Forging connections in Peru: a reflection


Agathe Fredette

JSC travelers with families of La Florida

My first time traveling internationally was one of the most enlightening, humbling, and emotionally challenging experiences of my life. On April 1, 10 classmates and I set out on our journey to Peru as part of a service trip through a sociology class at JSC titled “Civic Engagement: The Heart of Social Change.”

Once there, we began our service work through the Fuller Center for Housing, an international non-profit organization that is part of the Habitat for Humanity organization that renovates and builds homes in partnership with families in need. We volunteered as part of the Global Builders program and worked directly with families in the small dessert village of La Florida, about two hours outside of the capital of Lima.

Our guide through the Fuller Center for Housing was an older Peruvian man named Zenon. Zenon was one of the co-founders for Habitat for Humanity decades ago and took great pride in his involvement in helping create the organization that it is today, one that has helped millions of families throughout the world. During our time there, Zenon told us stories of his past. He used to be incredibly rich, but began investing and giving away all of his money to help others and to build Habitat for Humanity up from the ground.

I felt a deep connection with this trip partly because of my own history with Habitat for Humanity. In 2000, after a comprehensive application and selection process, my family and I were awarded a new home to be built through Habitat for Humanity with the help of volunteers in Waterbury, Vermont. For my mom, who had been a single parent raising me and my older brother by herself since I was two years old and who continually experienced financial difficulties, this was an incredible gift.

On the third day, I approached Zenon privately and told him my story about my experience with Habitat for Humanity. His eyes lit up and he was truly overjoyed that something as fateful as this had occurred. I told him that if it were not for Habitat for Humanity giving us the gift of a new home, I most likely would not be in Peru doing service work for other families.

Our days at the work sites were brutally hot, physically challenging, and a learning experience in teamwork and problem solving skills. Physical labors such as lifting and carrying roof boards, pushing wheel barrels, lifting buckets, making cement, shoveling dirt, and carrying rocks away from the worksite were some of our main chores. I really enjoyed our time at the worksite and the teamwork skills we strengthened during our days of work, improving my building skills, and getting to know the families we were working with.

During our downtime away from the work site, Zenon helped us experience the rich and complex culture, history, landscapes, cities, people, and food of Peru, both modern and ancient. Using his expansive knowledge and familiarity of Peru, Zenon brought us to a variety of locations. We toured ancient Inca ruins, visited the Cathedral of San Francisco in Lima where we explored the catacombs underneath the church, white water rafted in the Luna Huana river valley, wandered the streets and markets of the historically rich city of Cuzco, and experienced the breathtaking beauty and grandeur of the ancient mountainside Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. As an anthropology major, and someone who is particularly fascinated with ancient cultures and their histories, it was truly inspiring to learn about and see in person the cultural and historically rich locations throughout Peru. To learn about a peoples’ culture and their past helps instill a deeper understanding of them personally and as individuals.

While there were countless awe-inspiring moments throughout the trip, the moments I cherish the most are the smaller, seemingly less significant ones: meditating on the end of a pier looking out over the water, unexpectedly wandering into an ancient Catholic Church in Cuzco to experience mass, making friends with stray dogs at the base of Machu Picchu, wandering the park outside of our hotel at night, or playing ball with children in the streets of La Florida.

While this trip was overall a positive experience, there were also hard times. The work days were physically exhausting, some of us became ill with traveler’s sickness, constant travel drained us, and there was some tension between group members at times. For me, the trip was extremely emotionally challenging because of the recent loss of a loved one. Less than two weeks before departure, a family member who was very dear to me passed away. I was very close to them and the pain of the loss of them profoundly affected my mindset during the trip. However, I knew that my loved one would not want to me only focus on grieving their loss, but also to honor them during the trip. One of my classmates was going through a recent death of someone in their life as well. We quickly bonded as friends and through our mutual grieving we helped each other through the grieving process, helping shape the trip into an emotionally healing experience for us both.

Looking back on the trip, I realized that I made personal and individual connections with each and every one of my classmates and for that I am very grateful. I felt as if I learned something different from each person on the trip and had my own special moments with each of them. When you are traveling, living, experiencing new things, and working alongside a closely knit group of people for over 10 days, there is a bond there that is peculiar and strong. We became open and comfortable with each other quickly, despite the fact that most of us had just met. No matter where we go in life, our memories of our shared experiences in Peru will connect us.

To work directly with the families we were helping build homes with was an incredibly humbling experience, and the people we met and friendships that were made resonated with me deeply. The families and individuals we met and worked with were polite, hardworking, and kind. To work with people who lived in such humble living conditions, most of their homes being simple stone wall structure, with dirt floors, straw roves, and limited electricity, put things into perspective.

While most of the members of our group did not speak Spanish fluently, there were very few issues that arose from language barriers. Sign language came in very handy a lot of the time, and we began to realize that not sharing the same language did not stop individuals from making deep personal connections and generating an understanding of each other.

When our final day of work arrived, our group, Zenon, and the families we worked with gathered together to talk about our experiences with each other and to say our goodbyes. This was one of the most difficult goodbyes I have had to face. I felt like I was leaving behind a part of me in Peru and with the people I met. I hope one day to return to Peru and the village of La Florida to continue service work.

The events I witnessed, emotions I felt, people I met, and moments that I was part of while I was in Peru are difficult to articulate properly. There were so many shared adventures, small private moments, inside jokes, and moments of growing and learning that unless you were on the trip, it is impossible to explain or understand the depth of the experiences and the connections that were made between us. I cannot begin to count the amount of memories I cherish from this trip and how grateful I am for the lessons I learned and how this trip has helped me grow emotionally and intellectually as a person.

What I am even more truly grateful for is to have had this opportunity to work alongside families to help improve their lives, even in the smallest of ways. While I had been a world away, in a different country within a different culture, I was once in their place. To have been able to come full circle and give back after so long was truly wonderful.