Peruvian Orphanage Project
by Christina DeAno, Daniel Rortvedt, and Jenny Skye with help from Jamie Karpinen and Jennifer Barry
We entered the profession of occupational therapy because we want to help others. We want to reach out, touch people's lives in the midst of change, hardship, and opportunity. We want to learn and be changed.
We went to Peru with these thoughts in mind. First and foremost, we wanted to help others, but we knew that our own learning would be a crucial part of the experience. In our grant writing class during our final semester of school, one of our assignments was to develop and write a grant proposal for something we were passionate about.
It only seemed appropriate that this grant would be for more than the purposes of a class. With a profound desire to help children abroad and a little bit of fate, we discovered the Orphan Train Project, an organization run by Madison West Towne-Middleton Rotary that helps connect groups of people with orphanages abroad.
At our first meeting with Orphan Train, we learned about Padre Martinho Orphanage, a small orphanage in Lima, Peru that housed 25 children with disabilities. We conducted a needs assessment and determined that the orphanage needed splints for several children and other basic supplies like diapers, nutritional formula and toys.
Medical supply companies in the Midwest generously donated pre-fabricated splints for our project. We also raised money for toys, adaptive feeding supplies, and therapy materials. After a year of planning and fundraising, the four of us embarked on a two-week trip to Peru after our graduation.
When we arrived in Lima and began to connect with people we met there, the scope of the project changed. Going in, it was very important to our team to have a “goal” for the project, but also allow our plans to be very fluid and take on a life of their own.
Mobility Builders, a company based in the United States, introduced us to two Peruvian occupational therapists, Manuel Escobar and Jésus Trinidad Lopez, and a local company called Rumbos Caminos una Esperanza (Rumbos Caminos) that manufactures wheelchairs and custom-made splints. These therapists were generous, kind, creative and extremely knowledgeable.
While we were in Lima, Manuel and Jésus trained us in their method for assessing children with disabilities for wheelchairs, their techniques for building adaptive equipment using local materials, and gave us an overview of the logistics of offering therapy services in their community. We were astounded by their knowledge, creativity, and humility.
In the United States, technological devices and adaptive equipment are widely available, options that are not prevalent in Peru. Therefore, therapists there have adapted and relied on creativity using local materials (scrap metal, bicycle tires, PVC pipe, etc.) to design needed therapy equipment.
While in Peru, we went with Manuel to evaluate the children at Padre Martinho to further identify their needs. The children were inspiring and their smiles were contagious. For those of us who did not speak Spanish, it was communication beyond words. We were engaged in occupation, interacting in the moment and sharing with each other across borders. We quickly learned that the splints we had obtained would not suffice due to size differences and material issues.
Using the money we raised, we hired Rumbos Caminos to build custom splints for the children and a wheelchair for a man named Eduardo. The 22-year-old greeted us with a strong and kind smile that spoke emotion and love.
The director of the orphanage told us that Eduardo was unable to leave his bed and stayed in this room all day. We showed him videos of the ocean and he smiled and laughed with excitement at a world he had never seen.
Prior to our departure from Lima, Manuel and the Rumbos Caminos team agreed to fabricate a custom wheelchair for Eduardo and to train the orphanage staff on proper transfer techniques. We recently received an email from Manuel stating that the chair had been built and that Eduardo is happy with it. “Now he can go to the park and he feels so good!”
This experience will forever shape us and we continue to be inspired by the kindness we experienced in Peru. We were welcomed with open arms and fed homemade meals from people we had only just met. We were accepted into and learned from a community that we had originally had the intentions to help. We visited and identified needs at three orphanages and four schools. We connected with local occupational therapists in Lima and had the opportunity to visit a technical college and speak with students about occupational therapy in the United States. It was a perfect opportunity to engage in a cross-cultural discussion about health care.
This was an unbelievably positive learning experience made possible by hard work, thoughtful communication, and a little happenstance. We hope to continue this cultural exchange for many years to come. Our next focus is bringing Manuel and Jésus to the United States to visit local businesses, learn about OT in the United States, and share their knowledge with students.
We experienced a moment during our trip that captures our feelings about the entire project:
In a township on the outskirts of Lima, we visited a small school of more than 400 children. The school had just recently installed bathrooms and had only four classrooms. The director explained to us that the school was under construction but the project was on hold while they awaited enough funding to finish. As we looked up to the second floor, a half-built frame of dusty brick, the director spoke to us, “Ano y ano, poco y poco.”
“Little by little, year by year,” he said, “this school will be built.”