This past year, we've completed six staircase projects and numerous Mobile Clinics in the community of Laderas de Nueva Esperanza, in large part thanks to the persistence of the community's dirigente, or elected community leader, Nancy Helguera. Read more about how she is inspiring positive change in her neighborhood below:

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Nancy came to Lima thinking she was going to retire. She had worked for years as a dirigente in her native Piura, where she supervised a number of public works projects and worked to reduce crime and help at-risk children and teens. When she arrived in Lima, she opened a small restaurant in Villa El Salvador, and planned to spend time with her grown children and grandchildren. But her calling soon found her again.

It was her daughter, Vanessa -- who had moved to a new community called Laderas de Nueva Esperanza -- who proposed the idea. Vanessa was serving as the secretary general there at the time, and told her mother about the problems the community was facing. "There were a lot of problems with stealing, embezzlement and corruption. People didn't trust the dirigentes," says Nancy. So she left the restaurant and moved in with her daughter in Laderas. Nancy found little resistance to her election among locals, who were tired of bad dirigentes and knew of her past experience in Piura.

But what Nancy found there was a harsh reality, with fraud, bribes, and other corrupt practices already in place. "It was very hard at the beginning, the damage had to be fixed from zero. That's why I understand why people are distrustful, even now, saying that I steal," she says. "But you have to understand, they were very hard times."

Nancy accepted the challenge, but first she had to clarify a few things. "I was clear about how things work. I have my own way of working, and if they wanted my help, they had to accept my conditions," she says. "Obviously they accepted; they did not have many other options."

With five years of hard work in office, she's overseen many finished projects and the community continues to grow each year. "Five years ago, we hardly dreamed of the stairs or playground that we have now," she says. Nancy's charisma and commitment got the attention of not only her community, but the municipal government as well. 

To see photo captions, view the slideshow in fullscreen mode and then click on the "show info" option on the top right

The MEDLIFE Ecuador team recently visited the coastal community of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, for the first time to learn more about the needs of the area and how MEDLIFE could help. Communications intern Rachel Hoffman shares her impressions of the experience:

We settled into a crowded overnight bus toward the coast on Tuesday, October 16, at 8 p.m. By 4:30 a.m., Martha, Luis, Pedro and I arrived in Atacames, biding our time until sunrise in a bare bones hotel by the shore. Ceviche stands dotted the shore line, and the streets were crowded with garish signs advertising countless hotels equipped with every tourist need: television, wi-fi, a pool, and world-class-you-name-it. Ominously, dogs of all shapes and sizes trotted along the street, their rib bones poking out from beneath their fur as they followed the scents of breakfast.

From there, we caught a bus to Esmeraldas to meet with the personal assistant to the mayor's wife, Geoconda. We came only to know her by her first name and her willingness to pack our car for the day to the brim with people, making us waddle and strain up the yellow dirt roads of the hilly communities we would later explore. Before embarking on our journey, we took a brief detour into a city grade school directed by the mayor's wife, Maritza Conizores. We observed a second grade class of mainly Afro-Ecuadorian children. It was enough time to note the starched, tan uniforms and neatly trimmed hair of the children who, at the sound of a whistle, immediately arranged themselves in a giggly, single-file line to enter into their classroom. Maritza boasted that she ran this school and that the children all knew her, and a tangle of excited children ran to hug her tightly by the waist as if on cue. After exchanging many thank you's, we set out for the city's outer limits.

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Smoke fumed in the distance and a spark of an orange flame poked out from behind the leaves of skinny trees covering the hillsides. "Is there a fire over there?" I asked. "No, a petroleum factory," answered Geoconda nonchalantly. Clouds of black smoke wafted toward the neighborhoods that we sharply turned toward from the main road. We wound our way through what looked like a war zone. Crumbling brick, rusted tin, weedy overgrowth, and shreds of domestic debris covered the landscape. Delicate strands of laundry lines were strung artfully from roof to roof. This was home, though it appeared deserted. Every once and a while, you could catch a glowing pair of eyes peering back at you from the darkness of a makeshift window.

Eventually, we came to a community built on a steep incline. To climb to the top of the settlements was to risk your life on the slippery river of dust and garbage flowing between the shacks. Martha surveyed the area and shook her head, speaking about how this would be a great area for a stair- building project. She spoke with a few young men outside of their house about the community, explaining that we were in Esmeraldas to gauge the needs of the local communities. Here, children hung off of railings and porches, sat speckled amongst the grass, and played beneath the swaying laundry. They were mostly school-aged, and dressed in ill-fitting tank tops and cotton shorts. Down by a river, a few minutes away, a group of children and teenaged women sat scrubbing laundry in a bucket and feeding bits of apple to the fish below.

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"And what do the men here do for work?" asked Martha, back in the car. "Whatever there is." Geoconda bluntly replied. No one elaborated. Our next stop was a meeting with Nubia Quinonez, the director of the Centro de Atencion Integral de la Ninez Adolescencia y la Familia, a community center that hosts family gatherings, offers mothers basic health care services, and provides psychological counseling for adolescents. Young mothers trickled into the air-conditioned, white tiled room, babies gleefully attached to their bosoms. They joined the circle of plastic chairs we had formed, entering into a discussion about the psychological and physical needs of the local community. Drug abuse, pregnancy at a young age, and lack of access to medical care all desperately need to be addressed, the mothers in the room echoing Nubia's words. Everyone seemed to solemnly shake their heads at the enormity of the problems plaguing Esmeraldas. The population estimate as of 2010 was 188,694 people, with 66 percent of them living in an "urban situation."

Do closely packed shacks near enough to the polluting plants that fuel a city but not close enough to access jobs count as an "urban situation"? How do you work from the ground up with isolated communities like the ones that we saw?

Martha, Luis, Pedro and I caught the 8 p.m. bus to Riobamba on Wednesday evening. Rather than leading to concrete answers about how to help the community of Esmeraldas, the 16 hours we spent there so far has only lead to more questions. Yet, at least we have begun to ask them.

*UPDATE: MEDLIFE Ecuador has confirmed that we will bring a Mobile Clinic to the community of Esmeraldas during the spring of 2013. The clinic will provide basic health services, and also serve as an opportunity to learn more about community needs and make plans for long-term development projects.

November 29, 2011 11:32 am

MEDLIFE Role Models: Meet Rosita Muñoz

Written by Laura Keen

51-1Wearing her characteristic black woolen ski hat even in the blistering heat of Lima summer, Rosita Muñoz purposefully ascends the steep hillside of Santa Cruz, an enormous bucket of cement firmly gripped in each hand. She passes the unwieldy bucket up to a neighbor and immediately turns to go back down and retrieve more. She is working tirelessly at finishing what will be the last of three staircases that have been inaugurated in Santa Cruz, where Rosita acts as a community leader. 

Santa Cruz is a small community of around 25, comprised mainly of young families who moved to Lima together from Huancayo when they learned there were large swathes of open land available outside the city. The small community sits at the top of a precipitous stretch of hillside where damp winters and dusty summers create a hazardous, accident-prone ascent for community members. Having learned of MEDLIFE's staircase undertakings in other areas, Rosita approached Project Coordinator, Carlos Benavides, in July of 2011 and proposed that her burgeoning community be next to receive assistance.

51-2After several MEDLIFE staff members visited Santa Cruz, most were hesitant to undertake the project. Due to its daunting altitude and distance from any navigable roads below, carrying building materials was going to require a fortified and committed community. Thanks largely to the tenacious and determined spirit of Rosita, Santa Cruz presented MEDLIFE with just that. After waiting out the remaining weeks of an intractable winter, neighbors organized an impressive "cadena" or chain of workers who labored for days, bucket by bucket, to bring sand and water to the future site of their first staircase.

Rosita headed weekly meetings in Santa Cruz in the months leading up to the project, inspiring community members to participate and volunteer.

"I want my kids to have better opportunities than I did," said the mother of three. "My own mom was a single mother and nothing was ever easy."

During every stage of all three staircases, Rosa worked tirelessly, carrying buckets and rocks, mixing cement, positioning handrails, painting, and planting trees. The relatively young community now stands out against neighboring areas as a developed example of organization and initiative, its three bright red staircases striking and visible throughout Pamplona.

MEDLIFE now hopes to repay the persevering Rosita for all her hard work by helping her treat a painful kidney problem she has been suffering from for the past two years. The wrenching pain didn't stop the community leader from sweating through hours of hard manual labor, and MEDLIFE is eager to help her manage the financial strain of managing her illness.

41-1Pueblo is a Spanish word that for me does not have an exact English equivalent. In its most literal sense it means village or small town, but beyond that it also carries an infectious and emotionally charged quality of proletarian community. El Pueblo is more often a force or an attitude than it is a means to describe a modest settlement.

The nuance of the word was only reinforced for me when I attended a public assembly last week in Villa Maria del Triunfo, one of the southern districts where we work in Lima. Large banners hung from the stage and plastered on the walls of the makeshift tent proclaimed the event to be a time for "Escuchando tu Voz, el Congreso y el Pueblo," which loosely translates to "Listening to your voice, Congress and the People."

The guest of honor was Peruvian Congressional President Daniel Abugattás Majluf, who greeted attendees before seating himself on stage alongside the mayors of seven participating Lima districts. More than 2,000 people attended the assembly where representatives of various social factions, including students, teachers, local community leaders, and workers, were given three minutes to speak directly to their elected officials.

MEDLIFE has been working in Pamplona Alta since March 2010.  The majority of Mobile Clinics and MEDLIFE Fund projects in Peru serve the communities of Pamplona Alta.  Zenobia Gonsalves, our media intern in Lima, captured the shots below.
 
Located in the hills surrounding Lima, Pamplona Alta is a shantytown or Pueblo Joven characterized by conditions of extreme poverty and a lack of infrastructural development.  Now housing more than 20,000 residents, it was first populated in the 1990's when massive numbers of Peruvians immigrated to Lima from the rural countryside -- either displaced by the Shining Path terrorism that marked this decade, or looking for better opportunity in Peru's capital city.
 
Dirt paths crisscross the valley walls, reaching the families who reside at the top -- a long climb from the main avenue below.  Can you spot the 3 MEDLIFE staircases?
 
Prior to this flood of immigration, Pamplona Alta was occupied by other residents -- pigs.  Pig farming remains to be one of the primary industries of the region.  Currently the small ranches, or chancherias, occupy the most expensive real estate on the valley floor, while the human population resides higher on the valley walls, with entire communities resting on steep, rocky slopes.  Typically owned by Peruvians living outside of Pamplona Alta, the chancherias contribute both an unpleasant odor and large amounts of waste to the valley.  Above, a pig rests in his shelter.
 
The pig pens of the chancherias mix with the housing for local families.
 
Though they may more closely resemble tool sheds than houses, entire families (and in some houses, multiple families) reside in these small shacks.  As evidence above, most houses rest on makeshift walls of loose rock -- or worse, discarded car tires.  The potential earthquake damage instills great fear among residents, and as such the Peruvian government is attempting to add retention walls to Pamplona Alta's steepest slopes.
 
Water and sewage lines haven't yet reached the vast majority of the valley's communities.  Water trucks, run by private companies, deliver water on a daily basis.  This system is marked both by its high expense (water costs 10 times as much as it does in areas where lines exist), and the possibility of contamination, both from the trucks themselves and the dirty containers in which it is stored.  Families who don't live by the roads accessed by the water trucks must haul water to their home, bucket by bucket.
 
The lack of sewage lines means that residents use outhouses -- holes in the ground that sometimes are left unsealed.  The seepage of this sewage into the ground leads to high rates of parasitic infections, particularly among children who often spend their free time playing in the dirt.
 
 
A rooster surveys the valley floor.  Many families raise hens to supplement their diet, or sell at market.
 
The community of Minas 2000 received MEDLIFE's first-ever stair project.  Why? When six months pregnant, the woman residing on the green house on the left fell on the rocky slope outside of her home, prompting an extremely premature birth.  MEDLIFE has sought proper treatment for the child, who is now a healthy 2 year old, but wanted to do more to prevent future accidents.  The first project was greeted by strong enthusiasm by Minas 2000 and neighboring communities, and MEDLIFE hasn't stopped building stairs since!
 
 
A recently completed staircase sports a MEDVIDA logo.
 
 
A private (though free to attend) high school sits in stark contrast to the painted houses below it.  The school was built and is partly run by a Catholic aid organization, but currently half of the classrooms remain empty because the government is unable to supply a full teaching staff.
 
 
A government-sponsored nursery adds color to the hillside.
 
 
 
The valley floor of Pamplona Altra stretches towards the more developed center of Lima.  Government services and infrastructural projects such as paved roads, retention walls, water and sewage lines, and electrical grids are slowly creeping into the valley.  Hopefully, the families of Pamplona Alta will soon be receiving the services and structural development that their neighboring city-dwellers enjoy.
 
All photos Zenobia Gonsalves.  Text by Tommy Flint.

MEDLIFE has been working in Pamplona Alta since March 2010.  The majority of Mobile Clinics and MEDLIFE Fund projects in Peru serve the communities of Pamplona Alta.  Zenobia Gonsalves, our media intern in Lima, captured the shots below.

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Located in the hills surrounding Lima, Pamplona Alta is a shantytown, or pueblo joven, characterized by conditions of extreme poverty and a lack of infrastructural development.  Now housing more than 20,000 residents, it was first populated in the 1990's when massive numbers of Peruvians immigrated to Lima from the rural countryside -- either displaced by the Shining Path terrorism that marked this decade, or looking for better opportunity in Peru's capital city.


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Dirt paths crisscross the valley walls, reaching the families who reside at the top -- a long climb from the main avenue below.  Can you spot the three MEDLIFE staircases?

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