Teach, Pray, Love: A Week in Peru

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.

scooters

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.

Sandi and CT girls

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.

dinner table

Our trip overlapped by a few days with our now-North Dakotan friend, Brian Martin

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.

boogie boardingbeach - hannah gabriella ellie

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.

see saws

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.

HdE - alex

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.

HdE workers

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.

HdE - CTs and kids

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.

group shot

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.

teaching

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.

gifts

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.

family

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!

pablo and sandi

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.

jack and jenae

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.

sarah jenae sandi


Epilogue:

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.

park bench

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Three Amigas go to Peru

Lately I’ve been hearing Dora the Explorer in my head, flashbacks from when my daughter was small and she shouted to the television screen which item from Dora’s backpack was needed on her altruistic Latin American mission of the day. Dora was such a helpful girl, and she was always so well prepared with her carry-on luggage.

This time Ellie is rehearsing Spanish words and phrases for her own adventure. In April, she and I will be traveling to Peru with my friend Sandi. We are visiting dear friends of ours, the Cenepo-Torres family, and spending our days at an orphanage where Sandi and I will provide training for the staff about children with special needs.

Like most things in my life lately, it all came about rather unexpectedly.

Our family traveled to Peru in 2012 and stayed with our friends. We strengthened our relationship with Pablo and Sarah Cenepo-Torres and their four daughters, met many of their friends, and became acquainted with their ministries in Trujillo.

C-T car

Traveling Peruvian-style

We got to know Alex, Pablo’s brother, and visited the orphanage where he was the director. Shortly after we came home, I became more involved with the orphanage through updates via email and Skype conversations with the board.

Over the last four years, it has been encouraging to see how God continues to meet their needs, and to see the staff and administrators persevere and undertake the mission of caring for the children amidst many barriers and difficult circumstances.

HdE

A few months ago, Alex reached out to us asking for advice about educating and caring for children at their institution who have special needs. He explained that these children were receiving very little through the public school system in Peru. By spending individualized time with one of the young men, he recognized the boy’s untapped potential. He rightly ascertained that these children could learn and make progress, if they were given the right opportunities and specialized training and attention. Alex rightly saw these children as image-bearers of God, highly esteemed and loved by their creator. He wanted to do more for them, but didn’t know how.

Alex was singing my song. Having just gone to Kenya earlier in the year to provide training and awareness to teachers and parents on the same topic, I asked my Peruvian friends if they would be interested in something similar. The suggestion was warmly received and we began making plans.

I wanted to go with at least one other team member and started having conversations with some of my special education friends. One evening in January, I sent a text to one of my favorite Speech-Language Pathologists, Sandi Taylor.

texts

Sandi came to York Elementary to share the full-time caseload of students with me when I went part-time after having my first baby. Sandi and I worked together about six years before she moved on to a high school in the district. She is incredibly smart and responsible, a warm and loyal friend, and is a phenomenal SLP. She lived in Africa a couple years before becoming an SLP, and has a tremendous heart for vulnerable children, and a keen sensitivity to other cultures.

I was thrilled when Sandi replied to my text within minutes. After our phone conversation a few hours later, I had my second team member.

By the end of January, we added my daughter Ellie to our team at John’s suggestion. Ellie thoughtfully considered the invitation, asked a few insightful questions, and the next morning she said that she wanted to go – to help the children at the orphanage in any way she could, to get to see her Cenepo-Torres friends again, and to travel with me and Sandi on a special trip just for girls.

Ellie Abi Hannah

Ellie with her friends Abigail and Hannah during a Cenepo-Torres visit to the US in 2008

Abi Ellie

Abigail and Ellie in Peru 2012

C-Ts Drydens

Cenepo-Torres family and some Drydens in Washougal 2015

As emails fly back and forth across the continents, once again, I am surprised and grateful for this opportunity to use my professional expertise in a context that is so close to my heart. I also have to laugh at God’s creativity in bringing the three of us amigas together for this trip. These two special ladies came into my life at nearly the exact moment, almost 10 years ago: I began working with Sandi because of the birth of my daughter Ellie.

Like Dora the Explorer, Sandi, Ellie and I are preparing for our South American adventure and want to pack wisely. We asked our Peruvian friends if there were some items we could bring to help the orphanage staff in their efforts to support the education of the children. They responded that they are always in need of books, flashcards or other teaching materials, and games. The language difference makes it a little more difficult to find some items, but I put together a list on Amazon.com with some ideas.

If you are inclined, we would love your help in packing our backpacks! We leave on April 2nd and would like to bring some quality books and games for our friends. If you’d like to add an item to our luggage, you can order from this link, and ship to my address or ship to yourself and pass it on to me or Sandi by the end of March:

Amazon.com Wish List Peru

Alex, the orphanage director, also needs a new-used laptop. His current one is nearing the end of its life. If you have a used laptop you are no longer using that we can bring down to him, our luggage will happily accommodate.

Pablo airport

Finally, please pray for us, that our words and actions would bless, empower, and impact a group of caregivers and educators who carry heavy burdens with few resources. The name of the orphanage is Hogar de Esperanza, “Home of Hope”. Our desire is to fill their hearts with hope by giving them tools and information to make a difference for a challenging group of children in their care.

HdE wall

¡Gracias!

Love, The Three Amigas

Most Good Things

Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.

– Shane Claiborne

Inspirational quotations make a frequent appearance on my facebook feed, but this one stopped me. Part of it was the irony. Here was someone on facebook repeating something good that someone else had said. I admit, I appreciate an idea skillfully put into words. Stacks of books with pages of good words and ideas can be found on any flat surface in my house. I’ve even read some of them. In fact, I own the book written by Shane Claiborne that contains the above quotation in its context (but hadn’t read it yet and didn’t know it had this bit until I googled it). I also like repeating good things I’ve read to friends who also like to read good things. We talk about these good things and if the conversation goes really well, we discuss how we could apply these good things to our lives in the future. But in the end, if I’m just reading and talking but not doing, it’s pointless – as James the brother of Jesus explains, I’m only fooling myself. This kind of foolishness happens in me all the time, and that bothers me. This foolishness creates in my heart a kind of dissonance that I work very hard to ignore and drive away because the word or the identity it keeps pushing to the surface is one that I never want to describe me: hypocrite.

So here’s the truth: I’m no good at any of those good things I like to read and repeat. Most of the time, I really prefer to sit on my comfy couch with a cup of coffee and read interesting books than actually love my neighbor, pray for my enemies, work for justice, humble myself, and do a million boring acts of compassion for the people in my life. And the dissonance I feel when I recognize I am not living the words that I am loving? Perhaps that’s a signal – not to label me “hypocrite”, but to remind me of my need for my Father in heaven.  Because here is another truth: any good I have done or will do is only by the grace of a good God working through me, giving me the desire and power to do what pleases him.

A friend often reminds me of a habit that energizes her to live according to the words she loves. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale God’s goodness and strength through relationship with him, exhale love and service to others. Our physical bodies need both inhalation and exhalation. Try doing one without the other – obviously it’s impossible. Well, that’s the sort of foolishness we set ourselves up for when we repeatedly breathe in the word of God, corporate worship, or other spiritual practices without exhaling love and goodness to others. Or if we exhale sacrificially on behalf of others until we collapse in exhaustion because we neglected to rest and fill up in his presence. Getting the balance just right is a struggle – I am so prone to wander. Maybe that’s why spiritual disciplines are called disciplines, and why scripture has to be so painfully clear on this message: a new command I give you: love one another.  Unlike respiration, the breathing in and out of the Christian life is a conscious activity for me, but so necessary.

Inhale. Exhale. A rhythm for good things that just need to be lived.