It is 7:45 a.m. and senior Ben Hernried is climbing into the volunteers’ van on the busy streets of San Burja in Lima, Peru, preparing himself for his first day of volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute.
Working through the Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) volunteer organization, Hernried spent three weeks in July 4500 miles away from home, where he assisted nuns with caring for mentally and physically disabled patients.
As Hernried is driven away, the well-kept buildings are quickly replaced by dingy, dilapidated ones. People pushing carts full of belongings walk the trash-covered streets.
It takes 15 minutes to reach the town of La Victoria, a poverty-stricken area of the city, where the home is located.
A huge food market can be seen just down the way from the home, a fairly large brown building stuck in between rundown ones, where the smell of rotten produce from the market lingers in the morning air, intensified by the humidity.
“We (Hernried and the other volunteers) were told to walk across the street to the home in a group,” Hernried said. “It was all about ‘the power of numbers’ to protect us.”
But only after being ushered through the only door into the home does Hernried experience the full effect of being in a different country.
Light blue walls encircle a courtyard where the stench of the garbage outside can still be smelled.
Peruvian Christmas songs, despite it being July, flow through the corridors while the sounds of children playing upstairs are drowned out by car horns and shouting from the street.
The home had a variety of patients, some in wheelchairs while others were required to stay in bed.
“I was shocked at first to see all the patients in the home, mainly because these people were abandoned by their own families,” Hernried said. “I definitely felt out of place.”
After an introduction and a walk-through of the home, Hernried starts his first day by working downstairs with the adult male patients, helping a man named Papacho make flags for the Peruvian Independence Day celebration planned later that month.
According to Hernried, the patients were really happy that he was trying to communicate with them despite the language barrier.
Having taken Latin in high school, Hernried knew only a few words and phrases in Spanish.
The home itself consisted of 82 adult males (females are sent to a different facility at the age of 17) and 50 children (both boys and girls) who were separated between the first floor and the second floor.
Once the flags are finished, Hernried is told to go straight to the occupational therapy room. There he helps patients walk and demonstrates wrist and ankle exercises to keep the patients moving.
“It’s something that I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to help with (in a home) in the U.S.,” Hernried said.
In preparation for the Independence Day celebration he also watched the physical therapists teach the children a Peruvian dance in which the boys wore special hats and the girls wore colorful dresses.
But Hernried didn’t usually have the time to take a breather during the day.
Without a break Hernried leaves the occupational room, and the nuns ask him in broken English to go and fold laundry.
According to Hernried, the home was fairly clean but lacked some of the technology and medical devices that American hospitals have, such as feeding tubes.
Some of the patients had them but others were hand fed.
Therefore, one of Hernried’s primary jobs was to feed the patients who couldn’t feed themselves.
Around 11 o’clock the men begin to congregate in a mess hall to eat, while the kids stay in their rooms for meal time.
As the smell of food being prepared by the nuns wafts through the hallways of the home, it veils the smell of the trash.
Once the food is fully prepared, Hernried is instructed to feed some of the patients their lunch, which consists of meat and vegetables.
Feeding another person proved to be more difficult than Hernried expected. Some children refused to eat for reasons that he didn’t understand.
After lunch, Hernried is instructed by the nuns to clean the whole mess hall, again without any breaks.
Hernried’s days proved to be more stressful than he imagined, working five-hour days at the home, waking up at 6:30 a.m. and coming back to his dorm room in San Burja between noon and 1 o’clock.
However, Hernried and the other volunteers had to wake up extra early on their last day to prepare for the Independence Day celebration.
“It’s not like the Fourth of July,” Hernried said. “It’s a lot more intense. These people love their country. They take (the celebration) a lot more seriously than we do.”
Hernried experienced only a small portion of the festivities, missing the main ceremony, since all of Lima celebrated the day after he left Peru.
But the home wanted to make sure that the patients had a celebration of their own.
On the day of the celebration, colorful decorations were hung all around the home and could be seen as the patients were moved into the courtyard.
There everyone enjoyed the children dancing and singing, as some of the patients talked about their country.
Exhausted, Hernried finishes cleaning the mess hall and his first day at the home.
He walks across the street in the group of other volunteers to the van, still obeying the ‘“power in numbers” rule.
Once he arrives at his dorm, Hernried takes a small “power nap” before he eats his lunch, preparing himself for the next 10 days.
Since the volunteers were split up once they arrived at the home, Hernried had to fend for himself for the first few days.
“I wasn’t uncomfortable, I was just frustrated,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
“Eventually though we all found our place.”