A Stairway from Kamloops to Lima

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The following was written in the Spring of 2012.

It was inevitable that longtime Cedar Dental Centre hygienist Rhonda Hendry found herself in the poor and dusty outskirts of Lima, happily hauling bucket after bucket of hand-mixed cement up a growing set of steps in the persistent sunlight.  Above and below she was joined by several other hardworking contributors, some fellow Kamloops visitors and the rest local Peruvians, all of their efforts brought together amid encouraging shouts of “Mas cemento!”  Now and then she would pause to kneel for a smiling face to face exchange with one of the many children running and playing about the work area.

“The whole thing was just magical,” says Rhonda, reflecting upon her time volunteering this past March at a school for working children in the community of San José Obrero.

The institution provides education to local children, who learn by day and earn money by night for their struggling families. Since its beginnings, the school has been gradually expanding with the help of charitable organizations such as Developing World Connections, based in downtown Kamloops.  It was through this same association that Rhonda began assembling a new group of hands to lend to the school.

“I don’t remember when I have not wanted to go do a volunteer work experience,” she says.  “I’ve been waiting until I could afford it and had the time, and finally decided I’ll never afford it and I can never have the time, so I’ll just do it.”

Having decided to become involved in such an excursion, she recruited teenage son Kaden and significant other Ed Fortie to come along.  She then turned to her workplace, where a handful of staff members were eager to jump on board.  Soon she was joined by fellow hygienists Brittany Hockey and Tracy Sullivan, Cedar Dental Centre owner Dr. Brad Labrecque, and receptionist Caroline Srepel.  Caroline in turn approached members of her own family, adding to the team teenage son Dylan and husband Richard.

As one of the founding directors of Developing World Connections, Richard Srepel naturally emerged as team leader of the project.  It was over a decade ago that he helped conceive of the organization with some fellow Rotarians.

“A bunch of us were doing an international service project in Guatemala,” he says, telling of its inception.  “We thought it would be a good idea if we could start some kind of an organization that would allow other people to do the same kind of work, who are not Rotarians.  We eventually founded Developing World Connections in 2002, as a nonprofit society with that whole object in mind.  We’re now working in 13 countries, and we have a pretty good full slate of participants every year.  It’s growing all the time, and it’s very successful.”

For this particular mission, Richard branched out to fellow Rotarian Kymm Ducharme, who agreed to participate alongside husband Patrick and their daughter Nikki.  With myself documenting and participating in the project, the team was finalized as 13 Kamloops residents, ages 16 to 58.  Whether starting off as family, coworkers, friends, or strangers, these people would soon share a bond that transcends two countries vastly apart in geography and lifestyle, united through the universal human qualities of compassion and cooperation.

“We all got along so great,” says Tracy Sullivan, “because we all were there for the good reason of helping the kids out.”

The group arose early on a Monday morning in Lima for a crash course in the area’s culture and construction techniques.  Working with Developing World Connections and Lima host partner IFEJANT, the subsequent five days were spent building a flight of concrete steps from the school’s main building to its nearby dining hall, located atop a hill of stone and loose dirt made downright precarious during rainy times.  All the while, the Kamloops team worked side by side with local workers, volunteers, and parents.  English and Spanish speakers alike resolved to overcome the language barrier to successfully communicate and collaborate together.

“I think it was the most incredible way to learn about another culture,” says Kymm Ducharme about working alongside the local people.  “To really get an understanding and empathy of the people, who they are, what they live in, what’s important to them – those things we would have never learned just by holidaying in Lima.“

The kids were equally as involved in bridging the gap between the disparate backgrounds of Lima and Kamloops.  To further connect with them, the Cedar Dental Centre employees took an afternoon to visit each classroom and distribute toothbrushes, floss, and toothpaste to every child, while giving presentations on dental health.

“It was a good interaction, positive both ways,” says Dr. Labrecque.  “I think what surprised me most was actually how poor they were, and what we take for granted that some people just don’t have.  What we would consider simple in a toothbrush is so expensive for them to buy that they can’t always afford it.”

Despite a deficiency of what many in Canada consider basic luxuries, the children of San José Obrero maintain an uplifting enthusiasm for simple joys of life, like a casual soccer match.  At the end of their week with the Kamloops travelers, they celebrated the completion of the stairway with vibrant songs, dancing, gifts and hugs goodbye.

“I just kept welling up with tears about how good it felt,” says Rhonda.  “You can’t go through something that’s so emotional without having some attachment there.”

“It was a great experience,” adds Richard Srepel about the general venture.  “Everybody just went above and beyond and worked extremely hard, and I was really proud of that.  The outpouring of affection that we got from the kids and the people at the school at the end of the project, that was very emotional and heartwarming.”

As for others considering similar volunteer undertakings, the group’s general sentiments can be summed up by 16 year old Kaden Hendry.

“Don’t second guess it,” he says.  “Go for it.  It’s a once in a lifetime experience.  I think if you could do anything to help, why not?”

– Cory Magnus Stumpf

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