During my stay in Cuzco I wanted to offer some time to a local initiative, and through a little research, discovered a fantastic 4-fold project, which didn´t charge huge fees to get volunteers on board. In fact, one of Aldea Yanapay´s mantras is that volunteering should not cost the earth. Instead it welcomes people from across the world, keen to contribute something of themselves, their education, talents and energies while traveling. Here is a brief impression of what is a big heart project created by Yuri, a young local man, who has great vision and is making big differences in the lives of many Cuzco children and their families.
Cuzco is a dynamic place, with its share of shadow and light. It is very beautiful, with true charm and a rich history, but for many who live there the reality is not easy, far from accessing the wealth circulating through the city. With 14 000 homeless children in Cuzco, there is no doubt that projects like Aldea Yanapay are really necessary. Cuzco is a city that struggles with familiar social problems of alcoholism, domestic abuse, family breakdown, unemployment and the loss of cultural identity.
Yuri, the charismatic guy who set up the school, is a master juggler, with many plans in the making. Check out the website for a good picture of him and his projects at www.aldeayanapay.org. His long term vision is to build an orphanage in Cuzco, but lacking the start-up for such a project he began a few years ago with a small alternative school, funded by a delicious restaurant and a low-key, cosy hostal. He has a background in economics and a strong sense of how to bring the various projects together so that they co-fund each other. The money that comes from the restaurant and hostal, helps to pay for the school and other initiatives coming out of Aldea Yanapay which include emergency support for young people in custody in Cuzco.
My week was spent at the school, located on a cobble-stoned street a little out of the way of Plaza de Armas. Meeting at 3pm, after the regular government school day is over, everyone gathers at the old blue door opening onto a dusty courtyard, that leads to a second gate in which the school is housed. There are 4 rooms in each section, painted in bright colors, with murals and games splayed over the concrete. The kids range in age from 5 to 16 and come voluntarily, making a verbal agreement with Yuri to accept and abide by the rules of the school. The school has a clear philosophy and boundaries which the children are asked explicitly to accept. Over the week it comes clear that they LOVE to be here. The place is full of laughter, jokes and cuddles. The school is the place to come for affection and care, and you get it in abundance. No laws prohibit physical affection in Peru and one of the first rules for both volunteers and students is to greet everyone with a kiss and a hug. Yuri is adamant about it and it´s interesting how this creates a stronger connection between everyone. I am immediately ´prof´ and everyday look forward to my daily dose of cuddles and the warm interactions.
There is maturity mixed with playfulness, and students are treated as true individuals at the school. Everyday at 5pm the school comes together for ´circle time´ in which Yuri guides a collective discussion around a particular topic. Each voice is heard and respected and the kids are responsive during this time, no one holds back and each wait their turn to be heard as the conversations blend the serious and sublime. Clearly the choice to be there makes a difference to the attitude and vibe of the school. There is an enthusiasm and a strong independent identity for the kids and they thrive on the personal and collective attention.
Not afraid to open up some difficult topics, on Thursday Yuri discussed alcoholism in Cuzco, from the brazen tourists and their serious stomach for booze, to the endless local fiestas which offer an ongoing excuse for the locals to drink, causing all kinds of negative repercussions. The children willingly share their personal stories around alcohol in the family, and learn from each others voices, empowered to listen and speak. Some of the stories are difficult to hear.
There are two separate classes per day, the first I take is an art class co-taught with Florence, a beautiful French girl who before this, taught in Kathmandu at a Tibetan refugee school. She is fluent in Spanish and wonderful with the kids. We have a great time over the week making a game for learning English (the theme this week is English, last week Buddhism). Following this I work with Erin and Nick, and gorgeous 5 year olds, making masks and learning a raucous song about animals bumping their heads and falling off beds in Spanish, with the goal to teach them at least 8 English words for animals. Every Friday is given to fiesta, and each class presents their work for the week. The small courtyard is filled with benches and the stage is set. The atmosphere is all laughter. Yuri opens the act with questions from the week and small prizes, and then each class comes forward to perform, some a little shy but most confident in front of the audience.
This philosophy underpins Aldea Yanapay and everyday in being there, I had a strong feeling of reciprocity; where the opportunity for learning and exchange works both ways from the international flavor and dedication of the volunteers and the sweetness of the children. I´d recommend Aldea Yanapay to anyone wanting to spread a little of their love around and get it back threefold…