Images Courtesy of John Merrill/Merrill Images
The Princeton Class of 1977 delivers the gift of mobility to some of the most remote parts of Peru.
Story by Donna Freeman Princeton Class of 1977.
Bill and I arrived in Peru on July 24th, 12 days in advance of the August 4th rendezvous date. We traveled to Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titikaka. We had brought walking sticks with us and did not regret the decision. Steep climbs up irregularly spaced steps, treacherous ramped pavements studded with stones vying for the opportunity to trip the unwary; loose gravel, deep sand, mud. More than once I found myself thinking what life would be like in Peru without two sound legs.
As a teacher of Spanish, I was eager to lend my language skills to the Class service project in Peru. One of my functions was “Exit Ambassador”, speaking with the recipients and those accompanying them. The easy part came first: the congratulatory sentiments and wishes for a healthy, productive, and happy future. Then came the explanation of how to fold the wheelchair for storage and the use of the adjustment tools, repair kits, and tire pumps attached chairs. The most difficult part was explaining how the standard chair could be modified to accommodate a child with a neurological disorder. We had brought special wheelchairs, but the demand far exceeded supply. “Perhaps you can fashion a neck support from cloth, like this, to support your child’s head. A good idea would be to use a belt or sash to keep your child from slipping out of the chair. You could use another sash here, and here, as a safety harness. Maybe a piece of fabric or wood, here, to support the feet.” Thank goodness for the universality of some hand gestures and the eagerness of parents to give the best possible care to their offspring.
As David Behring often says, “Every distribution is different.” Here are some vignettes illustrative of the value of our Class’s service project.
A 13-year-old girl had just received her chair. Her hands were contorted and her gaze cocked to one side. She was struggling to hold onto the bright pink box containing a Barbie-like doll. The girl did not respond to exhortations to look up for her picture. I addressed the elderly woman at her side. After exchanging greetings and names I asked, “Is this your daughter?” “My granddaughter.” I thought it better to err on the side of vanity. The woman looked weary and I was not sure of her age. “How will this chair change your granddaughter’s life?” I asked. The woman began to weep. As the tears reached her jawline she wiped them with the back of a weathered and calloused hand and said, “Please excuse me.” I would tell she felt shame for crying in front of me. “It’s alright,” I said hugging her. “I can tell your tears are tears of relief.” “Relief,” she repeated. “Relief and gratitude. My granddaughter is 13 years old. Her mother has to work. There is no father. I care for the three children. I’ve been carrying my granddaughter for 13 years. I can no longer carry her.” She paused and sighed. “She is too big and I am too old. Thank you. Thank you, so much.” As we hugged again, I felt the sting of tears in my own eyes. “Gracias, Mami. Gracias,” she said patting my shoulders. “You are most welcome. It is our great honor to give your granddaughter the gift of mobility.” “You have given ME the gift,” said the old woman as she left, pushing her granddaughter with great ease.
A young woman came in, carrying her elementary school-aged child in her arms. She had several children at her side. After exchanging pleasantries I asked how many children were in the family. Eight. The little girl was the youngest. Unable to walk since birth, she was receiving her first wheelchair. Simon Sankey had given the little girl a doll which the mother quickly took and held at her side, half hiding it in the fold of her skirt. “Wouldn’t you like to have the doll in the picture of your daughter?” I asked. “No,” replied the mother. “Today she received a chair. That is gift enough. I will keep the doll for her birthday so she will have a gift.” I was touched by the gratefulness of the mother and the poignant reminder that not all children’s parents can afford to buy them presents on their birthday.
“A general spoke at the distribution in Huancayo. Among his words were a few which have stuck with me and will remain with me. There are no physical handicaps, just challenges. These can be overcome with personal effort and the assistance and support of others. There are, however, spiritual handicaps. Those who see need and turn a blind eye and a deaf ear; or those who seek to deliberately harm others. These spiritual handicaps are evil and harmful not only to the individual but to the community.” After his address, the General watched me seat a recipient and listened to the explanation of how to close the chair after use. He examined the contents of the pouch on the chair’s back and paid careful attention to the purpose of the tools. Then he said, “I can help now.” I explained that each recipient was holding a certificate with his or her name and a number. The number corresponded to the appropriate size indicated on the side of each chair. Without hesitation the General found a recipient, selected the appropriate chair, seated the recipient, and explained to her what I had explained to him. When he needed assistance with a larger recipient, up stepped a soldier to lend a hand. I was impressed with the General’s genuine concern, compassion, and willingness to participate in the less glamorous parts of wheelchair distribution. He even got down on one knee to adjust the footrests. I liked the positive example of service he set for those under his command.
When Bill and I toured Lake Titikaka our guide was of Quechuan descent, a people living under the dominion of the Incan Empire. I took advantage of his knowledge to explain the unusual events that had been occurring since we awoke. At breakfast, there had been a cloud of incense in the interior courtyard of our hotel. During the cab ride to the Port of Puno we had witnessed many people throw yellow confetti on the heads of friends. As we boarded the launch, a crewman and our guide pelted each other with handfuls of the brightly colored crepe paper bits. When we passengers were settled on the boat, the guide explained it was Pachamama Day. “August 1st. It’s Mother Earth’s birthday. You will see a celebratory dance at the top of Taquile island. We’ll eat fish for lunch since the fish is the symbol for August. And we’ll eat yellow potato soup. You should know that the residents of Taquile still hold to the old Incan ways. Their four laws are simple: Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t be lazy. Today you help me; tomorrow I help you. He went on to explain a strong tradition: Among those who keep the old ways, if you do not provide community service, your voice will not be heard at meetings.
At the distribution in Molina a woman gave a moving speech. I am sorry to say I did not get her name or her title. She thanked us for the gift of mobility and choked back tears as she spoke from her own experience. “We with disabilities are often marginalized by society. Our families love us deeply but we are aware of the burden we place on already stretched resources. These wheelchairs will enable us to participate in the life of our community. Some of us will be able to work. It is a big step toward regaining dignity.”
An elegant elderly woman was thrilled to receive her chair. It was her first. Once an active participant in her community she had suffered a stroke fifteen years prior and had been confined to a chair in her livingroom. She was radiant as she ably negotiated her wheelchair through the discarded boxes and crowd of recipients. One last wave and she was out the door: her life no longer on pause.
The distribution at Huancayo was full of ceremony and music. Instead of recordings, the military band played both the Peruvian National Anthem and the Star Spangled Banner. Then, before the speeches began, the Mayor introduced a local celebrity named Elvis. Elvis is wheelchair-bound, but his voice soared as he sang a cut from his new album. What a beautiful metaphor for the human spirit that exists free of physical constraints.
At all of the distributions, individuals and their families approached us to see if there were any more wheelchairs somewhere. It was heartbreaking to turn them away. The need is in excess of the supply. As we were getting on the bus in Cerro de Pasco, a young girl came running up to me. “Señora! Señora! My grandmother just arrived and she needs a wheelchair.” She gestured behind her. A man and a woman where supporting an elderly figure: her arms over their shoulders; their arms around her waist; her legs dragging. “I’m so sorry, honey. We have no more wheelchairs.” The old woman said something to the girl in Quechua. “My grandmother wants to know what country you are from.” “The United States of America,” I replied. She told her grandmother who said something else to the girl. “My grandmother says you’ll be back. You’ll be back and next time she’ll get a chair.”
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