There has been a slight change of plans. Although I thought my itinerary was rock solid, I did not account for a disease infestation. Whoops!
I arrived in Arequipa on Saturday night. It is absolutely gorgeous here!! It is the second largest city in Peru and is at a pretty high altitude. The volcano El Misti provides quite the scenic backdrop and there are tons of little cobblestone streets. It reminds me mucho of Italy. I’m living in a volunteer house with 12 other people.
Red Flag #1: The overarching theme in my initial conversations with other volunteers was illness. Each of them was either currently sick, just getting over being sick, or fearful of getting sick again. In such tight living quarters, it was not shocking that germs spread fast.
It was even less surprising once I visited the orphanage. The volunteers swapped sickness stories as if they were badges of honor. However, I am not really looking for any badges at the moment…
WARNING: the following is kinda graphic. There’s no way to sugarcoat it.
Red Flag #2: I went to the orphanage on Sunday. It is a 3-bedroom apartment with 19 children. In the words of my dad, there is crap everywhere.
The main room is for the babies. There is a bunk bed (used as a changing table), a crib, and a bassinet on the floor. I noticed there was no garbage can. Everyone has to walk through this room to get to the bedrooms.
The first bedroom is for the older kids and is jammed full of beds and clothes. At least eight kids sleep in this room. The kids share beds and sleep on mats on the floor. The two other bedrooms are for the toddlers and for the babies with disabilities. There is one bathroom for the children with only a shower and a toilet. The bathroom appears to not have been cleaned since it was built.
The orphanage is mainly run by Tias, who are all volunteers as well. No one is paid to work here. Although the Tias mop the floors every day, they use a dirty mop, and there is just dirt and filth everywhere. The smell is overpowering.
The dirty cloth diapers are washed with the other clothes – leaving nothing to ever be completely clean. All the clothes, blankets, and towels are stained and smell of excrement. There is one sink with a dirty soap pump to wash your hands at.
As a female volunteer, I am responsible for the babies. There are nine babies, with six having special needs, and two volunteers per shift. We spend our time changing them, feeding them, consoling them, getting them to sleep, playing with them, etc. Two volunteers for nine babies means at least one baby is always crying.
The babies are dressed in multiple layers of clothing and the windows are not allowed to be opened. The Tias are fearful that the babies will get enferma, so they insist on keeping them warm at all times. However, they have way overcompensated for their fear as the babies are sweating and urinating through their clothes and bed sheets constantly. The rooms have no ventilation and the smell is definitely not healthy for any human to breathe in all day and night.
The other children play on the roof all day with the male volunteers. There are toys, but no games or activities for them. They don’t leave the orphanage, except for one monthly outing. The highlight of the children’s day seems to be when the garbage man comes. His truck plays music, similar to the ice cream truck in the U.S. But they don’t get a popsicle. They watch him pick up trash.
The kids don’t have sippy cups, and I never noticed one child drink water at any point of the day. The babies and children are all coughing and sneezing non-stop. Many of the children cannot walk correctly and trip frequently.
Needless to say, the sanitary conditions are appalling. I saw a Tia wet a onesie with water and use it as a wipe for a baby with a very dirty diaper and then toss said onesie in a hamper. Ten minutes later, she returned to the hamper and started pulling out items she believed to still be clean. I was gagging watching this go down.
She asked me to go pick up a 14 month old and change him. She forgot to mention that his neck has failed to develop, and he can’t hold his head up. It was quite shocking to pick him up and watch his head go flying backwards. There is no set procedure or information given about each child’s needs. There are literally no standards. It is quite ironic to be in such a beautiful city and yet, see children surrounded by such ugliness.
The orphanage is run in crisis mode, reacting to the immediate needs of the babies and kids. There are not enough resources and there is no clear leadership. The organization I am working with simply supplies volunteers. The orphanage itself is run by a random operator who I have yet to see, voluntary Tias and is owned by some abstract government council. Still can’t get a straight answer about that.
When I left, I made a long to-do list of things I could do to help this situation and was eager to hit the ground running on Monday.
Red Flag #3 (a.k.a. the GRANDE red flag): However, on Monday the volunteers were banned from the orphanage for two weeks. It was discovered that four children have Hepatitis A, as well as the numerous other viruses which are being passed around, like rotavirus. The eldest child in the home, who is 9 years old, has been hospitalized because his symptoms are so bad.
The operator of the orphanage has been aware of this issue since Saturday. However, volunteers, such as myself, were still allowed to enter and be exposed. Hep A has a two week incubation period so it won’t show up on a blood test for at least 14 days. Hence, there is no way to know if the other children or volunteers have been effected.
Considering I am not even one week into my trip, I hightailed it out of the volunteer house and am staying at my back-up location. It is a good thing I am such a neurotic planner. The likelihood of my contracting Hep A is slim to none as I have been vaccinated, but it’s just a risk I’d rather not take at the moment. However, the likelihood of the other children contracting it is extremely high considering they have not been vaccinated and live in such horrible conditions. This is heartbreaking to me.
I have literally only volunteered for one day. There probably could not be a worse way to start this adventure. The real issue here is these kids. Even though I am not allowed in the orphanage for two weeks, I have come up with a new plan for the interim:
- Gather cleaning supplies, clothing, and bedding. This will be done with the help of some kind souls back in the States.
- Research and develop sanitary policies for the orphanage
- Create a rotation of responsibilities for the volunteers and daily schedule for the children to provide structure and stimulation.
- Take 4 hours of Spanish lessons per day so I can communicate more clearly with the Tias.
- Bulk up on vitamins so my immune system is like a brick wall
- Await clearance to re-enter and deliver supplies, ensure new sanitary rules are in place and offer organizational assistance.
Even if I have to go in there full-jumpsuit style (like the end of ET), I want to know that positive change was made after this Hepatitis outbreak. I was given a raw glimpse of life for children with no parents in Peru. I hope that we can clean that orphanage up and get some preventative measures in place. After that, hopefully I can win the lottery and bring all these kids home with me