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  • Writer's pictureGlenn Cohen

Volunteering at Peru orphanage

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

We decided that volunteering would be an important component in our family journey around the world. Tourist volunteering is a phenomenon which has been gaining popularity in recent years, and has been dubbed "voluntourism". Israel has traditionally been the host to many international volunteers on kibbutzim as well as archeological digs. There are many organizations that arrange for tourists to contribute from their time and skills in far away villages, farms, and orphanages. Tourist are actually willing to pay for the privilege of having a meaningful experience. This is a good example of the paradox of giving- people understand that the act of giving leaves us with more, not less. The Dalai Lahma recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times whose bottom line is, "We need to be needed".

In Peru we contacted " Ninos del Sol" which is a farm and orphanage in the Sacred Valley. There is an amazing couple who run the farm and act as surrogate parents to 14 orphans ("the Ninios"). Avishai Perlman has a combination of hardiness and ingenuity which he gained from his kibbutz upbringing, together with spirituality and kindness which he practices as a meditation teacher. He married Viviana, who is a Peruvian woman with a doctorate on spiritual psychology, and a shaman healer. Four years ago they found their calling and decided to dedicate themselves to caring for these Ninios who had suffered a host of early traumas. They built this farm where they grow crops, livestock and run a yoga, meditation and healing center. The Ninios live on the farm, and independently manage their own lives with the supervision of Avishai, Viviana and the volunteer staff who is supposed to serve for at least a six month period. They decided to take a chance with us and allowed our family to volunteer for two weeks. This ended up being a win-win situation and we left chock full of experiences and satisfaction from our stay with them. We found a nice balance between volunteering, studying, family time, quality time with the Ninios, and holiday celebrations.

Volunteering: We had arrived on the farm equipped with 30 years of formal education, 50 years of work experience in the field of psychology and organizational consulting, highly skilled and motivated to contribute to their organization in many capacities. Orit was asked to work in the kitchen, and I as a gardener on the farm. It was actually quite liberating to strip ourselves of our ego, and connect to a true desire to serve. With this in mind, we marched into the kitchen and the garden shed, ready and raring to go. On the Jewish New Year's eve, our entire family spent 8 hours in the kitchen preparing a festive meal for 25 people. For our kids to spend an entire day peeling, cooking, frying and baking, is no less than a miracle. Viviana told us that the Ninios were very impressed by our teamwork and that she told them that this is how a family should operate, hoping that they would learn from us. The funny thing is that when we first arrived and saw how the Ninios worked so nicely in the kitchen, we told our children that they should learn from them how a family should operate! The conversation with Vivianna emphasized the mutuality in volunteering. Since our family was exposed to the Ninios, our children not only clear their plates, but they also wash them, which is in itself a huge accomplishment.

Every other day I worked with my children in the garden. They tried every possible evasion technique from the physical labor, and even preferred studying over gardening. During the other days of the week I had the opportunity to fill in for the children's school bus driver who fell sick. Avishai asked if I would feel comfortable driving a 1970 model minibus without power steering, and I told him that as a former air force helicopter pilot, it should be a piece of cake. It was quite the adventure to drive the Ninios every morning to their school which was half an hour from the farm, partially along a narrow dirt road above an abyss, while the rest entailed avoiding oncoming chicken playing rickshaw drivers. I was quite pleased with myself until I bashed the minibus as I reversed out of the farm one morning. Luckily Avishai was gracious about it.


As I already mentioned in post "Can you do being?" (link), it is quite a challenge to homeschool, which demands super natural patience. We feel that it really pushes our parental envelope and sometimes want to tear our hair out when we find ourselves spending an entire day with the kids attempting to help them finish three pages in their math book! It is very frustrating, but we keep reminding ourselves that one must not lose faith. Our frustrated teacher's toolbox has been augmented with a Pavlovian equation "3 pages= 1 snack"

Family Time:

The time on the farm was another opportunity for quality time after the rugged, tiring trek. We continued the tradition of family meetings which concluded each chapter and open up the following one. We hope to continue this tradition when we return home, with a weekly family meeting over Shabbat. So far the family talks have been quite frustrating, as the image of the "barefoot shoemaker" comes to mind. A psychologist and group facilitator who can't get their kids to share experiences and feelings without bickering. During this period on the farm, we seem to have discovered the formula for a successful family conversation, again with the help of snacks. The meeting has been turned into a "snack fest" instead of an archeological dig. The idea is to open and close with a snack, while squeezing in some meaningful conversation and content before the natives get restless. This formula even got the kids to discuss the meaning of the upcoming Jewish New Year as well as a personal declaration of something to improve. It was also a pleasure to have the kids wake up and come cuddle with us instead of heading straight for a screen fix like most addicts their age.

Quality time with the Ninios

Between the studies and the volunteering tasks, our kids swung with the Ninios in the tree house and ran amok while staging water fights with and against them. Despite the language barrier, the kids bonded and there were even a few girls who had the hots for Yali. Once a week we would pile up the minibus with kids, food and games, and I would drive off in pursuit of Avishai's pick up truck along a dusty road to a pristine mountain lake where we would have a picnic and play ball. Some of the kids really touched our heart and parting was not easy, especially from Solidad, an eight year old girl who Orit would bath and dress and was very close with Noga. The Ninios especially enjoyed spending time with Orit in the kitchen, cooking and baking. The highlight of the week was the baking of the Sabbath Challah bread which flooded the orphanage with a warm and sweet fragrance in honor of the holy Sabbath.



The Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur are holy days which we had planned on spending at the Chabad House in Cusco with hundreds of Israeli backpackers, but due to Avishai and Vivianna's deep connection to Jewish tradition, we decided to celebrate with them at the orphanage. Since they adopted the Ninios, they expose them to Jewish culture and Hebrew language. Imagine a group of Peruvian orphans from Quechwa origin, sitting around a long table, singing Sabbath songs, answering Amen to Hebrew blessings, devouring the sweet challah bread, and blowing a ram's shofar horn together with Avishai. Despite the distance from Israel and the traditional celebration of the Jewish holidays, the Ninios were a magical cross cultural bridge which connected us to much higher values and a sense of oneness with the creator and all humankind.

Avishai and Vivianne are two of the most remarkable people we've met on our journey, and will always serve as powerful models of the art of giving.

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