It has been well over a month since Ellie, Sandi and I returned from our week in Trujillo, Peru. Enough time to recalibrate to North American schedules, people, problems and routines. But thankfully, any time I travel outside my “normal”, normal gets redefined, and that is a good thing.
Something I’ve learned about life (now that I’m solidly in my late thirties) is that things that matter the most are in the context of a relationship. A week is a short time to spend in another country, yet our week in Peru was meaningful because of the threads of relationships that brought us there and were strengthened.
I told you how Sandi, Ellie, and I were invited to come to Peru to train staff at an orphanage about educating children with special needs. I typed that story into cyberspace and our people responded. Within 24 hours an entire Amazon.com wishlist of Spanish books and games were ordered by you to fill our suitcases. The principal at the school where I work, Sandi’s son’s 2nd grade teacher, childhood friends, aunts and uncles, and many others responded. My college roommate’s dad donated a laptop in a shiny new case for Alex, the orphanage director. Glenwood Community Church generously supported us financially. Evergreen Public Schools equipped us with quality, current information for some of our training sessions. Dozens more of you called, texted, emailed, prayed, and encouraged us. All of you sent us to Peru for Spring Break.
Here is who you impacted by your kindness to us and our Peruvian friends:
My daughter. Oh, Ellie. You exceeded all my expectations of how a nine-year-old girl going to a foreign country with a distracted mama would respond. Hours and hours spent on airplanes and airport benches. Dozens of not-like-home meals. Many, many happy voices and questions (some in Spanish) surrounding your introverted self 14 hours a day.
You flew your little kite outside at the orphanage, and when one of the children accidentally tore off the strings, you just wrapped up what was left and tucked it in your backpack without a word. With head held high, you tried the cow heart kabob and the ceviche nestled in an octopus broth. You didn’t forgot to put the toilet paper in the waste basket or rinse your toothbrush with bottled water. You held strong in the Lima airport until our 2:00am flight with only the tiniest of meltdowns at 10:30, followed by a cheerful second wind. You didn’t whine or complain, and you never demanded my attention. You went with the flow until mid-week when you saw that I could finally look up from our piles of notes and PowerPoints, then quietly asked if the two of us could spend some time together. I was so proud of you.
My teammate, Sandi. If I liked Sandi before Peru, I consider her a dear sister now. Sandi’s quiet, thoughtful observations were so timely and helpful. When she opened her mouth to speak, it was with wisdom and love. She delighted in having a nine-year-old companion as part of our team and watched out for Ellie like a mama bird (even more so than Ellie’s actual mother did).
Sandi is that rare combination of exemplary competence with humility and flexibility. She is a natural leader who took the co-pilot or the passenger seat without a fuss. She listened more than she talked. She remained unflappable when plans changed or were not announced until moments before an event. She generously poured out encouragement on me. She made a room full of exhausted workers cry from her empathetic stories of working with adolescents with special needs. She broke a toilet seat our first day in Pablo and Sarah’s home. And admitted it.
The whole Cenepo-Torres family. Every minute we spent in this family’s presence was life-giving. So much laughter, love, and steadfast, faithful living. Pablo and Sarah wear many hats and serve, give, and pray without ceasing. The word “yes” is almost always on their lips. They open their home to visitors from Peru and around the world every month. Just a week before our arrival, they hosted 14 children from the orphanage for an extended Easter holiday weekend.
Sarah seamlessly manages a myriad of practical details when hosting visitors, and somehow attends to each person individually. After watching Ellie quietly acquiesce to every appointment of our full week, Sarah made sure we squeezed in a trip to the ocean. She was so right – boogie boarding with the girls on the South American side of the Pacific Ocean was Ellie’s absolute highlight of the week.
The four Cenepo-Torres daughters are delightfully unique and flourishing under their parents’ love, education, and discipleship. I LOVE these six Peruvian-Americans and am grateful for their presence in Peru and their friendship with my family.
Alex, Nancy, Paola, and all of the faithful, hardworking staff at Hogar de Esperanza, the orphanage I visited four years ago and have been supporting through prayer and email conversations. Alex initiated and organized this whole endeavor. He reached out to workers from other local orphanages, and for the first time a large group of workers from multiple institutions came together for two days of trainings while we were in the country.
These people may have different titles, but every one of them has a heart like Jesus – broken and swollen with compassion for hurting, abused children. The kids they care for are not easy. Yes, they are cute, but the trauma they experienced left them with lasting damage that presents in developmental delays, emotional and behavioral struggles, and learning problems. This can also be true for vulnerable children here in the US, but in Peru, they don’t have the social services and educational supports families here can access.
These workers are in the thick of dark, hopeless stories, yet they persevere because of the love they have for the children and the strengthening love of God. They were eager to learn new strategies to help their children make progress physically, emotionally, academically, and spiritually.
What we actually did during our week in Peru was in the context of these relationships, which is important, because our Peruvian friends are the ones who will actually be carrying on the work and applying the skills we taught to their context.
The week skipped along, with Pablo as our guide and interpreter.
Two days we spent at a local orphanage where Alex had gathered representative workers from the various orphanages to come and share their experiences and learn new skills. The participants included caregivers, tutors, social workers, psychologists, and directors.
Sandi and I presented a trauma-informed approach to caring for and teaching children in their settings. We talked about developmental milestones, making observations, and determining measurable goals for the children in their care. We gave them ideas for teaching academics, social skills, and communication to children with special needs. We filled their notebooks with positive behavioral strategies. They shared their struggles and we listened and cried.
The next two days we spent at Hogar de Esperanza. Sandi and I enjoyed meeting with a rotation of one or two caregivers at a time, and helped them apply their learning from the previous days to their actual reality with the children they care for.
The orphanage staff we talked to described their children with deep affection. Many have worked with the same kids for years, yet the problems that brought the children to the home and cycles of trauma and confusion that continue impact their functioning. It was a privilege to hear their hearts, offer strategies when we could, and join them in prayer.
We gave them a huge suitcase filled with books and games in Spanish and the laptop, all donated by YOU, our friends and family. Thank you for giving these children quality materials that will be used to enhance their learning and social skills.
Finally, Sandi and I met with a couple families from the area who have children with special needs. In one family’s home, we gathered close and demonstrated some ways the parents could increase the communication of their nonverbal son who has autism.
Pablo and Steve were our fearless interpreters. These two guys are missionary-pastors and we stretched their brains and language skills with all of our special education jargon. Pablo gained a new appreciation for his amazing wife who, he came to realize, educates and parents their daughters using many of the evidence-based, effective techniques Sandi and I shared with our audiences. You rock, Sarah!
We left Trujillo on the day of Peru’s presidential election, going our separate ways. Sandi headed to the mountains, where she met her husband and son for sightseeing in and around Machu Picchu. Ellie and I flew home to our grateful boys.
At home, I slowly eased back into life with my little family. I returned to my job in a bright, modern elementary school filled with highly trained teachers and staff, and multiple levels of support for children with special needs. I filled out our licensing paperwork for foster care, thankful that even though this system isn’t perfect, at least it is something. I opened the same Bible that was read by the Cenepo-Torres family in Peru and prayed to the same Father who hears our prayers and knows what we need even before we ask Him.
I continue to teach, pray, and love those God has placed in my life. I believe these are things He created me to do. I am grateful for the days Sandi and I did so together, with our friends in Peru.
A couple days after we got home, I spent an evening with Jack, and John spent the evening with Ellie. I asked Jack what he wanted to do during our special time together. After a quick stop at McDonalds for a Happy Meal, he asked, “Could we go to a gas station, get a treat, then sit on a park bench together and hug?” So we did.