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A strong sense of solidarity in poor communities can sometimes give rise to innovative solutions in the face of extreme hardship. One example: the case of comedores populares in Lima, Peru -- community kitchens that provide nutritious meals for everyone, and that also play an important role as a local gathering place. Anyone can eat at a comedor, but they are especially important for the most vulnerable populations -- namely children, the elderly, and handicapped -- who may not have the means to obtain a healthy diet. At the Comedor Hijos de Brillantes in Pamplona Alta, Lima, the handicapped and elderly get a free meal every day. For everyone else, it's just S/1.50, or 60 US cents.

Roberto Huayhuapuma Vasquez, President of the Association of the Disabled in Pamplona, recently invited the MEDLIFE team to visit the Comedor Hijos de Brillantes to learn more about their work and how we could help. Roberto, who was born with only one functioning leg, started the association for the disabled after facing discrimination and seeing the limitations it placed on others like him. "I realized that together we could do a lot to change the world for disabled people in my neighborhood," he said. "We are capable of doing much more than we are given."

The group began serving meals to the handicapped in the area two years ago, and has managed to accomplish a great deal with very few resources. They started out cooking on a wood fire; now they have a small stove, which prepares meals for about 50 people a day. Of those 50, about half eat for free.

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The cramped shack that serves as a comedor is ill equipped for people with disabilities, with a dirt floor, narrow entryway, and no handrails. They're asking our supporters for help with improvements to the structure to make it more accessible so they can continue serving the population of men, women and children who depend on them. If you'd like to contribute to this project, donate to the MEDLIFE fund.

What is a comedor?

Comedores populares began informally in the 1960s and 70s as a survival strategy in the fast-growing pueblos jovenes, or urban shantytowns of Lima. Women came together to form neighborhood organizations, pooled their resources and collectively prepared and distributed meals to their families. As economic conditions worsened, their numbers exploded.

The comedor model of social organization found in Peru is a unique one. It started with grassroots action, driven primarily by women in the poorest communities. The introduction of the Vaso de Leche government assistance program in the 1990s, which guaranteed a glass of milk for children and pregnant women every day, was made possible by using the existing networks of comedors. The women leaders in the program gained organizational skills and experience that empowered them to fight for a more active voice in public life. Sadly, they also became targets of political violence by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorist group in the 90s.

Today, thousands of comedores populares are still active and vital to the growing populations in pueblos jovenes. Many are subsidized by the Peruvian government, which provides some raw ingredients in bulk, with some also receiving donations from church groups and NGOs. They are staffed in shifts by local volunteers, who receive food for their families in exchange for the hard work of preparing meals for large numbers of people. The network of women and men who run the comedors are important allies for MEDLIFE in the battle against malnutrition and other health problems, spreading the word about programs and resources to the entire community. They're often where we hold our preventative health workshops and public forums throughout the year, and sometimes even double as improvised doctors' offices at our Mobile Clinics.

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.

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