In the Andean highlands of Peru, the Quechua, the indigenous peoples of South America, care for 95 percent of the world’s alpacas. The fiber the animals provide finds its way into luxury yarns and textiles across the globe, but most of the shepherds and their families live their lives in extreme poverty. In 1996 a world-renown Peruvian alpaca breeder asked his American counterpart a simple question: Could the alpaca breeders of the United States help the impoverished children of his hometown of Macusani? The answer was yes.
Quechua shepherds care for 95 percent of the worlds' alpacas. Photo courtesy of Quechua Benefit.
The American was Mike Safley, one of the first alpaca breeders in the United States. He made his first trip to Peru in 1990 at the invitation of the International Alpaca Association. There he met Julio Barreda, a key figure in the Peruvian alpaca industry. Barreda explained the grueling poverty faced by Andean alpaca shepherds and its grim effect on their children: 26 percent died before their first year, 42 percent before reaching the age 10. “The need in Peru is like a broken faucet,” Barreda told Safley. “It never stops dripping.”
In 1996, with the help of Barreda, Safley figured out a way to slow that drip, founding Quechua Benefit, a group whose initial mission was to provide dental care for the children of Macusani. Safley enlisted dentist and fellow alpaca farmer Mario Pedroza to take a team to a Quechua community in the highlands where they spent six days seeing 907 patients. The group’s mission has been expanding ever since. By 2004 it had made multiple trips to the region to provide care and established a mobile dental clinic staffed with Peruvian dentists who now see more than 4,200 patients.
Mobile dental clinics now serve thousands of patients. Photo courtesy of Quechua Benefit.
But the faucet was still dripping. The Quechua live in remote areas, making attendance at school a near impossibility for most children. Barreda and Safley believed that a quality education was the surest way break the cycle of poverty. Barreda passed away in 2009 but Quechua Benefit continued to honor his commitment to improving lives by building Casa Chapi, a boarding house where children from remote areas could live and attend public school in the nearby town of Chivay. Two years later, the Peruvian Ministry of Education approached the group about building a private school on the Casa Chapi campus. “They were impressed by how well our children were doing in their public school classes,” says Safley. “They wanted a private school managed by Quechua Benefit as a model project in the highlands to encourage other nonprofit institutions to follow our example.”
Adding buildings, says Safley, was the “easy” part. The new project caused dramatic change in the organization. “Twenty employees were added to the existing staff and the student body grew from 40 to 75 primary students,” he says. In 2017, a home was created for graduates of Casa Chapi in Arequipa, the nearest major city, allowing 25 students to attend secondary school. “Today there are 100 students in our program,” says Safley. “Each of these kids will go farther and earn more for their families in the future than anyone might have thought possible.”
Thanks to Casa Chapi, Quechua children now have easier access to schooling. Photo courtesy of Quechua Benefit.
One of those kids is Isaac, a student who won first place in a writing contest. Asked by a Casa Chapi volunteer if there was anything he would change if he were made “boss” of the school, Isaac replied that he’d change a lot. Surprised the volunteer asked him to elaborate. “I would make Casa Chapi bigger so more kids could come here and go to school,” he explained.
Speed Reading to Success
Inspired by Isaac, Quechua Benefit began thinking about how to expand learning opportunities beyond the campus. They landed on a simple, scalable goal: get kids reading and comprehending Spanish. “Most children come to Casa Chapi primarily speaking Quechua,” Safley explains. “Once children can read [Spanish] at grade school levels, their earning potential and prospects rise,” he says. “Funding a reading program for Quechua children is one of the most lasting and impactful ways we can participate in breaking the cycle of poverty.”
This method is simple and based on the learning theory that children need to read at a minimum number of words per minute for their short-term memories to retain sufficient information to enable them to comprehend what they are reading. At Casa Chapi, teachers use a stopwatch inexpensive reading books and flash cards to help kids build up their reading speed and in turn, their comprehension. The teacher times the words per minute read and then tests the child’s comprehension of the material.
Reading is one of the most lasting and impactful ways out of the cycle of poverty. Photo courtesy of Quechua Benefit.
Quechua Benefit’s goal is to take “instant libraries” and the reading program to every school in the Colca Valley. “We will systematically adopt schools one by one, train teachers, and teach kids reading comprehension beginning in the first grade,” says Safley. “It will set children up for a lifetime of successful learning.” It’s a goal embraced by the mothers of Casa Chapi students. “Tell them thank you,” one mother says when asked what she’d like to say to the volunteers and donors who keep Casa Chapi going, “for we are mothers who cannot read. Tell them to build more Casa Chapis. I would like that. I would like that a lot."
To find out more about the Quechua Project and how you can help Casa Chapi, visit https://www.quechuabenefit.org/