Lima, Peru as my destination. Upon sharing the good news with my company, they generously supported me with a volunteer grant and matched a percentage of funds raised.

For two weeks I volunteered in Villa El Salvador, one of the 34 districts in Lima, with seniors who qualify as facing absolute poverty. In Lima, “Poverty” is defined as a family of four living on $2 a day. “Absolute Poverty” is $1 a day.

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On day one, while driving to our placement in Villa El Salvador, I was shocked at the difference in landscape. The Home-Base where volunteers are located resides in residential Surco, a beautiful and safe neighborhood. Big trees and busy intersections gave way to a rolling desert of dusty brick and concrete, which serves as home to the population of over 500,000. I counted 42 stray dogs on the way to our site, and let’s just say that not all of them were alive. Everything was covered in a heavy layer of grit and sand, and many of the roads are closed off to transportation, or inaccessible to motor vehicles. The juxtaposition was jarring, and humbling.

There was no mistaking the struggles of life for the underserved in Villa El Salvador.

Los Martincitos, the senior center established by the Roman Catholic Church over 15 years ago, is open three days a week to 120 seniors. When open, the center provides two meals, daily activities and exercise, companionship, and prayer. When closed, the volunteers pay home visits to check in on the members and help where possible. Sometimes facilitation with a neighbor is necessary, sometimes they can find a bed if the senior doesn’t have one, or sometimes even a simple conversation is a comfort.

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On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I served meals, washed and cleaned dishes, pushed wheelchairs, assisted with trips to the local market, and helped the staff (who are also all volunteers) with projects or cleaning as needed.

My second week I realized what was really making a positive impact on the community was not the busy work, but my presence—both physical and emotional. The 100+ seniors greeted me every morning with hugs and kisses, taught me how to make the string bracelets they sell to raise money, danced with me at exercise time, and when the language barrier was too much they just smiled in my direction throughout the day. We bonded, I made friends, and the stereotypes about foreigners melted away.

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Tuesdays and Thursdays were the toughest.

On these days we would visit seniors in their homes. These visits were taking place in homes that were hard to consider homes at all. Crumpled concrete serving as a couple of walls, a sheet of tin or a tarp as a ceiling – these seniors live outside as much as they live inside.

Most of the Los Martincitos members have no family, or no family that will help support them. Many times the conversations during those visits ended in an emotional display while the seniors shared the lack of connection they retain with their families. I was admittedly embarrassed to visit these seniors in their homes, but they invited me in graciously and offered anything they had available—fruit, Inca Kola, or crackers. I apologized time and time again for the language barrier, but they took my hands and just smiled.

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As my time at Los Martincitos came to a close, I served breakfast and explained it was my last day. I was blown away by the crowd that began to build around me, exclaiming their disappointment and begging for photos. I had actually brought a dozen pictures from home, but I had been too timid to share them prior to that moment. How could I show these amazing, persevering people my US middle class lifestyle and not feel materialistic? How could I show these seniors photos of my family while knowing they struggle with the loss of their own?

Coaxed to do so, I agreed. The response was amazing! Everyone begged to keep them as mementos. All I could do was say Si! Claro! (Yes! Of course!) After that, everyone wanted to pose with me, and I spent over an hour taking and retaking photos with 120 seniors while trying not to cry.

As a farewell to the seniors I sang "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins, an appropriate swan song about smiling when witnessing kind acts.

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