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Making a Difference: Nonprofit assisting families in the high Andes mountains of Peru

By Darrel Hammon - Special to the Daily Herald | Jun 8, 2024
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Debbie Goodson is shown in Peru. Goodson began the Andes Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of people living in the remote Andes region of Peru.
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Students participate in a learning activity in the village of Pampacorral, Peru. The Andes Education Fund, based in Utah, works to improve the education of students in the remote Andes region of Peru.
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Volunteers with the Andes Education Fund helped build a greenhouse for villagers living at an elevation of 12,500 feet in the Andes mountains.

Debbie Goodson, a Spanish major and teacher, had a goal to visit Machu Picchu when she turned 60. She accomplished her goal and was so impressed with what she experienced, she decided to return and explore Peru. The next year, she persuaded her siblings to go with her, and she loved it even more.

Once Goodson retired from teaching at the Waterford School in Utah, she traveled to Cusco, lived with a family for five weeks, taught English to local children, and explored the country and the surrounding areas, from Lake Titicaca to the Amazon.

As she was admiring the view from the Sacred Valley, she asked a simple question: “What’s on the other side of those mountains?” She decided to find out.

Her trip to the other side of those mountains — which included traversing a pass at 14,500 feet — introduced her to the far-flung village of Pampacorral, located at 12,500 feet above sea level.

“There I discovered that the students did not usually speak Spanish but spoke Quechua in their homes,” Goodson said. “I started taking just a few soccer balls and reams of paper, and it grew from there.”

As she traveled to more distant towns and villages inhabited mainly by Andinos or Quechua people, she discovered there were great needs. “It became very apparent that the teachers lacked basic supplies like books, paper and pencils,” Goodson said. “I began to formulate a service project in which I could enrich small schools with much-needed supplies and with some art and music.”

Thus began the Andes Education Fund, which has the mission to “improve the education of remote, impoverished schools located in the Andes Region of Peru” (www.andesedfund.org). At the beginning, Goodson returned to Peru once a year, but then she began going each spring and fall. Since COVID, she has gone once a year, usually in the spring.

“I really wanted to help schools that were not already receiving help from large NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). I didn’t want to put on Band-Aids,” she said. “I wanted to stay, see the changes and watch students go through elementary school to graduation.”

The Andes Education Fund provides teacher aids that cannot be purchased in Cusco like math games, art and music supplies, crafts for the students and word puzzles. Plus, Goodson and volunteers buy many necessities in Cusco like notebooks, paper, pens, pencils, crayons, colored pencils, maps, globes, and — always — soccer balls and volleyballs.

Since Goodson is a tennis aficionado, she decided this past year to take a suitcase full of used tennis balls to Peru. “While there are no tennis courts in the villages, the kids knew exactly what to do with any type of ball,” Goodson said. “The tennis balls were dead and had no bounce, but they bounced very high at 13,000 feet. They had so much fun with them.”

Like any nonprofit operating on a limited budget, volunteers are extremely important. “Our volunteers have ranged from college students to family, to friends and friends of friends,” Goodson said. “Many of my friends offer to carry suitcases for me, which are often filled with scarves made of fleece,” she said. “Everyone there appreciates something warm, colorful and new. Many of the volunteers have returned because they want to expose a family member or another friend to the schools and what we are doing.”

The volunteers learn things they do not expect. Goodson said one volunteer asked one of the teachers how he takes care of unruly children. He looked perplexed but replied, “We never have children who act up or are impolite in any way. Some of them have to walk 4 miles to get to school, and it is a privilege to come to school.”

Volunteers can still be of service even if they don’t know the language. “Although the vast majority of volunteers do not speak Spanish, they can still help make a great difference in the students’ lives,” Goodson said. “Art transcends language, and the children are quick and learn English. Plus, since it is an adventure off the beaten path, many friends sign up to go and subsequently donate money to help the schools.”

Volunteer Diane Cannon went to Peru after her daughter went as a University of Utah student. “When my daughter returned from her trip and told me about the fun experience she had had, I wanted to go,” Cannon said. “I had never done anything like this before. It was a great experience. I loved getting to know how these people live and what they do. Once I returned, I convinced my husband to go with me the second time.”

Over time, Goodson and others who accompanied her have built a variety of facilities, including classrooms, libraries, kitchens and bathrooms in two of the more remote schools. “The previous kitchen facilities were lean-to sheds, and the bathrooms, which often included the bushes, were not sanitary,” Goodson said. “I knew I needed to help.”

Despite the challenge of growing things at 12,500 feet, Goodson decided that one of the schools needed a greenhouse. “I felt the students needed to understand the value of vegetables in their diets,” Goodson said. “Once the greenhouse was built, the teachers and the students care for the plants. Having a greenhouse is definitely a bonus.”

Goodson relies on the schools’ principals and teachers to tell her what their needs are. Additionally, for 12 years she has had a trusted driver, Daniel Palomino, who lives in Cusco and speaks Spanish, Quechua and passable English. “He informs me of the customs and needs of the locals who live remotely,” Goodson said, “as well as helps with the enormous amount of shopping that takes place before we go to the schools.”

When Goodson first began going to the schools and the villages, she felt like she was an outsider. With time, however, she became one of them.

“Upon first going to the schools and villages, we were outsiders, and they thought that we would probably not return after our first visit, much like other groups,” Goodson said. “But after more than 20 years, they not only know me well but are welcoming with lots of abrazos (hugs) and trust.”

Parents are big allies at the remote schools. “I have also realized that parents, universally, value education,” Goodson said. “These parents sacrifice much to make sure their children attend school each day. The mothers volunteer to come and prepare a hot meal daily for each student with money provided by the fund. I remember seeing a dad leading his small horse with his first-grade daughter on the back down the mountain so she could be at school.”

A key to success in Pampacorral was a principal and his wife. When the Andes Education Fund began its work at the school, it taught grades one through six. After grade six, the students returned to work in the potato fields or helping with the llama and alpaca herds. Through the principal’s ingenuity and help, new grades were eventually added.

“I remember when grade seven was added,” Goodson said. “The students came with great expectation and excitement. Now, 20 years later, the students not only complete grade 11, but continue on to study at universities.”

When Goodson returned to Peru this past year, the students who were first graders when she began helping were now attending the university in Cusco but had returned during a break to help their parents plant potatoes. Goodson posed a question to the parents: “How do you feel about your children being able to obtain an education, go to school or to work?” They answered, “We are glad they have options, but we do not want them to forget their traditions, and we want them to come home.”

Goodson’s mantra has always been service. “I have always valued service because serving goes both ways,” she said. “Those who are served are helped and those who give of themselves, and of their time and talents, grow by enlarging their personal horizons while receiving enormous satisfaction. As a wise man once said, ‘It is by serving that we learn how to serve. The more we serve our fellow man, the more substance there is to our souls.’ It’s a win-win!” she said.

For more information about the Andes Education Fund or to donate, send an email to debratgoodson@gmail.com.

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