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The Powerful Women of Peru Healed Me

This year, when I was invited to join World Neighbors on a physically challenging trip to visit the forgotten people in the poorest regions of Peru, I admit, I was very hesitant. Then I realized I was being offered an opportunity to test my physical resilience after literally being unable to even walk up a short flight of stairs. The only answer was "Yes." Always my philosophy.

This month is somewhat of an anniversary celebration for me. Ten years ago, I naively flew off across the ocean to an alternative clinic in Germany looking for answers, hope and healing, for my undiagnosable medical condition. Weighing in at 89 pounds on a 5'6" frame, I was a walking skeleton and apparently looked like the only thing I was about to cross, was death's door. My daughter had even given me permission to die. That truly shocked me.

The direness of my situation was confirmed by the team of medical doctors who at one point could only suggest, "perhaps you should pray." They were very clear that I'd have to alter my lifestyle dramatically and they emphatically told me I would never be able to travel again. The harsh reality hit home when I stood, almost naked, in front of their full-length mirror, wondering where my body had gone.

After three and a half weeks, I flew back across the ocean, arriving home no better than when I'd left. The complexity of my condition remained a mystery. Physically I looked frightening, but I knew that I'd have to rally from deep within me, my inextinguishable determination to live.

So, this year, when I was invited to join World Neighbors on a physically challenging trip to visit the forgotten people in the poorest regions of Peru, I admit, I was very hesitant. Then I realized I was being offered an opportunity to test my physical resilience, almost 10 years to the day after literally being unable to even walk up a short flight of stairs. The only answer was "Yes." Always my philosophy: Say Yes to Life.

The trip demanded more of me than I thought I was capable of. Cold nights in high altitudes without heat or hot water. Hours of driving on what I came to call "non-roads." Soon the luxuries we take for granted in North America were longed-for distant memories. I slept in layers of clothes and developed a new gratitude for all I was blessed with, including fleece pants and a jacket, which became my comfort. I could write extensively about the challenges, but they soon took a back seat to the real story.

The story of the poorest people of Peru, who although "poor" by our lifestyle standards, have an incredible richness of spirit, with sincere love and commitment to community. I discovered that World Neighbors uses a methodology that is somewhat unique, working with the community to understand their specific needs. They don't give handouts or decide what is best for the people.

In Peru, they work with a savings and credit model and each person must match the credit offered...50/50. No exceptions. Even a very small initial credit can foster confidence and as the recipient thrives and pays back the credit or loan, they soon apply for larger credits to expand and enrich their lives.

One of the things that struck me was how the women of even the smallest communities, find a personal sense of empowerment. In a society that would be considered patriarchal by nature, we found women with equal status and often men declared that their wives were equal decision makers in all aspects of their lives. Gender equity, which we might take for granted, is one of World Neighbors focuses in all 45 countries they work in.

Often they go to the end of the road, where no one else offers help. It reminded me of being metaphorically at the end of the road and how the smallest glimmer of hope kept me going in my most critical of times. World Neighbors offers hope to what I'd call the lost people of Peru. Their work is done in the forgotten communities, where they form community committees, working with them for eight to 12 years, supporting and educating until the community is self-sufficient. Long-term solutions, not short-term fixes. So much of my long journey back to health, which took almost nine years, was in fact about the very same thing.

Economist Esther Duflo of M.I.T., who studies poverty, found that often anti-poverty programs "go beyond the direct impact of the resources they provide." It is the injection of optimism that dramatically improves both the mental and physical health of recipients. Her studies confirmed that it is an absence of hope that contributes to keeping people trapped in their poverty.

This was very clear to me in Peru. Many of the people had fled their homes during the 1990s rebel uprising, and felt hopeless on returning to virtually nothing. As World Neighbors offered hope and built trust, communities soon began to thrive again. This was true from the smallest of communities of 19 families, to the largest of 1200. As I discovered from my own personal experience, hope is a powerful fuel, which drives the human spirit.

The theme continued to be communities built on co-operation, not competition. I remembered hearing author-speaker Gregg Braden, talk about 400 peer-reviewed scientific studies that explored what level of competition created the maximum results. The findings: Zero. Said Braden, "Darwinian evolution doesn't work. Although "survival of the fittest" has always been accepted as the standard for biological behavior, we are more inclined toward peace than war, more wired for co-operative existence and mutual aid than competition." And this is what I saw in all the villages we visited. Everyone had the chance to flourish, with opportunities for each and every person. We met women doing a wide variety of work: from raising guinea pigs (the Peruvian national delicacy) and using the manure to enrich their crops, to women expressing their artistic souls, using their talents weaving exquisite blankets and sweaters.

An absolute stand out for me, was Candelerea, a humble, yet brave woman, who was uncomfortable about having her picture taken, as she had not dressed up for the occasion. Yes, women are women everywhere! She was one of the original ten on her community committee, the only woman. I saw her light up like her name, when she proudly told us that she was currently on her fifth loan and with this help, had been able to send two of her children to university (previously unheard of), one studying to be a teacher and the other an accountant. She explained why the World Neighbors system works. "It requires the participant to match the loan, it keeps the recipient motivated and interested to the make the effort to repay the loan. And their contribution then helps the community as well."

This for me, is the real joy I witnessed in Peru. The journey was challenging and tested my resilience. These people must rely on their resilience every single day. They are people who have little, yet appreciate everything. It confirmed for me that universally, women all have the same dreams and hopes. To be better. To see their children have more than they do. Their hearts are with their communities. They support each other. They encourage each other. What World Neighbors offers is hope and support. They understand the people they are helping because they are the people.

A recent piece in the New York Times,"The Campaign Against Women," caught my eye and I read it with interest. The piece talks about women's rights being attacked by the Republicans on Capital Hill. It made me realize that the heart and soul of women is not about politics or legislation. My trip to Peru confirmed for me that real power comes from within. It is born of spirit. We are entering a time in our own history, I believe, where the feminine energy is rising. The power, the fire that lives in us all, cannot be extinguished.

And as so often happens when I'm writing, something shows up that perfectly fits. This Gaping Void by Hugh MacLeod had me smiling.

Subject line: Rock n' Roll. The message succinctly says it all.

"One of the great tragedies of life, and you'll find it deeply embedded in every major world religion and mythology is to know that the power, the life spirit, is within you, and yet you choose to ignore it.

Call it rock n' roll. Call it the voice of God. Call it anything else.Only you as an individual can decide to awaken it.

It's a decision only you can make.

And thank goodness for that...."

Thank you to World Neighbors and the people of Peru for their inextinguishable spirits.

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