The number of communities in need of staircases and other infrastructure projects in the shantytowns of Lima can be overwhelming. In order to decide where to work next, the main factor that MEDLIFE Peru Director Carlos Benavides considers is community organization. When the community can rally around a strong leadership, we know that they will be up to the challenge of building and maintaining a project with us.
It’s not unusual to see settlements that are more than 15 years old, where though they may have cement and brick houses, water, electricity and other basic services, residents are still exposed to the risk of falling down a steep hillside because they do not have safe paths and staircases. These larger-scale projects, which require more collaboration and planning, are what can truly change the face of an invasion settlement and create a safer community.
But through MEDLIFE, I’ve been proud to meet a group of people who are motivated to improve their lives and the lives of others. Not only do they organize projects near their own homes, but they also become bridges to help other communities benefit in the same the way that they have benefited.
Last year we met Raul Flores, the leader or dirigente of the “8 de Diciembre” community, and he never stopped calling and reminding us of the need in his community. In March, he joined his neighbors and MEDLIFE volunteers to construct 6 new staircases. Though they were few, they worked hard and finished all 6 in one month. Just down the hill we met Maria Diaz, the dirigente of “Virgen de Cocharcas,” where we’ve now build 6 staircases, all completed in less than two months.
In June, Raul and Maria decided to help form an association with more than 30 dirigentes from different communities in the region to organize and help each other benefit from the services of both the government and NGOs like MEDLIFE. Last week, they invited us to a nighttime meeting with this new association to talk about developing new projects together. What we learned there was surprising.
The National System for Disaster Risk Management (better known as “defensa civil”) has announced a rule that all staircases must have handrails, or communities would be fined. Many communities constructed their staircases by hand because they lacked other resources and had never thought of building handrails. They asked for help from the government, but they were told that there was no room in the budget to help them.
Stuck in this dilemma, the dirigentes of more than 30 communities aired their concerns in the meeting with Carlos. “We’ll evaluate the stairs in your communities and add the railings to the ones that are in good shape,” he told them. “And for the others, we’ll build again from scratch.”
Raul and Maria have helped MEDLIFE by opening a door to new communities with new challenges and opportunities to help. “Every community is a different world,” says Carlos, “and now we have some big projects coming for our next group of volunteers.”
We’re all looking forward to these new challenges here at MEDLIFE. And we’re inspired by the attitude of people like Raul and Maria, who after receiving help themselves, seek to give to others.