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King Arthur wields the sword of justice. Robin Hood stands for the poor. Princess Leia destroys empires, and Buffy Summers battles vampires. From ancient folklore to space-based fantasies, heroes are those who stand between the world and certain doom. And there’s a plethora to choose from. Some wear their underwear over their tights; some take the form of minuscule bugs; and some fling oversized hammers at their enemies. And then there are those who are neither animate nor animated… like my checklist.

When it comes to being productive, my checklist is my lifeline. Though its forms vary from dog-eared planners to digital Stickie Notes, that little column of checks is all that stands between me and sheer insanity.

The first day I arrived at the Hogar Juana de Aza, Maruja asked me to help them set up a website. I thought, “One website. I can handle that.” And I put myself to work accordingly. As time wore on, though, I began to notice more and more problems at the home – problems that I knew I could help solve. Day by day, my list of projects expanded. Each of these major projects was broken down into various facets, which in turn comprised several daily tasks. So, in a last-ditch effort to maintain my sanity, I created a running checklist. Here it is, with embellishments for entertainment:

1. Website

“Step through this portal into our dynamic, compassionate world. At Home Juana de Aza, we support young mothers and their children as they transcend past traumas and embrace bright futures.”

The opening lines alone took a while. I’d done some publicity work before, but never anything of this magnitude. So I turned to the Internet – the lifeblood of our generation – for more information. Through online tutorials and articles, I learned the art of creating a website: from an intriguing “About” page to an appealing visual layout.

Since we can’t afford to pay for our own domain, I was working entirely with the free resources on Don’t get me wrong – those are great. Nonetheless, they were a little limiting. What can I say? #FirstWorldProblems

There were two primary motives behind creating the website: publicizing the Hogar and bringing in donations. In pursuit of the second, I requested some help from my friend Anna Sun. As a Computer Science major, Anna has a lot of experience with web design and Internet publicity. She was nice enough to sit down with me one evening and walk me through some of the finer points. For instance, she guided me through the process of connecting a PayPal account to the website. With one click of a round yellow button, a viewer can jump straight from the “Donation Information” page to the “Input Donation Amount” page. When it comes to web design, I’ve heard, efficiency is key.

Day by day, bit by bit, I moved forward on the website project. Whatever I put up on the English site, I translated and transferred to the Spanish site. Since the goal was to reach as many people as possible – regardless of language barriers – I created two websites in two different languages.

At nearly every step, I had to obtain approval from the nuns and Maruja. Legal issues abounded. First and foremost, the girls and their children were all minors – which meant that I had two options when it came to the website. One: don’t feature them. Or two: use pseudonyms.

I insisted that putting faces to names was the best way to emotionally impact our audience. To cultivate genuine interest in the Hogar, we had to introduce our audience to the people living there – their talents, their personalities, their hopes for the future. And so was born the “Nuestro Mundo” (Our World) project. I conducted interviews with each of the ten mothers, asking them about themselves and their children. “¿Qué te gusta hacer en tu tiempo libre? (What do you like to do in your free time?)” I inquired. “¿Tienes algunas esperanzas para el futuro de tu hijo? (Do you have any hopes for your child’s future?)” More often than not, the answer was, “Espero que sea un buen profesional (I hope that he/she becomes a good professional).” One mother told me that her greatest dream was to see her son graduated from college.

I posted all of these – along with photos – on the website. Of course, to preserve their privacy, I used pseudonyms for all the mothers and children; I combed through every post with Maruja and the nuns; and I avoided details of the trauma each girl had suffered. “Enfócate en el futuro (Focus on the future),” Maruja told me, “no en el pasado (not on the past).”

She especially warned me against posting photos of Yenny, one of the mothers. According to Maruja, Yenny’s assaulter was currently living in Cusco and had come looking for her before. Posting photos of her on social media could put her in severe danger. In the “Nuestro Mundo” project, therefore, I made sure to replace Yenny’s photo with a generic sketch of a girl. I would rather see her safe than famous a hundred times over.

Last Thursday, I officially launched the website on social media. Many of my friends – including several in the DukeEngage program – were kind enough to help me out by sharing my post on their Facebook walls. The first day alone, the English site received 465 views, and the Spanish site received 207. As of now, the Facebook page has racked up 102 likes: the same number of dollars that have been donated through the website.

Needless to say, we’re not done yet, and the Hogar can always use as much support as possible. If you want to check out the website and/or help us out, please take some time to explore the following links:

2. Dialogue with Casa Mantay

There are only two homes for adolescent mothers in Cusco: El Hogar Juana de Aza (The Home of Joan of Aza) and La Casa Mantay (The House of the Mother). I’m the only DukeEngage volunteer working at the Hogar, but Sammy and Masha are volunteering at Mantay.

Last month, when he visited the Hogar, Alex recommended that I initiate a dialogue between our two organizations. “Creo que sería una buena idea (I think that it would be a good idea),” he told me, “porque ambas tienen el mismo propósito, y la Casa Mantay tiene casi dieciseis años de experiencia (because both have the same purpose, and Casa Mantay has almost sixteen years of experience).” He was right, of course. Though not perfect, Casa Mantay is a far more experienced, well funded, and organized home than ours. Moreover, initiating a dialogue between the two could prove mutually beneficial. Monthly meetings between the directors of the Hogar and those of Mantay would provide a productive space for sharing experiences, knowledge, and advice.

With that objective in mind, I planned a visit to Casa Mantay two weeks ago. Like with the website, I had some help from my friends. Sammy took my place at the Hogar for the day, while Masha gave me the Grand Tour© of Mantay. During my time there, I got to experience exactly how everything ran at the Casa Mantay. And I even got to speak with the director – Raquel – for more information.

Following the visit, I created a brief memo about my recommendations for the Hogar based on my observations at Mantay. Among other things, I wrote about promoting exercise for our children and implementing “Arte con Aprendizaje” (Art with Learning). The children at Casa Mantay have a very set routine, which includes opportunities for physical and intellectual development. Bringing these activities to the Hogar, I thought, would significantly improve life for the children.

I presented my memo to the nuns and Maruja. After receiving approval, I began coordinating the first meeting between the Hogar and Mantay. I spoke to each of the Hogar’s directors, kept Raquel in the loop, and drafted a list of topics for discussion.

Last Friday, we – the four Sisters of the Santa Rosa de Lima Congregation, Maruja, and I – made the journey to San Jerónimo (Saint Jerome, a Cusquenian neighborhood). Raquel met us at the door of Casa Mantay and led us to a small, quiet conference room. There, we discussed everything from room arrangements to legal technicalities.

Two-and-a-half hours later, the six of us walked out the heart-adorned doorway of Mantay, full of new information and initiative. Maruja assured me that the meeting was very productive – and that she hoped they’d have many more in the future.

3. Medical System

The premed emerges again.

During my first visit to Casa Mantay, I asked Raquel a lot of questions about their medical system. How did they make sure everyone got proper medical care? And, on top of that, how could the organization afford to pay all those costs?

Raquel told me that Mantay had contracts with three private clinics, through which they obtained discounts or exoneration for fifteen medical services. She walked me through the process of obtaining those contracts and even gave me examples of the solicitation letters Mantay submitted. Drawing inspiration from those letters, I drafted our own set of medical contract requests to the Clínica San Juan de Dios (Clinic of Saint John of God), Clínica Pardo (Pardo Clinic), and Clínica Belén (Belen Clinic). Maruja and I visited each of the clinics in turn to submit our letters. So far, Clínica Belén has granted us full exoneration for all medical services; we’re still waiting on replies from Clínica Pardo and Clínica San Juan de Dios.

Recently, however, the medical situation at the Hogar has become more complicated. A group of American doctors from the Clínica Belén paid us a surprise visit last week. They gave all the mothers and children check-ups and prescribed them medicines for free. Near the end of the visit, one of the doctors pulled me aside. “I’m really worried about Yasmín,” he said. “The deformities in her hands could show a potential case of juvenile arthritis. She’s fifteen now. By the time she’s twenty, she could lose all mobility in her hands. Since she’s been rejected by her family, and has a young daughter to support, she could wind up being one of those ladies by the side of the street.”

For a moment, I couldn’t speak. How much suffering must that poor girl go through? Eventually, I reined in my shock and forced words from my mouth: “What can we do to help her?”

“Well,” replied the doctor, “the first thing you need to do is find a rheumatologist and get her a proper diagnosis. After that, we can figure out where to go with the treatment.” I nodded shakily, stunned by this awful turn of events. Well, I thought to myself, now it’s more important than ever to get to the bottom of that checklist.

*     *     *

One task at a time, I’ve completed my three major projects. That doesn’t mean my checklist is empty, of course – but it still feels good to have accomplished something, to have helped in some way. For that, if nothing else, I’ll leave Peru happy.