By Mike Safley
The saw-tooth spine of the Andes snakes down the western side of South America. The mountains are 100 million years old, created when the Nazca Tectonic plate slipped under its South American cousin. The highest Andean peak is Mount Aconcagua in Argentina at 22,000 feet. The airport in Juliaca, Peru, is the gateway to a vast plain known as the altiplano, which abuts the mountain range and rests, largely level, at 12,000 feet. The plane circles once and floats through the thin air onto the tarmac. Out come fifteen gringos from as far away as Jordan and as close as Atlanta Georgia. The youngest member of the mission is thirteen years old, but of everyone on that tarmac, she has spent the most time in Peru.
I remember a time in 2004 when Lindy Huber and I were on our way to Macusani. We were talking about our kids when Lindy casually mentioned that she and her husband Paul would like to adopt a little girl, who would be a sister to their son Robert. A lovely, quiet little girl from the orphanage Mosoq Runa flashed before my eyes. I had come to know her on several previous trips to Macusani with Quechua Benefit. From the first time I met this tiny, sliver of a girl with the intense gaze, she always seemed to be either at my feet, next to me when I sat down, or crawling up on my lap. She rarely spoke. I told Lindy that I knew the perfect daughter. Mirian Hermelinda Quispe Cruz was eight years old by the time Lindy made her way to Macusani. I introduced her to Mirian.
Adoption by foreigners is difficult in Peru. The government does not allow the new parents to select a child. Special needs children are first on the adoption list, and extended families often complicate the adoption process. Yet through God’s grace and the Huber’s perseverance, the adoption, which took a year to complete, was successful. Now, five years later, Mirian is making the trip back to Peru with her mother Lindy, who is both excited and apprehensive.
Returning to Peru is a big step for Mirian. Her childhood memories are locked away in those final moments when she moved from the only home she had known, in one of the most remote high altitude villages on earth, and was transplanted to an alpaca farm in Kentucky—about as far from her old home as a Quechua child could be. Lindy worries, as any mom would, about Mirian’s safety and the inevitable untapped emotions she certainly will encounter.
The Mission team’s bus rolls into Macusani as the shadows deepen in the evening sky. It is Mirian’s fourteenth birthday and Dr Willy had been busy organizing a surprise. The table at the front of Mosoq Runa’s study hall is decked out with two cakes—one vanilla and one chocolate — lots of candles and crepe paper banners that spell out happy birthday. More than fifty people congratulate her as she struggles to remember her Spanish.
A hard worker, Mirian has been laboring away in the pharmacy for the past five days. She is a poised and self-confident young lady, but she is very quick to wrap her arms around Lindy in moments of indecision.
The morning of the first clinic day in Macusani, Mirian’s uncle comes to the hotel as the team is finishing breakfast. She has fond memories of her uncle who she lived with for a short time. But she hesitates, burying her head into Lindy’s chest and saying, “I don’t want to see him right now, maybe later.” Mirian has been on a monumental journey, from adolescence to her teens, from Macusani to Kentucky and back again. But the circle is not quite closed.
What happens next illustrates how two worlds can become one, and Mirian proves that you really can come home again. Service to others far less privileged than you changes hearts and opens new worlds. Mirian has seen both dimensions.
When the young girl walks through the doorway of the exam room, Dr. Mary Beth Anderson has no idea what a special day this will be. Mary Beth, a pathologist, has always wanted to take part in a mission trip. She jumped at the chance to go to Peru with Quechua Benefit. Her husband Jim, an orthopedist, is a bit more circumspect when asked why he came, “It was my wife’s idea,” he says. It didn’t take long for the group to realize that Jim, who formed a conga line at Mirian’s birthday party, has a very dry sense of humor. There is no doubt about his enthusiasm for the mission.
Mary Beth begins the exam of Katarina Vanessa Sullca Quispe, a fourteen-year-old with shy bright eyes that move quickly between her mother and the doctor. Betty Uelida Quispe Fernandez, the 35-year-old mother of three, smiles encouragement at her daughter. The girl complains of a stomach ache, but Mary Beth immediately realizes that the girl is hard of hearing. She prescribes a worm pill for the stomach ache but asks her mother about the hearing problem. Betty, with a lovely, wide smile, has been a construction worker, made handicrafts, and worked as a security guard in the nine years since her husband left. She is currently employed selling tickets at the bus station.
Katarina began to lose her hearing in the third grade. By the time she graduated from primary school, words had to be shouted to be heard only a foot away. They made the trip to nearby Juliaca for tests, and the doctor told them that Katarina needs hearing aids that are only available in Arequipa. The family has never been to Arequipa and the cost of $1000, for a person making less than that in an entire year, is beyond their reach. Katarina’s hearing continues to worsen.
Katarina enrolled in high school, but didn’t want to go. Her mother insisted, but Katarina feared her classmate’s cruel taunts about her hearing. She coped by leaving for school in the morning, hiding until school was over, and then returning home. Betty prayed, putting her faith in God to provide for her daughter. Mother and daughter agreed that Katarina would study to become a beautician—no high school diploma is needed to qualify for beauty school. When Katarina walked into Mary Beth’s exam room that day, it had been two years since she had been to school.
Mary Beth takes Jim aside and whispers the story of the slight, teenage girl sitting on her exam table with shoulders hunched and head down in an apparent effort to disappear. Jim agrees to help Katarina and Mary Beth keeps their names. Later that afternoon, she asks if Quechua Benefit will assist them in helping the girl, with the perfectly braided hair, whose mother had placed her faith in God.
Quechua Benefit has long helped special needs patients brought to us by the Sisters of the Cross or those who have found their way to the dental clinics. The highlands lack the high-tech medical facilities that Americans take for granted. Most of the referrals are made to doctors in Arequipa, where Dr. Willy, Quechua Benefit’s full-time dentist, lives. Quechua Benefit agrees to help, but there is a problem. Mary Beth has forgotten to get an address or phone number for Betty and Katarina. Armed only with their names, Mary Beth seeks out Dr. Willy who enlists the help of the local radio station. The names are broadcast but no one responds.
Mary Beth suddenly realizes that Katarina has Quispe as part of her name. She knows, from her friendship with Mirian and Lindy, that Mirian’s Quechua name was the same. “Quispe” is like “Smith” in English, but when Mirian is shown the name, she said, “I think Katarina is my cousin, but I don’t know where she lives.” Later that evening, under a pool of light given off by a lone street lamp, Katarina spots her cousin Mirian walking in the main square with Lindy. She runs to embrace Mirian, amazed to see her after five years. Lindy is able to deliver Mary Beth’s message to return to the clinic the next morning.
Katarina and her mother appear early for their meeting with Mary Beth and Jim. They are thrilled to hear that Dr. Willy is inviting them to come to Arequipa as Quechua Benefit’s guests. The Andersons will pay for the hearing aids. Tears flow. I ask Katarina if she will go back to school, “No,” she answers in a whisper, “The kids are too mean.” Her mother points out that she could go to the other high school where the kids don’t know her. “That might be alright,” she says shyly, as her mother wipes away her tears and agrees that this may be a good time to “pray for a new plan.”
The Mission team has been back in the United States for less than a month when Dr Willy sends word that Katarina had seen a specialist in Arequipa. It turns out that she is a perfect candidate for hearing aids. The plastic ear molds are poured, and she is fitted with her new devices. The small miracle of renewed hearing and restored confidence is complete. Lindy reports that Mirian’s teachers have been impressed by what they term “a surge of self esteem” since she returned home. The name on her US passport is Mirian Elisa Huber. The circle is closed with love; there is room in it for two worlds, each at peace with the other. Now you know why hearts change when people volunteer, fly to a foreign land and meet people of a different color, a different language and a different reality.