At the edge of Peru’s sprawling capital of Lima, the brick and cement neighborhoods begin to curl up toward the hills that ring the metropolis. At first the climb is easy, over paved streets.
But as you go higher, toward the neighborhoods where Food for the Hungry works, the pavement gives way to mud, and the incline grows steep. At times, our professional driver stops, puts the car into four-wheel drive, and takes a careful running start up a precipitous hill. The misty, foggy rain that Lima is famous for, the garúa, spits at us all day.
And when we get to the point where the road ends with a small landslide, we travel on foot by staircase, up and up the steep hillsides.
After climbing one set of uneven, slippery stairs in the community of Nueva Generación, I greet Cinthia, mother of 12-year-old Bryan and older sister to 10-year-old Juan Carlos. Bryan’s father has abandoned the family, so Cinthia has to work in a wealthier suburb, Surco, as a street sweeper. It’s a 90-minute commute each way. Juan Carlos hangs around big sister’s house, Cinthia says, because his parents aren’t home very often.
Cinthia tells me her story, at a table in her yard.
Both Juan Carlos and Bryan participate in a special kid’s club called AMO, a curriculum that FH uses to teach the gospel, instill Christian values, and improve reading and writing skills. Cinthia says that as a mom working outside of the home, she’s thankful the boys can go to AMO in the morning, before they head to school for the afternoon shift. “Many kids are doing nothing here, and they start going with the gangs,” Cinthia says.
“But when they want to use the Internet they have to go where the gangs are always around them, so it’s dangerous to send them to where the Internet is,” she says, looking again down the hill.
I think, This is not OK.
Juan Carlos, FH staff member Pablo Salinas, and Bryan
Organized crime has controlled transport for ages, but here they’re controlling transport of knowledge too. You want to use the Internet? You need to get past people who want to hurt you.
Life is hard. For ten year olds.
Later that day we attend the afternoon session of AMO, for those kids who attend the morning shift at school. The community center that FH built for this program and other meetings is warm, well-lit and gaily decorated with maps, posters and children’s drawings. I quickly recognize many of the drawings are of Aslan, from the Chronicles of Narnia; the kids have just finished hearing FH’s staff member Pablo read them “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
One little girl captures my attention, not just because of her bright red sweater and purple gloves, but because she’s always got her hand up. When one of the brightest boys in the group tries to cut her off, she looks at him directly in the eye and says, “Just a moment, I’m talking.” Just a little moxie there.
Her name, I find out later, is Luz, which means “light” in Spanish. She tells me this in English. “My name is Luz.” She is all of 10 years old.
Luz, future English teacher
I ask Luz what she likes most about her time in AMO and she says, like all of the children I interview, that she likes the chance to learn more than anything. And she likes the little ceremony at the beginning of the day, where they read their memory verse and put a piece of paper with the verse in a “treasure chest” they made themselves. It helps teach the kids that scripture is to be treasured.
What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask. “Either a nurse or a foreign language teacher, maybe teach English or Italian,” Luz says.
Then I turn the tables. “What questions do you have for me?”
“Are you married?” she asks, the usual question in these parts after “what country are you from?”
No, I say, the Lord has called me to be single, at least for now.
“Oh,” she says with a sigh, “Being married is awfully hard anyway.”
And I think for the second time that day, This is not OK.
It’s not OK that a little girl of 10 already knows how rough marriage can be. I don’t know what things are like for her at home, and the environment at the moment doesn’t permit me to ask things like, Do your mom and dad fight? Do you get hit at home?
I’m glad to know that people like my FH colleague Pablo are here every day, taking crowded public transport, slogging through mud when the road ends, climbing stairs equal to three-story buildings all day, just so we can help the community eradicate the things that aren’t OK.
The best way to help FH keep kids out of gangs, help them realize their dreams, and unify families is through sponsoring a child. This help us send in people like Pablo Salinas, who go where both angels and Toyota Land Cruisers fear to tread.