My six months of life and work in San Francisco have come to an end and I’m back at home in North Carolina, celebrating the holidays in the best way possible, with gratitude for homecoming and togetherness with loved ones. Six months as big as these have been are beyond summarizing. I had beautiful moments and distraught ones. I felt stretched to my limits, in ways that were at times uncomfortable and scary (weeks alone in the village, teaching in a new language, rodent and tarantula terror) and in ways that were deeply meaningful and positive (becoming part of a new family, pursuing a longtime passion for the Spanish language, building a foundation for healthier and more hopeful lives in rural Peru). It was an experience shaped by relationships, ones marked by a range of emotions: warmth, friendship, inspiration, frustration, disappointment, gratitude. An experience of community, in the fullest sense of the word, with all its shades of gray and all its blessings and challenges.
Common expressions of my neighbors often guided my thoughts about life in the campo and our community health work. One of my favorites, poco a poco, captures the gentle pace of mountain life. Little by little, morning becomes afternoon and afternoon fades into night. Work progresses slowly but steadily. Poco a poco became a fitting mantra for our work philosophy as eager, ambitious volunteers with big plans. Our first project idea to construct bathrooms encompassed a beautiful idea – a hygienic sanitation system that would reduce disease and create a sense of pride and dignity. Forging ahead too rapidly with this project prevented us from fully considering some of the more nuanced challenges which existed. As we visited homes and talked with families we discovered that San Francisco’s mothers and fathers already knew the lesson learned and advised us well in our plans – poco a poco.
Curtis and I learned from our early mistakes and took the mantra to heart. We worked with our students to carefully consider the complex needs, challenges and opportunities of San Francisco and to reach consensus on the best project possible. Students, community and the MEJORC leadership were in agreement that a trash collection project was our best opportunity. The project is sustainable, manageable and will gradually create lasting, tangible health benefits for the community. Providing conveniently located trash cans throughout San Francisco and educating the community about the benefits of separating trash, creating more compost and using the only landfill available to us – one in a nearby city –with a weekly trash pick-up will spark a change. Not everyone will want to adjust at first. However, with committed new volunteers and our 14 Youth Health Promoters a change can be made in the way that people think about trash, the environment and sanitation. Poco a poco, we think we’ll see a cleaner, safer, more attractive and efficient San Francisco.
Our work with MEJORC took a long-term view of the physical and emotional needs of our students and their families. We hope that through our youth health classes, community workshops and project plans we have sparked gradual changes – in healthy behaviors and in the confidence and passion of young, bright people. I’ll be avidly following the progress made by our students and MEJORC in the year to come, eager to see the results of our six month proyecto piloto.
Snowbound in the Appalachian mountains this week, I was feeling a world away from the hot, tiny village in Peru. One morning the phone rang and it was my little sister Meli and my second mama hen Zoila, calling from Piura. Te extraño mucho, pero nos veamos pronto. I hope it won’t be long.