June 16, 2012. Bienvenidos from chilly Cusco! I’m writing from Casa Campesina, a lovely hostel in Cusco where 42 of our volunteers and many of their community members and a handful of students from the local university are training for their summer projects. Project Staff has spent the past few weeks preparing to place our volunteers in homestay families in rural communities in the regions of Ccorca, Lamay, Combapata and Paruro. The volunteers leave tomorrow and then the real work begins – helping them and their adopted families benefit somehow from the next two months.
Throughout training, we’ve pushed the volunteers to think critically about their role in their new communities. Are they here to help? Or to support? Are they here to teach? Or are they here to learn? Each community is budgeted approximately $400 which they can use to carry out a Community Based Initiative – a small project designed by the community. In the past, communities have used this money to paint a mural, to build a community stove or to construct a bus stop. Many communities, in my experience, see this money as a gift – our volunteers live with them, eat with them and learn from (them all for free) for two months and in return the community gets a project of their choosing. Some volunteers, again in my experience, see the Community Based Initiative as their responsibility – they feel that if they don’t give their community something cool then they have failed. This is not true and neither of these things is our goal in AMIGOS.
So what is the goal? Here in Cusco, the ultimate goal is community development and health education. We train the volunteers not to take the weight of these objectives on their shoulders, as they are only in Peru for two months, but rather to serve as catalysts in their host communities. According to development theory, catalysts take a backseat role and motivate the community to participate in their own developmental projects, such as the Community Based Initiative Process carried out by AMIGOS volunteers. The idea is that if the community takes the lead in the project, they will learn valuable skills, such as how to apply for a grant, that will serve them well after the volunteers leave in August.
In a place like Cusco, where many live hand-to-mouth, concrete results are extremely important. Since the volunteers are not paying guests of their communities, we have realized that it will be very important to make sure that the community feels it has received something useful by the end of the summer – whether that be a project of their own making or concrete health information. And that is one of our goals – as our responsibility as Project Staff is not just to the volunteers but also to the communities in which we work – is to make sure that the volunteers are giving back and serving their hosts well. I will let you know how it turns out!
Posted by Samantha Balaban – MA Candidate at CLACS/Global Journalism at NYU