“That’s my birthday!” said one of the students, when we told her the name of the community we were going to be working with, named for the date of its founding.
The excitement at the staircase project this week was contagious, spreading to everyone in the community of 8 de Diciembre. Men, women, teenagers and even elderly people came out to work on the stairs. “I’m still strong,” said Natividad, when we asked her not to carry the heavy bags of cement. “After what happened to Thalia, we need to finish this quickly.” Natividad’s daughter fell when she was walking up the rocky hill that leads to his house a couple months ago. She’s now recovering at home, but she’s afraid to go down the hill and unable to go to school.
The student volunteers were excited to work with the community members of 8 de Diciembre, often called the “ant workers” by MEDLIFE director Carlos Benavides for their exceptional work ethic.
“You know Raul, people have been saying bad things about your community,” Carlos said to Raul Flores, the community leader of 8 de Diciembre. Raul smiled but stayed silent, waiting for Carlos to continue. “Nobody wants to work with you! They say your community never stops working, not even to take a breath.” Laughing, Raul replied, “Well, I would rather be hated for a good reason than for a bad one.” Still smiling, he walked over to his taxicab and turned up the volume of the radio. That was the signal we were waiting for: time to get to work!
“What’s the record for the most work completed in a single day?” asked one student. The work usually goes slowly, I told him. Normally you can work with ten bags of cement until the first “Break, please” is heard, usually because of the sun. I explained that after mixing the cement, it must be passed bucket by bucket up the hill to create the staircase. “Well, we’re going to break the record,” the student said, undaunted. I translated this to the members of the community. “Then we have to use 15 bags!” they said.
Amongst the community members who came out to help, we found Betsy, Eloy’s mom, dressed in a Peruvian pride shirt. “I need the work,” she told me when I asked why she was helping out in a community that’s not her own. “Their community is helping me by paying 25 soles (about $9.60) a day, and I still need to buy the school supplies for my kids.”
Working with Betsy is a lot of fun, because she’s always cracking jokes. “I’m going to charge you for every joke,” she said to me when she saw me laughing. Even the students were laughing, sometimes without even understanding what she was saying.
A week ago we bought some school materials for another patient, Leonel, and even with our bargaining skills, we spent more than 200 soles. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be for Betsy, a single mother, without a job and with three more kids to worry about. But Betsy still keeps up her sense of humor from her youth in Pucallpa, in the Peruvian jungle. She started joking around with one of the students, Thomas, who was next to her in line.
And while carrying the heavy cement buckets, Thomas told me something. “I brought some school materials from home, and I don’t know who to give them to,” he said. But I already had someone in mind. Betsy was was in for a great surprise.
At the end of the day, the students celebrated breaking the record, having finished the entire 15 bags of cement. “Now you won’t forget about us!” they said. It’s true; we never forget the hard work and dedication of the student volunteers.
As we were leaving, we passed by Betsy taking Eloy to school and stopped to talk. She showed us his schoolbooks. “He gets straight A’s, and I’m asking his teachers to place him in third grade,” she told us. Eloy lost an entire school year because of his illness, and is now repeating the second grade.
As she was putting the notebook away, we gave Betsy the school materials that Thomas had brought. That might have been the first time that I have seen Betsy speechless. “Thank you,” she said without looking at anybody. When they reached the bus stop, Betsy turned back smiling and yelled out, “Thank you, handsome.” Everyone laughed, and Thomas responded, “Adios, mi amor” (goodbye my love). Betsy, still laughing, held Eloy’s hand as she waved goodbye.
Other school supplies brought by students on this trip will be delivered on Friday. If you’re a student going on a Mobile Clinic with some extra space in your suitcase, you too are welcome to bring donations of school supplies, art materials, or toys for the children in the communities where we work. Your contributions will be greatly appreciated.