When author Hope Edelman and I started planning a trip that would take 16 of our readers to Peru to work in an orphanage and hike the Andes, we ignored concerns about bringing together a group of women who didn’t know each other and convinced ourselves it was a great idea. Our confidence bubbled up partly because our readers share an important bond that links them to each other and us: We’ve all lost our mothers, and many of us have lost our fathers, too. It also seemed like an exciting way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hope’s pioneering book, Motherless Daughters. But mostly, we just took an enormous leap of faith.
The experience unfolded unlike anything I expected. It was better and far more meaningful. Women from across the United States and Canada—and from as far away as Thailand and Dubai—joined us for a nearly two-week odyssey called “Turning Loss Into Service: Motherless Daughters & Parentless Parents Unite to Help Orphans in Peru.” The trip combined a challenging trekking experience—hiking as high as 15,373 feet—and doing several days of service work at the Ninos del Sol children’s home about two hours outside Cusco. Because we had no experience putting a plan like this into action, we turned the logistics over to Trekking for Kids, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that leads purpose-driven treks to improve the lives of orphans around the world. This was the organization’s first custom trek in its nearly 10-year history.
To earn a spot on the trip, each participant agreed to raise a minimum of $1,000 to fund critical initiatives at Ninos del Sol. In all, our group of motherless daughters and parentless parents raised $30,000—enough money to support the building of a new, sustainable greenhouse; the purchase of two vehicles to bring the children to and from school; clothing; shoes; sheets and pillowcases; dishes and cups; and a solar hot water heater, among many other necessities.
For me, one of the most meaningful aspects of fundraising was the very real experiences we were able to share with the 23 children who call this warm, gentle place home: We didn’t just buy new linens; we helped each boy and girl make their bed. We didn’t just purchase new dishes and cups; we broke bread at the same table and enjoyed each other’s company. We didn’t just write a check so somebody else could build a greenhouse; we got on our knees and lent our hands to create it.
As writers, the opportunity to bring readers together for such a significant, shared event was powerful. “These women understand each other at a very deep, intuitive level because they've been shaped by similar life experiences,” reflected Edelman. “When they combined that sense of connection with service, it helped them take what they’d learned from traumatic circumstances, put it to use for motherless children, and grow in very positive ways.”
The days we spent hiking were rewarding for different reasons. Trekking at altitude is no easy feat, and each woman pushed herself harder than she thought possible. Several women fought dizziness, upset stomachs, and vomiting. One woman had to be given oxygen at 12,500 feet, while another likely broke two of her toes before we set foot on the trail—and kept going anyway. At certain points, I had so much trouble breathing I found myself gasping for air like a dying fish. But I think pushing through all that pain and fear was worth it: We faced down peaks and cliffs and shook up our comfort zones. We felt strong and empowered and hugged each other in celebration and recognition of our emotional and physical accomplishments. After all, we not only survived the deaths of our parents, we managed to stand where no car, train, or bus could take us.
It’s not often writers and readers join forces for such an intimate, communal experience. Hope and I can’t think of another effort quite like it. Day after day, a group of strangers ate, bathed, worked in the dirt, and hiked together—sharing what felt like a lifetime of laughs and tears. There’s no doubt the trip was a risk. The women may not have gotten along as well as they did, Trekking for Kids could have been the wrong partners for us, and our time at Ninos del Sol may not have been as rewarding. But in every respect the adventure worked out better than we hoped. Looking back, our readers gave us all the faith we needed to pursue this endeavor. Their passion for turning their losses into service assured us the leap would be worth it.