The children were beautiful—eyes shining, hair combed, clean white shirts and gray school uniforms. It was clear that their parents and neighbors wanted them to do well in their classes, here in this simple concrete school deep in the Peruvian Amazon.
It might not have been that way, except for the persistence of an American teacher and a cadre of volunteers who offered the children some simple gifts, over and over, until their lives were changed.
School supplies. Pencils, rulers, notebooks filled with writing paper and graph paper, scissors, colored pens, and more. Also chalk, books, and assorted teaching aids for their classrooms.
Who knew such items could make a difference? I didn’t—not, at least, on so grand a scale. And in seeing what’s possible through a small but significant act, offered consistently through the years, I’ve realized anew what I too often forget: It’s the simple acts of kindness that have the most power to change lives.
I wish I could remember that. I wish it was always my first thought--selfless service can be really, really simple--rather than assuming it takes grandiose ideas and expensive programs to make this world a better place.
This program began when an American science teacher went to the Peruvian Amazon on vacation, fell in love with its landscape and people, and decided to stay. Pamela Bucur de Arevalo soon found herself on the board of directors for CONAPAC, a nonprofit organization formed by the tour company Explorama Lodges to help protect uncut tracks of jungle.
CONAPAC’s founders believed that if the residents of remote villages along the river were well educated, they’d make better decisions about preserving their natural resources. So in 1993, under Bucur’s leadership, they initiated the Adopt-A-School program, through which volunteers deliver to jungle children the simple tools they need to learn.
It doesn’t sound like much. But while public education is free in Peru, parents must pay for all their children’s supplies. The cost was more than many families could afford. As a result, large numbers of school-age children were not attending classes.
Bucur negotiated an agreement with 10 jungle schools: Volunteers would bring supplies to the villages for the children to use in their classes if the village leaders would agree to preserve the acres of forest over which they held dominion. The forest tracts would be held intact, rather than being cut by lumber companies.
Thinking back, I remember how excited I would become every August when my mom would take me to buy my school supplies. The evening before school opened, I’d arrange everything in a neat pile, ready to go. Having a few nice things to take to class helped make me an eager student.
The same thing, it turns out, is true of jungle children. Bucur’s brainchild grew, and grew, until today the Adopt-A-School program directly helps more than 3,000 students in 54 communities and 108 schools. It also offers teacher trainings and enrichment programs. Each April volunteers from many different countries travel to the jungle to help organize and distribute supplies. They meet students, hand-delivering pretty, wrapped packages to every one. They’re greeted in each village with a celebration that includes dance presentations, songs, and heartfelt thanks. Many volunteers have described their participation in the program as life-changing.
CONAPAC provides other services too. It operates a heavily used jungle library, one of the region’s few sources of books. And it runs a highly effective program that has brought clean drinking water to remote jungle communities through the construction of simple, ingenious water treatment plants.
It is here that I must stop and issue a mea culpa. I visited some of CONAPAC’s partner communities in 2008 and again in 2012. Both times I was more interested in learning about the organization’s efforts to build water plants than its Adopt-A-School programs. Giving children and their parents access to drinking water with no pollutants or parasites: Surely that was more important than simply distributing school supplies. Wasn’t it?
But recently I heard my friend Nancy Cowal describe her experience last spring with Adopt-A-School. Nancy has volunteered with CONAPAC for several decades. Each spring she travels to Iquitos to help Pam Bucur and other staff members with the mammoth task of organizing school supplies and volunteer schedules for distribution week.
This past spring, Nancy told me, during a trip to a community that’s participated in Adopt-A-School since the beginning, a village leader gave a speech that showed how deeply effective the program has been. He, too, had participated in Adopt-A-School as a child. He said the program’s emphasis on the importance of education had been a key reason he had learned achieved enough to become a leader of the settlement. In another community, a mother presented an Adopt-A-School donor with a painting done by her son, who’d gone on to study art at a college in Iquitos. She said CONAPAC’s influence and the donor’s generosity had made it possible for her son to succeed.
In those villages and others the message was the same: We would not be who we are without Adopt-A-School. You helped show us that our children deserve to be educated. You have changed our lives for the better in so many ways.
Nancy’s words made me see how wrong I’d been to weigh the importance of one service project over another. And she made me realize anew: It’s not just the big, sexy service programs that make a difference.
Regardless of whether they’re simple or grand, I can never know exactly how effective my efforts will be in helping others. I just know I need to offer help, over and over, in whatever form I can.
You can learn more about CONAPAC’s efforts to help jungle communities and preserve uncut forest at www.conapac.org