The first step I took through the gate of Semillitas was shaky. The cement met the sole of my sneakers with a soft thud that echoed thunder. I had little experience working with children with special needs, and at only eighteen years old, I was terrified.
I graduated from St. Mark’s School in May, bought a one-way ticket to Lima, registered with International Volunteer Headquarters, and dove headfirst into a country I knew almost nothing about. I had very loose plans when I landed in Peru. I decided to begin in Lima working in an orphanage for six weeks, and then travel to Cusco, where I would volunteer for another month or so, and eventually I would return to the United States. I figured that a couple of months in South America would be the perfect length of time to experience another culture and attempt to make a positive impact on the lives of children who needed some extra support. What I didn’t know, was that what the children would give to me would be infinitely greater than anything I could give to them.
Most of the children in Semillitas Orphanage are wheelchair bound all hours of the day, and have limited speech and motor skills. After getting over how overwhelming the entire situation was, it became obvious to me that these are the sweetest and happiest children I have ever met, despite the incredibly difficult circumstances in which they live. Mornings with these kids would consist of painting, games, speech therapy, walks to the park, singing, tactile stimulation, and plenty of hugs. The few hours a day I was able to spend with them were the happiest of my life, and if I had the opportunity to remain there forever, there is no doubt in my mind that I would take it. If Jim Rohn was right in saying that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” I want to spend the rest of my life with the children, workers, and volunteers of Semillitas.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Marino-Babcock)
On October 24th, I said a tearful goodbye to Lima and continued on my journey to Cusco. On my second day in the city, I began a week long hike through the Andes to Machu Picchu known as the Salkantay Trek. This trek was one of the hardest and most rewarding things I have ever done. There were days when I was vomiting every hour or so from altitude sickness, and I didn’t think that I would be able to continue. In these moments I discovered just how important it is to focus on the small victories, and in doing so, I saw my own strength rather than weakness.
While reflecting on my trek in the days following my return to Cusco, I found myself constantly comparing Salkantay to Semillitas. The highs and lows I experienced mirrored those that are experienced at the orphanage daily, and my realization of the importance of small victories reminded me of how proud it made me to see a child complete a simple puzzle or smile after a hard hour of speech therapy.
The connections I see between my life in and outside the orphanage are pulling me back to Lima to continue work with children with special needs. I know there is so much more I can learn from the kids, workers, and other volunteers at Semillitas, and I believe there is more I can give to them as well. Lima has my entire heart, and in this moment it is where I belong.
In order to stay in Peru and continue my volunteer work, I need to raise some money for my own housing and food expenses, and to support Semillitas and the other orphanages in San Miguel, Lima. If you are interested in supporting me in any way, please take a look at my fundraising page, and consider making a donation. Any support is helpful and greatly appreciated.