Mom, I really can’t believe you packed up three kids and took us to live in Peru for almost a month!” my now 12 year old son reminisced as we looked at photos of our trip to Cusco.  Our family is now embarking on our 3rd volunteer trip to South America – a now annual tradition, born out of a virtual meeting with Celeste Marion and a leap of faith trip to volunteer at Manos Unidas in Peru.

Many people ask me – how did you end up choosing Peru, and how did you find an organization as special as Manos Unidas?  I blame serendipity. A chance virtual introduction to Celeste, through many degrees of separation, led her to take her own risk by agreeing to open her school for the first time to children volunteering from the US.  Furthermore, my kids had zero volunteer experience, and no exposure to kids with special needs. But we had a desire to learn, to help, and to spread goodness to another part of the world – and I think this is why Celeste decided to give us a chance.  What we left with was an experience and relationships we will never forget.

We packed a suitcase full of school supplies donated by my kids’ own classmates, agreed to live with a local Peruvian family whom we had never met, and bus ourselves to Manos Unidas daily to teach, play and interact with the pre-school classroom.  My kids (ages 10, 8 and 7 at the time) did not speak Spanish – and regardless, many of children at MU were non verbal. The “language” barrier was what scared my kids the most, but one of the most rewarding revelations was the realization that children do not need language (or even words) to connect.  Recess at MU was filled with the same play that would occur on any school playground – and my kids were quick to connect and form bonds with children who could not otherwise communicate with them. Inside the classroom, we learned patience as we worked on the same sensory activities multiple times – working through setbacks, but also seeing progress.  The staff at Manos Unidas are among the most loving and dedicated adults I have ever come across in education. They were patient and kind – and you could see that they truly cared for the well-being of the students as they would their own children.

A favorite story occurred on the last day we volunteered at MU.  A little boy Jhon insisted on holding my son’s hand as he walked up the hill to the road where his father had come to pick him up.  Even when he saw his father, he refused to let go of my son’s hand – while motioning to his father’s car, pointing at my son, and pointing at himself.  “He wants you to come home with him, to show you where he lives,” one of the MU teachers told my son. “Like a playdate?” my son asked. Yes, just like a play date – and had I let him, my son would have gladly gone.  This memory so perfectly summed up what I had hoped my children would take away from this trip,, and we are so grateful that this first experience was so rich that it inspired a strong tradition of giving back in our family. “

Susie Naficy, Family volunteer, 2018

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