With Vitamin Angels in Peru: A Journey of Mothers and Daughters

With Vitamin Angels in Peru: A Journey of Mothers and Daughters

Posted by Courtney Nichols on

Tag, You're It

At 14,000 feet, it’s not easy for us to breathe, but kids bring out my mother's superhuman powers. Baby goats, baby llamas, green grass, blue skies and intense sun provide the dramatic backdrop for the most epic game of tag I have ever seen. If ever there were a kid whisperer, my mom, known to all as "Baba," is it. Watching her chase this band of giggling kids, complete strangers just 30 minutes before, reminded me why I wanted to bring her with me to this remote Peruvian village high in the Andes. When we started SmartyPants, I knew we wanted to make giving a key component of our mission. It's something my mom taught me. Baba worked to instill in me a sense of community since I was a little girl. She always cared, always saw all children as her children too, so sharing our work with her brings it all full circle -- at 14,000 feet. Thousands of miles from home. In a game of tag.

The Journey

It’s been a long road to get here, in many ways. When the idea for SP emerged five years ago, I was most excited about the opportunity to create a one for one match in the area of micronutrients (nod to Blake Mycoskie of TOMS for his inspiration). I knew that clean water combined with micronutrients could prevent almost 80% of childhood mortality worldwide. My co-founders readily agreed it would be a part of our mission. After some comprehensive research, I went to a tiny office in Santa Barbara in 2009 to meet with the organization that seemed to have the drive and spirit that matched our own. Then comprised of just four people in an office with a very passionate founder, Howard Schiffer, Vitamin Angels had helped over 25mm children get these micronutrients. Finally, years later and high in the Andes mountains, we got the chance to see what it’s all meant. When the opportunity to go into the field came about this spring, I knew who I had to bring: my mom. My mom taught me everything I know about being of service, living from your heart, and empathy. We averted our eyes from steep cliffs on the rutted road, slathered on sunscreen and chewed the coca leaves every day on the drive up into the mountains. We did our best to manage altitude sickness while gearing up for the sometimes hour-long hike to the school. The steep climb provided perspective when we considered that the people whose children attend the school would walk 6 hours to get to the nearest health clinic in some cases. Arriving in the village, we were set to observe Vitamin Angels go about their important work with their incredible partner on the ground, DESEA. Sandra, the founder of DESEA, moved to Peru with her husband Sandy (yep, Sandra and Sandy) and their two children, from Vancouver, with the intention to really make a difference. The whole family has contributed to that goal. The kids attend a local school as well as working alongside their parents as translators. (I am still just trying to get my kids to make their beds!) Adding layers, taking them off. That’s how we spent some part of every day. The temperature swings quickly above 12,000 feet in the Andes and the sun is intense beyond anything I had experienced before. I was easy to spot with my shellacked white skin. An easy target, and as soon as I pull out my phone to review the day's pictures, I am surrounded by a pack of shrieking and giggling 8-year-olds. My kids’ choir performance was a video favorite, provoking great howls of laughter from their Peruvian counterparts.

Moms are Universal

The villages we visited define the word "remote." Cell phones don’t work. They rarely have electricity or running water. They eat potatoes for breakfast and dinner, comprising 98% of the local diet. Occasionally they have an egg or a vegetable to add to the potato soup. At school, children each get a bowl of potato soup at lunch with a package of white crackers provided by the government. No need to guess at the cause of vitamin deficiencies.  One look at the landscape we saw every day -- vast and beautiful but monotonous in its surface -- told us that very little grows above 12,000 feet. We were assigned to interview recipients of Vitamin Angels' donated vitamins. The indigenous people, referred to as Campeñeros, speak Quechua, an ancient language, so we used our young translators to ask and answer questions.
"Interviewing these village women who work so hard and want the best for their children and their futures was a profound experience. The inspiration for me in their words and gratitude for the vitamin supplements will be held in my memory and heart forever." -- Barbara Nichols
Our conversations yielded one glaring headline: we all want the same thing for our families. They want their kids to have a better life than they have. They want them to get an education and to pursue a career that liberates them from the intense physical labor they now perform, and they want them to stay healthy. The nearest hospital can be a 2-7 hour walk. If you are hurt on any day other than Thursday when the truck comes, you walk. They feel the burden of responsibility that comes with parenthood and they yearn for the freedom to work on what they love: the lush and colorful weaving we associate with their culture. Though shy in speaking, these mothers were adamant about the difference the vitamins made in their kids' abilities to focus in school and in staying healthy. They say the prenatal vitamins yielded better nursing and higher birth weights. The answers resonated with what I myself have observed, and what I have heard my own friends and our customers say ever since we started SmartyPants. And the kids? They were the same too. Captivated by drawing and relentless in tag, they took great pleasure in my crushing defeat on the soccer field. They are just like your kids or mine. They can be naughty, they love school and being with their friends. And they dream of what their life will look like one day.

Changing the Landscape

Vitamins really can be life altering for millions of people in need. Vitamin Angels estimates 2 billion people globally are deficient in essential nutrients. When we asked the mothers in Peru to compare their health and the health of their babies when taking prenatals or the health and well being of their kids with or without multivitamins, the evidence was very consistent and clear: Prenatals meant babies with higher birth weights and easier time breastfeeding. Multivitamins and vitamin A mean kids are better able to focus in school and lower rates of illnesses beyond the common cold. In these communities, where there are no resources to grow food, vitamins are considered their own food group. We want people to choose SmartyPants because it is one of the highest quality products on the market, and because it solves real problems in daily life. We committed to our partnership with Vitamin Angels because it was the right thing to do. We left Peru understanding that it matters. It matters what Vitamin Angels does. It matters what SmartyPants does, and it matters what you do. Our choices matter and we are connected to those women in Peru who wake up every day and meet the challenges of being a parent. Just like you. So thank you. Thank you for making what we do possible.

Thank you for the now 490,000 kids and expectant mothers that received a different chance because of you.

To learn more about Vitamin Angels and what they are doing to change the future of millions of families around the globe and in the US, click here.

Closeup

On our last day, we wanted to shoot a short video recapping what we saw and the impact these programs make. Baba, being Baba, could barely get through an answer without choking up, given how moved she was by the grace with which these women handled such challenging circumstances. But that’s what makes her, her and what helped make me, me. Together, we found ourselves 14,000 feet up in the Andes sharing stories about getting kids into bed on time, off to school, and dreaming of a brighter future for us all. There is no them or us. There is only we, and I am humbled and forever grateful for the reminder.

Photo courtesy of © Matt Dayka/Vitamin Angels PE14

 

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