Helping out in Peru

Two young women will forego the comforts of Christmas at home for community development work in the Amazon

Danette Dooley
Published on December 17, 2008
Cara Lewis and Stephanie Stoker and friends on the Amazon. - Submitted photos

Stephanie Stoker and Cara Lewis both lived in downtown St. John's, frequented the same shops and shared mutual friends and acquaintances.

Oddly enough, they didn't make each other's acquaintance until they both ended up in the Amazon jungle.

Stephanie Stoker and Cara Lewis both lived in downtown St. John's, frequented the same shops and shared mutual friends and acquaintances.

Oddly enough, they didn't make each other's acquaintance until they both ended up in the Amazon jungle.

Stoker went to Peru over a year ago as a volunteer with Canadian University Service Overseas-Voluntary Service Organization (CUSO-VSO).

A graduate of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, she plans to stay in Peru for another year or so, where she's working on a project with Asociacion Kallpa, a group that helps underprivileged children and youth, in the city of Iquitos, Peru.

"We work through community animation projects, spirit-building activities, arts, theatre, dance and anything else we can come up with," Stoker says via e-mail. Lewis is her intern.

Healthy communities

Their project is titled Youth and Adults Creating a Healthy Community in El Porvenir, Peru - a community on the Amazonian Nanay River.

Stoker, the youth project co-ordinator, says they are building a group of youth leaders who can work with adults to help the people achieve and maintain healthy lifestyles.

While Stoker and Lewis live in the centre of the city and have everything they need to be comfortable, the people they are helping live without the most basic amenities, Stoker says.

"There are no bathrooms as we know them; plumbing and sewage do not exist. The washing machine is the trickle of almost-clean water out the back of the house," she said.

Because children are expected to work, in many cases school is a seen as a hindrance.

"Parasites and dengue are as regular as a bit of gas, and it is normal to have no water for days, even though the road is flooded so you can't get in or out of the community," Stoker said.

Community centre

When she first arrived in Peru, Stoker applied for a grant from the Campbell Webster Foundation of P.E.I. to initiate cleanup campaigns and build a modest centre or theatre.

The grant was approved and a "centre for youth and culture" is now in the works.

"We hired an engineer who took my drawings and handed us a huge binder of budgets and plans," Stoker said. "The first posts went into the ground (Dec. 10)."

The facility will have a multi-disciplinary theatre space, a library, open reading and resting area, and a small kitchen and office area.

"It will be a resource for everyone who wishes to use it, and we hope an opportunity to bring others into the community, share our vision and work and perhaps employ a few youth in the running of it," Stoker said.

While her work in Peru is rewarding, she misses many things about home, especially this time of year.

"I miss Water Street and the smell of the winter air. Family and friends ...," she said. "And if I could speak one wish this Christmas, it would be do what you can for someone else, whether you know them or not."

Lewis is a graduate of Memorial University from Logy Bay/Middle/Cove/Outer Cove.

She's in Peru for a four-month internship funded through the Canadian International Development Agency.

She faced several challenges during her first few weeks in Peru, Lewis said.

"I just started to feel so ridiculous that I am in the position of having this internship, of having a paid flight and internship in another country, but women and their children living down a hill at the end of my road have to dig through mud to get their drinking and cleaning water," she wrote via e-mail.

Seeing children in the streets selling gum and candy every day also weighs heavily on her heart, Lewis said.

"But, thankfully, I have an amazing community of people home that helped me through this and continue to support me in the most important ways."

Lewis said her time in Peru has given her a variety of experiences.

"There's been lots of assisting with the youth group events and activities, translating documents, developing community research tools for the Kallpa team, and teaching belly dancing and hip-hop classes to the kids and youth in El Porvenir - a definite highlight for me," she says.

Once she's back in Newfoundland, she'll continue to work for CUSO-VSO by speaking about her experiences. She also hopes to link her hometown to El Porvenir, Peru and set up an international pen-pal program between the youth in both countries.

"There's so much to gain from intercultural and international communication and I'm more than willing to foster some strong connections between these two amazing places," Lewis said.

Like Stoker, Lewis said despite missing home - particularly "family hopping," and "people-watching" at the Avalon Mall - she's where she should be right now.

"I am fortunate enough to have two sets of parents and so there are many grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins to see." she said. "And I'll miss Christmas morning with my little sisters and eating far too much Toblerone far too early in the morning."

For more information on the Peru project visit