By LeRae Haynes
A unique presentation on Friday took an audience in Williams Lake into the mountains of Peru for an eye-opening glimpse into two innovative programs put into place by Chilcotin residents Sandy Hart and Sandra McGirr.
Along with their two children, Niall and Tarn, Sandy and Sandra have spent the past four-and-a-half years in Peru. Sandra explained that in 2008 they went to the Sacred Valley of the Incas to learn Spanish and let their kids experience a different culture.
“We went for a year and stayed: we fell in love with the people and with the beauty of the region,” she said.
Sandra went to Peru as a volunteer RN and worked to develop a rural nurse program and Sandy, with a background in hydrology and geology, went to help engineer and install household water filter systems.
She explained that, although Peru is rich in natural resources and tourism, the contrast between the rich and the poor is extreme and some of its residents are the poorest people in the world. “Almost everyone lives in poverty—the average family size is 6-8 children and a family lives on an average of $2 a day,” she said. “It has the second-highest rate of mother and infant mortality in South America caused by bacteria and parasites in the water. People also suffer from severe malnutrition.”
Sandra and Sandy founded DESEA Peru—an organization to bring water, health and education to remote villages in the Andes.
She stated that there is no infrastructure in the villages where they work. “There are no phones or transportation; there is minimal health care, no running water, very little electricity, no bathrooms, and before DESEA Peru, there was no potable drinking water.
"Communities get water from polluted drainage ditches, and the water filter system that Sandy introduced to the area has simple layers of sand and gravel, and removes 99% of the dangerous bacteria and 100% of the parasites.
“The mold for the filter existed in the Sacred Valley—they could be built by a couple of guys, but they didn’t have the skills or resources to push the project,” she stated. “Sandy and Erica Hunter designed the system and got it going.”
(Niall, Sandy and Sandra’s son, demonstrated the weaving skills he is learning at school along with his classmates. Niall and his sister Tarn help as translators—they are learning both Spanish and Quechua in school.)
The filter system allows each family to take control of their own health. They are instrumental in the washing of the sand and gravel when the system is installed, and they are taught to keep them working most effectively.
“The family transports the fine sand and the gravel and we show up and install the filter,” she noted. “We use certain types of sand and gravel—we pre-filter the sand and they wash it themselves.”
The original design of the household water filters was cement, and the 97-kilo system was a real challenge to move into the communities. “To get to some of the villages you have to climb up a 3,500’ cliff to get there,” she explained. “Sandy was determined to change the design to make them more portable and looked at other materials.”
The new material needed to be affordable and attainable world-wide and Sandy ended up creating a new system out of PVC pipe. The new design ‘works like a charm’ and only weighs 10 kilos.
“It’s a perfect solution for both the Andes and the Amazon,” Sandra said, adding that toward the end of 2011 a husband and wife engineer team came and inspected the system and are going to use the design in projects around the world.
She said that DESEA is all about education and repeat visits, and that the project is at 80% success after one year. “We work with 2,300 people in six communities and three of those villages are now completely fitted with the water systems,” she continued.
The project began with the filters, but has grown to include Sandra’s passion—health care and education for families. She offered a health clinic in each village every two weeks, but in between those visits there no care for families and at least an hour-and-a-half walk to a health post.
“Infant mortality rates were still so high and we knew we needed to do something—the children are weakened by severe malnutrition,” she explained. “Their bodies are severely depleted of protein and their muscles are eaten away, resulting in severe stunting and long-term health effects.”
The high elevation of the Andean villages is great for growing potatoes, according to Sandra, who said that potatoes are about all that grow at those elevations, and about all the villagers have to eat.
She said that she and her nurse talked to a lot of people and asked them what they’d eaten that week. Communication with villagers requires translating from English to Spanish and then to Quechua, the local language—a traditionally non-written language.
“They’d list several dishes per day, but when it was translated, it turned out to be all potatoes,” Sandra said. “If they have animal they can spare, they’ll kill one a year and have meat for a week. They eat guinea pigs, which are indigenous to the area—when they have a celebration they’ll kill two or three of them.”
Unsanitary household conditions contribute to health problems: the animals all live in the house. Sandra explained that everybody is treated for parasites twice a year: once by the Health Ministry and once by World Vision.
“We met a mother with a three-week-old baby nearly dead from dehydration. The woman had walked two hours one way to the health post when the baby was one week old because she knew there was something very wrong,” Sandra said. “When she got there the doctor saw the red diarrheal burns on the baby and sent the mom back to her village with Tylenol.”
She said that helping to save that baby was a pivotal point in changing health care. “We needed to make a change, and developed health models to ‘train the trainer’ to have health care available more consistently,” she explained. “We went to the communities and asked them to select two women to serve in each one.
“Both men and women voted—unusual in a male-dominated culture—and the women who were chosen would be trained to do things like give first aid, deliver a baby, treat a wound, a burn or a fracture and change a dressing.”
One of the most unique aspects of the training for these ‘working for health’ women, ‘qhalis’ in their language, is that they cannot read, write or count. Most of them have never attended school. “The training is interactive and uses simple visual aids,” she explained. “DESEA now has eight women in six communities working 45 hours a month.
“We started with First Aid, and basic CPR and they started using their new skills almost immediately. One of our qhalis saved the lives of a whole family who had been poisoned,” she continued. “She ran 8km over rocks and through a river to get to a phone and get the family evacuated and to a hospital.”
Another challenge they face is that indigenous people are very discriminated against—are considered ‘worthless’ and ‘disposable.’
“These are women who never thought they could be anything except raise babies and weave,” Sandra said, “and now they’re saving lives.”
The qhalis also help with a hand-washing program in schools, which teachers say has resulted in a 50% reduction in absenteeism, help teach families to monitor and maintain their water filter systems and work with elders.
“Elders have an especially harsh existence—the women move to their husband’s village when they marry and usually outlive them,” she said. “They have no rights or identity in Peru, and end up living alone in isolated huts. Our qhalis visit them once a week: preparing food, washing their hair and trimming their nails and tidying their homes.”
She said that they treat diarrhea with basic salt and sugar solutions. “Each of our qhalis have told us that they lost a child to dehydration, and have said that they couldn’t believe that if they had known about something as simple as the sugar/salt solutions, their babies would have lived,” she continued.
They also do daily toothbrush programs in the schools, as well as vitamin supplementation for children under five years old, and for pregnant and nursing women. “We got a vitamin grant and it has made a huge difference in infant height and weight,” she said.
Women are almost all anemic—with so many births in succession, their bodies are severely depleted. Sandra said that they have put a simple family planning program in place, and that since the qhalis have been offering education and monitoring, more women have agreed to have their babies in a hospital—resulting in a much higher success rate. She said that what works about the program is that the qhalis live there and know who’s pregnant and how they’re doing.
“They can take temperatures, pulse and blood pressures, can check and monitor the baby’s progress,” she explained. “They pay close attention to what’s going on in their communities,” she said. “They can sell Tylenol and ibupropfen, and we also support local herbs and remedies.”
Sandra stated that the qhalis are the ‘eyes and ears’ of the communities. “When we show up they know exactly who needs to be seen, and the one-on-one work they do with the supervising nurse really builds their skills and self-confidence.
“One of our qhalis was voted in as the first president in the high mountain communities,” she said. “That’s a significant cultural shift—these women are strong advocates and role models.”
She explained that the qhalis make $1 a day, and that one of them sets aside all her money to send her young daughter to university one day to become a nurse.
“Our goal for DESEA Peru is to turn it over to the staff. Sandy and I hope to have an exit plan—we will go back and visit, but it will be run by Peruvians,” she stated.
(Danielle Schultz is a long-time friend of Sandy and Sandra’s daughter, Tarn, and the girls are pictured here together with some of the beautiful woven items brought from the villages—they are some of the finest weavers in Peru but have no market for their goods.)
DESEA Peru is actively seeking support for their health and education projects, and Sandy explained that it takes approximately $8,000 a month to support them. “Every dollar that comes in goes directly to the qualis and to staff,” she said. “We need a sustainable way to fund the qualis, and that help won’t come from the government--they think the qualis should not be paid for their work.”
One of the reasons for DESEA Peru’s success is understanding local tradition and culture and treating the people with honour and respect, according to Sandra, who said that that’s why their care and education is accepted.
“They don’t have a word for ‘thank you’ in their local language,” she said. “For example, ‘Urpillay Sonqolly’ means ‘the action that I share with you makes my heart flutter like a dove.’
“They are thankful for everything.”
For more information about DESEA Peru, including how you can get involved and how you can donate, visit www.deseaperu.org or their Facebook page DESEA-Peru.
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