Last weekend, we held two volunteer days to help get materials up the 150 steps that lead to the site where we are building a two story home for MEDLIFE patient Soledad and her son JosÃ©. A signup sheet was sent around the office and put on Facebook to register for the volunteer days. As I was looking at the sign up sheet, a friend of mine who has worked here for a year and a half now told me “these volunteer days are really fun, you should definitely sign up for both! I loved it last year.” So I trustingly put my name down to work at 8am on both Saturday and Sunday, only to find out later that my so called ‘friend’ was actually away the entire weekend.
That is how I found myself regretting all my life decisions as I hit snooze on my alarm for the fifth time at 7:15am on Saturday morning. Eventually I managed to drag myself out of bed and head to the bus station to begin the first days work. To my surprise and delight when I arrived at the meeting point there were over 30 keen volunteers ready in MEDLIFE t- shirts to start the day ahead. In my time with MEDLIFE, I have ‘subired’ a fair number of materials up hills but I can safely say, Saturday is the fastest I have ever seen it done. It was some kind of superhuman effort, we got 500 bricks to the top in less than an hour and at one point I had five men passing me each holding a 50kg bag of cement on their backs. By midday we had finished and were all sitting around drinking Inka Cola and laughing about possible future careers in construction.
Following Saturday’s success, Sunday morning seemed full of optimism. As my alarm chirped it’s happy little tune, I sprung out of bed, eager to begin the day ahead! (Some artistic license may be being used… after all it was still 7:15am on a Sunday). However, my optimistic mood came crashing down somewhat when I reached the meeting point that morning and realised there was a grand total of around 10 volunteers… and 1,000 bricks. I somewhat begrudgingly climbed into the bus, my friends words “you should definitely sign up for both!” ringing hauntingly in my ears.
And so we set off again, the empty bus rattling around and echoing eerily from the dramatic lack of people (again, artistic license may be being used). However, before reaching the project, this time we made a detour to the site of another MEDLIFE project. The bus stopped where Carlos Benavides, director of MED Programs Peru, was waiting for us. We all got off the bus and he took us to the site of the project.
Quick context note: I had visited this site a few weeks before. It was a staircase we were hoping to build for a patient who had suffered an accident which hindered his ability to walk. However, due to the nature of the community, Carlos was struggling to get enough man power together to build the staircase.
Therefore, it came as a huge surprise to me when I rounded the corner to see around 50 people stood up and down the staircase mixing cement, pouring it into the frame and shouting to pass up more buckets. I turned to Carlos and asked him how he had managed to convince the community to help. He told me he didn’t. “None of these people are from this community,” he explained. “They are all from Laderas, the community where we were building a staircase a few weeks ago.” I was amazed to realise he was right. Laderas is about a twenty minute drive from where this project was taking place and yet all these people were the same faces we had been working with just a few weeks earlier.
Incredibly, there were so many people from the Laderas community working on this project that Carlos was able to solicit about twenty of them to help us with the materials for Soledad’s house. So we all piled back onto the bus, which this time round was packed full, and headed to the site of Soledad’s house. With the help of the reinforcements, we once again managed to pass the bricks up in record timing, forming an efficient chain and getting everything up the hill by lunchtime. I asked one of the community members why it was that they were so readily keen to help with this project and the staircase they were building, neither of which would affect their community. He told me “whenever we have come to Carlos with a problem, he has found a way to solve it for us. It seems only fair that that works both ways.”
I have been working with MEDLIFE for nearly five months now and in my time here, the importance of our relationships with the people we work with is the thing that has stood out the most for me. We invest so much in individuals and communities to make sure that they can trust us and they know they can rely on us. However, it never occurred to me that they are doing the exact same thing.
Working with MEDLIFE, I have got to know the bravest, strongest and most impressive people I have ever met. This story of the people of the Laderas community is just one example of that. These people often have so little and yet will give us so much, not because they want to assure we help them but because they want to assure we have a real relationship with them. That for me is the most amazing and single most important thing about the work MEDLIFE does and is the reason that I would say to anyone thinking to volunteer next time: “these volunteer days are really fun, you should definitely sign up for both! I loved it last year.”