Our Blueprint Travel Grant program supports employees making service-based trips around the world in partnership with charitable organizations. As they return from their journeys, we’re following their stories through the #AECOMBlueprint blog series.
For four years, I’ve been working with Building Humanity, a nonprofit founded by a former AECOM employee that provides varying forms of assistance to needy communities around the world. This fall, as part of our Blueprint Travel Grant program, I made my third trip with the nonprofit, joining 22 volunteers, including 14 from AECOM, on a charity build in Peru to help indigenous teenage girls attend school. We worked in partnership with the Sacred Valley Project, an organization that builds dormitories for teenage girls from remote communities in the Andes so they have somewhere to live while they attend school. Some of these communities are a 15-hour hike from the nearest town. As a result, young boys often move to the cities to continue their education, but the same opportunity is not available for girls due to cultural expectations. Educating the female population has a significant impact on reducing poverty, so this service project was a particularly exciting opportunity to be a part of and learn from.
To put into context some of the difficulties these remote communities face, during the first weekend of our trip we drove for six hours to where the paved road ended and then completed a strenuous three hour trek to the Mendosayoc community, one of the furthest away from Calca. These families don’t have access to vehicles, so by foot this journey would take more than 15 hours — an impossible feat! Due to the terrain, even the girls who are from communities in closer proximity to the schools are unable to make the trek and return in one day.
Over the weekend, we learned more about the community, which is spread over numerous peaks and almost 50 families strong. The residents grow most of their own food on the mountain and sell the coffee beans that they produce. They have a primary school with two classrooms and the teachers live on-site and return home once a month, while the girls only return home once a year when the secondary school in Calca closes for the summer.
The Sacred Valley Project has two dormitories in Calca and Ollantaytambo that house 20 students each. We spent six days on-site at the dormitory in Calca building a greenhouse so the girls can grow their own food. The ability to grow your own food is pivotal to combating malnutrition and ultimately helps the young women lead healthier lives. In addition, students are encouraged to save money and potentially apply the new skills in the event that they wish to open their own market. They’re able to sell excess food to member of their communities, earning a modest income and ultimately relying less heavily on donations. While on-site, we completed other tasks in the dorm, including positioning some baking equipment, deep cleaning and setting up security cameras to ensure the residents have a safe place to live.
The original plan for the trip was to build a third dorm, but unfortunately, we encountered problems securing land, which delayed construction. We also faced other challenges during this trip, including overcoming altitude sickness and having to work around wildlife — such as tarantulas — that also call the area home. Our Blueprint Travel Grant covered the building materials and tools we needed for the greenhouse, and any excess will go toward the new dorm when they are able to secure land.
The most memorable part of the trip for me was the visit to the Mendosayoc community because it illuminated the diversity of how people live around the world. We also had dinner every night with the students who lives we were impacting and attempted to learn Quechua, the region’s indigenous language. I will never forget how accommodating the families were, how excited the girls were to show us around and how grateful the entire community was for the resources that the Sacred Valley Project offers. I have never met teenagers who are so happy to go to school! The girls’ passion for learning, drive to succeed and desire to improve the lives of people in their community left our team in awe and we can’t wait to hear about their plans after graduating from high school. As a result of the on-site dormitories, the Sacred Valley Project has allowed students to receive an additional two hours of tutoring every night. Some students have even graduated top of their class!
These types of trips are great for learning more about the built environment and the different issues faced by construction teams around the world — whether those constraints are weather, seismic, political or social, there’s always some variety! On each of my builds I’ve learned different construction techniques as well as how to solve problems and communicate in a way that’s very different from working in an office environment. It’s also great to meet talented and passionate designers and engineers from around the world and connect with both the people we are helping and the wider community in which they live.
My time away with Building Humanity has made me a lot more appreciate of the things most people take for granted and shaped the way I deal with problems in my everyday life. I can’t wait for the next opportunity. For anyone interesting in taking part in a similar trip, I would say go for it. The feeling you get from this type of hands-on work, seeing the impact you are making and how much joy you can bring to communities like this, along with the team spirit and enthusiasm while working together toward such an amazing end goal, is truly an incredible experience.