Rangrayo is a rural community consisting of 84 families situated in Meseta Andina, a 10,000-feet-high plateau in the foothills of the Andes in Northern Peru. The nearest town is Frias, a four-hour truck ride across dirt, switchback roads. During the rainy season, the roads become impassible, further isolating the area.
Even in dry weather, we had our fair share of trouble on the way there.
As the first public expedition in the area, this was the first time many of the community members had met foreigners.
Electricity arrived a mere three years ago. And you can forget about cell phone reception. Life is simple and serene in the village.
And the people warm, welcoming, and humble...and eager to have their picture or video taken.
CHOICE Humanitarian has been working with the Rangrayo community for a year and is the first NGO to tackle the troubled area.
In Meseta Andina, 74 percent of people are malnourished and five out of 25 children don't make it through the first year.
After CHOICE identifies a community to work with through an extensive screening process, the first step is identifying the greatest needs with leaders and creating a plan based on development projects, helmed and executed by the local community.
What I loved seeing from CHOICE employees is their utmost respect and regard for the way of life in the community. The organization prioritizes the dignity of people above all else.
On this expedition volunteers, CHOICE employees, and community members worked together to build stoves. We built twelve stoves in three days, but the community continues the project long after volunteers leave. Each stove-building team was led by a member of the community so he could continue the work after CHOICE leaves.
Stoves cost around $60 each to make, which are paid for by volunteers' expedition fees and are made of adobe, mud, brick, and a metal chimney.
New stove technology is an important first step out of poverty for many rural areas. Learn more about its significance:
Another major issue affecting the people in Meseta Andina is lack of nutrition, access to high-quality seeds, and education around sustainable farming practices. Community leaders study agriculture in vocational schools and work with in-country CHOICE team members to bring farming education to the community.
During the expedition, we created 13 organic family farms in an effort to diversify the community's diets.
Often extreme poverty affects women and girls most, so CHOICE prioritizes gender equality programs and only works with communities who give voice to the issues facing women and girls.
One major issue facing many rural areas in South America (and throughout the world) is lack of feminine hygiene resources and sex education. Non-profit and expedition partner Days for Girls estimates women miss out on 3,000 days of school and work in their lifetime because of lack of education about their bodies.
During the expedition a Days for Girls representative and CHOICE's CEO Leah Barker conducted sex ed and self-defense training with women, as volunteers assisted and distributed feminine hygiene kits. Grandmothers, moms, girls and babies gathered in the community center for a sweet afternoon of girl talk. And each woman left with a polaroid keepsake as a "graduation" gift.
Three dentist volunteers, sponsored by healthcare organization Kool Smiles, set up a two-day dental clinic. It was staffed by volunteers, community members, and the professional dentists. Check it out:
About half of the volunteers on the expedition were CHG Healthcare employees, a corporate sponsor. CHG's corporate responsibility program subsidizes CHOICE expeditions for employees who apply. It was heartwarming to see coworkers of all levels bonding in a profound way.
CHOICE aims to recruit more corporate partners under this model so I created an advertisement for the program based on interviews with CHG employees. (In-progress draft)
One of my favorite experiences of the trip was spending a morning in the local school teaching English words through a dream workshop. Can you spot the Spark SWAG? ;)
The trip wasn't just all work. Afternoons were spent playing with children and relaxing with villagers. They loved getting their nails painted.
I could watch the women of Rangrayo weave all day. See the mesmerizing process:
Daily soccer games often lasted until after sunset.
And neighboring villages trekked hours to challenge CHOICE volunteers to a massive soccer tournament. (We lost terribly).
When not working or playing in the village, volunteers and CHOICE team members ate and slept in the community's one-room government center. Temperatures dipped into the 30s at night, but sleeping bags, wool blankets, and sharing a room with 25 people kept things cozy.
Read more about the expedition in the volunteers' words here: