We began our Saturday by driving twenty five kilometres north of the Columban Central House to the township of San Benito. We were traveling to see the work of Warmi Huasi which is headed up by Columban Fr. Ed O’Connell known as ‘Lalo’ by his parishioners and friends.
The first thing you notice when heading to San Benito is the terrain you must pass through to get there. You begin in the dusty and crowded streets of Lima before finally passing through some of the first agricultural areas we have seen. Passing through the lush fields full of fruit, crops and vegetables, we began to climb. San Benito occupies a perch relatively high up the mountains surrounding Lima and would have stunning views over the north of the city were it not for the layer of dust hovering like a fog over the streets and people.
San Benito has been around for the last twenty years or so, some six years ago they received electricity and two years ago, piped water. The next step is paved roads but until then it will remain dry and dusty during the summer. The township is surrounded by high mountains on three sides. At the time we visited they looked completely barren, but in the winter, will come alive with plants and flowers turning the baked dry rock in to a green hillside.
When we arrived at Warmi Huasi we were given a brief talk of child safeguarding and then drove out to see the sights of the town, these included a guinea pig farm, the aid station (the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away), the school and one of the four homework clubs set up by Warmi Huasi.
The work of Warmi Huasi is wide ranging. Besides the four homework clubs there is a toy library, reading clubs (the nearest public library is five miles, twenty if you want a large one), a therapy club providing physical, language and emotional therapy and most recently a Children’s Committee has been set up. These many projects are supported by six permanent staff and a small army of volunteers, mostly made of parents of the children that use the services.
One project that really caught my eye was the Children’s Committee. Children in Peru have a very limited voice in local politics. Since they cannot vote, they are not listened to. The Children’s Committee was formed with the intention of giving these children a chance to be heard. The group toured the township identifying things they wanted to change and then lobbied the local council to change these things. The result of this effort is a new area dedicated for children’s use and the official recognition of the group as a local stakeholder with a say in council decisions.
This program was so successful that other groups of children in the south of Peru are attempting to get similar recognition. The ethos of Warmi Huasi seems to be all about the empowerment of children so they can take control of their own lives, and as they grow and mature they may become true and active citizens of Peru.