A great Teacher said: “You will know him by his fruits”. It is assumed that whoever helps out doesn’t expect results, but while we were searching for our anonymous heroes, we stumbled upon the “fruit” of the service of our protagonist who was at Lima running some errands. We thought that we were missing a great story, but what we thought was a big obstacle was exactly this Big Fruit. So big it was that we had to be blind to take so long to see it. Surprised by our unexpected visit, Soledad welcomed us and started to tell us about the history of the “Children of the Andes” Association. Slowly, with each word and experience, we began to be amazed at our own incredulity, while realizing that we were facing the actual result of our heroine.
Soledad is Peruvian and calls “Mom” to Marie Therèse, this great woman who came from France over 20 years ago and who has lived in Peru doing everything possible to give the local children the possibility of studying and growing up in a healthy environment. Obviously Soledad is not the only one to call her Mom or Mother, there are over 400 children who have been supported by the Village since the year 2000; but to Soledad, the number 154, it changed her life like to many others. She can’t stop thanking and trying to give back a little of what she has received, while feeling that she was saved by this French heroine. “They have extended a hand to me, they have helped me so much, how can I give something back? I have received everything for free and it changed my life since then; I feel in debt towards her, and this is why I’m another volunteer here.” Soledad suffered a lot since she was a child abandoned by her parents when she was 2 years old, having no option but to live with a grandmother who despised her and would tell her: “Why are you going to study if you are a woman? Only the men have the right to study. She would repeat to herself constantly: “I want to study, I want to study”. Soledad was convinced that she wanted to learn no matter how much it would be denied to her. She would escape to go to study, risking big reprimands and even being left outside her house. This is how when she was 8 years old she learned how to survive in the jungle, sleeping in caves, eating roots and selling some, even surviving on a bubble gum. She learned to write and read searching written papers from the garbage and finished her elementary school while working.
When she was 17 years old and after being very persistent, she could finally access the Village of Tingo María, founded by Ma. Therèse, that was located at a 48-hour walk from her house. And while she was a bit old for the Village, she made it worth every one of her efforts. With a bulletproof conviction, she achieved what she wanted: none other than to study. She finished her high school and stayed some years as a volunteer tutor in the Village because: “I work since I was 7; I have suffered enough and don’t want to see other kids suffering. I have such love for the kids and I think: if she who is a foreigner can give us so much, how can I not do it for MY country?”. When Ma. Therèse proposed to her to start a project in Nazca, she accepted immediately, she followed her and both started together this new project 900 kilometres away, changed jungle for a dessert and there she studied Tourism. She still continues her French and English studies; with her envious courage and implacable serenity, she is the loyal friend and right hand of her “Mom”. With her 25 years she still knows what she wants in life: “My mission is to keep on supporting this big work, I will somehow be independent, but I want to continue with this, I want to build a house and welcome the children of my country and help them out. My great-grandmother, an illiterate woman who raised me, would always tell me to study so I could be better than her and I assured her that I was going to build a house so we could live together, obviously I wasn’t aware of her age.”
Soledad tells us about Ma. Therèse with the love of any kid towards her mother, or even better, being that it was so hard for her to find her: “Since the first day I arrived to the Village, she gave me the love of the mother I never had. My first birthday I had it celebrated at the Village because I didn’t know when it was, I remember they gave me a white plush toy and a dress. Every year when I go back, I visit my teachers who are my friends, when I was living in the streets they found me and decided to help me, renting me a room and inviting me to eat with them, without demanding me shoes or clothes like to the other kids.”
Soledad, like a Peruvian she is, is the biggest expression of the good deeds of the Association. “Sometimes people would insult us, or many of the parents are illiterate, so they don’t trust when someone gives them something in exchange for nothing, because it belongs to foreigners, they are afraid their children will be taken away, and I tell them that I wasn’t taken anywhere! In the jungle, they are more superstitious, some believe they will remove the organs…I don’t care what they say to me, but I do care when they insult her, who gave so much for this country and the children. Slowly they are beginning to trust us, this year more children joined and they happily transmit to their surroundings. For me, they are all my family, my little brothers; they call me ‘aunt’. She is the best example. What she admires most of Ma. Therèse is that “she gives her life for us, she does everything.”
We found Ma. Therèse in Lima, Peru; we were missing her side of the story. She is a woman of action, we could figure out right away that she didn’t like to talk about herself; she prefers to talk about what happened and the actual facts. She tells us that in one trip to Peru (year 1991) she met the extreme poverty, the lack of medicaments facing the cholera and despite there are people with hunger, cold or sickness in her own country, people would not die because of that; there is not that kind of misery. This difference made it impossible for her to go back, forcing her to compromise with this South American reality. She didn’t choose a safe place to establish the Village, it was a “red zone” in the jungle due to the dangers of the guerrilla bands, many would advise her against establishing there. But she wanted action. She got the ball rolling and after many failed attempts in obtaining the land, she found a family with 3 handicapped kids who needed the money from the sale of their land for the surgery of one of them; therefore it was a complete start for the Village of Tingo María 11 years ago. “I like to create, imagine, plan; I get the best part of this type of job: the more attractive level of the help, that is to play with the children, but in order to get there we have to feed them, warmly welcome them so they can change their appearances, take care of them, provide them with a safe place to live, and the last level is getting the funds, which is the least interesting thing to do. The best, the reward, is to see their joy when they have new clothes o show me a good grade; I always remind them that they have to study to give back everything they receive.”
Nowadays, there are 40 children living in Tingo María from Monday to Saturday during the academic year, who come from families in need. They are taken care by guardians who wake them up, walk them to the school less than 1km away, pick them up, help them with their homework, teach them hygiene, order, how to wash their clothes and to study, but above all they cover their affective deficiencies and heal them psychologically. Everything is based on Love. They are their friends and at the same time their adoptive parents, they wake up and go back to sleep together. They ran through the jungle, play soccer, get muddy, wash their clothes and start again. For Mirella, the Principal of the Village, it was a blessing to find Ma. Therèse when she was desperately searching for a job back in the year 2002, she was a single mother of 4 children and one grandchild. At that time there were already 12 kids in the Village and Ma. Therèse alone was in charge of everything. Today they are inseparable, Ma. Therèse trusted in her the management of Tingo María to immerse herself in her new adventure: a private school, a language centre and a Village in Nazca.
Ma. Therèse did a bit of everything to obtain the funds for her projects; apart from selling Peruvian handicrafts in France, she was a translator and tourist guide in Peru and it was actually in Nazca where they suggested her to teach French. She analyzed the options and conceived an ambitious and smart project. In 2007 she got the transfer of the land to be used for 10 years and established a Language Center with courses for adults. In the meantime she would sleep there with Soledad, being herself the only teacher; with the income they started to slowly build a private school: Our Lady of Salette, very accessible, with a good level of elementary education and languages (English, French and Quechua). This is how she managed to have these institutions collecting funds to support the Village, home to so many kids of extremely poor families who attend a public school close by. In addition, Ma. Therèse devised a plan to obtain godparents and foreigners who cooperate from Europe or even go to work at the Village as volunteers to be guardians and foreign language teachers. This is a win-win situation; the community has now an excellent school with almost 100 students in only 4 years of foundation, 30 monthly students at the Language Center and 15 children in the Village in almost 3 years since it was created. They have Aloe Vera cultivated fields, from which they plan to produce soaps; this would add a potential capacity of 15 children more, out of the total of 64 estimated. The Village is open for visits and it has accommodations available. We confirm that the food is plentiful and too delicious and the volunteers are a nice group of French young, helpful and joyful people.
They eat together every day, Ma. Therèse lives there with Álvaro, her adopted Peruvian son. Some families are ashamed of saying that their kids go there, because they are of an extreme poverty. “It is not shameful to say that you are being supported” Soledad reminds us, for whom this support was her salvation. Both of them go to the poorest areas, to where the garbage is disposed and find the kids looking for food there; they ask them where they live and go and ask their parents if they want their kids to live in the Village and be able to study. Usually they are people who live up in the mountains and sometimes their kids don’t go to school because, even if the education is free, they need to pay for school supplies, clothes, extra-curriculum activities (dance, computer studies), social events and so it is very hard to afford and they end up quitting school.
Sometimes they feel like giving up, they feel overwhelmed. But they don’t quit, they do the impossible and keep on. Ma. Therèse admits: “We have days of tears, anger, feelings of getting out and leave everything behind…. facing my desk I will hang a notice saying: if it is for only one, we have achieved it, now we are going for more.” She is not afraid of anything or anyone anymore, and tells us that she says to those who have bad intentions: “Be careful when you hurt me, because Someone more important is protecting me”. Seeing the magnitude of her work she shares with us: “No, I never imagined doing all this, sometimes the solution comes before the problem, the faith helps us and the obstacles disappear. It is not a sacrifice for me to do it, I feel happy, and I believe that the happiness is like a purse, we take it everywhere we go.”
It is probable that if we returned in 15 years, Soledad will have her own Village somewhere in the jungle. Despite what she lived and went through she doesn’t hold any grudge, she forgave her mother, whom she met when she was 18 years old; and she always believed in going forward, without any bad feelings towards her parents and grandmother. She got ahead, in spite of everything, with the advice of her great grandmother; with much pain but also with a strong conviction and disposition to thank life for all the opportunities received, and do the same for other kids.
Like Soledad was re-born when entering the Village and found the love of a family, Ma. Therèse was also re-born when starting her new life in Peru. She left behind her friends, a grown up son and her french land to give a new brother to her son and a Mother to so many suffering kids. Only Love moves her, and she brings and takes her happiness purse wherever she goes, opening more branches to this tree so it may produce more fruits.
To find out more visit: http://www.enfantsdesandes.org/