As epiphany moments go, this one was way up there.
Susie Prescott’s life had come crashing around her ears after her 30 year marriage ended.
But rather than crawl into a corner and lick her wounds, Susie who was then 53, came out fighting. The North Shore mother of four packed her bags, bid farewell to the kids (the youngest who was then 18) and headed for Peru for a year.
Sydney’s loss was Peru’s gain, and fast forward ten years, Susie has transformed the lives of hundreds of impoverished, abused Peruvian kids by helping regenerate a slum school with dirt floors and a fly-blown kitchen into a proud, four storey educational institution.
Not bad for a girl who grew up in Wahroonga and who, when she first set foot on Peruvian soil in 2006, had no more Spanish than the occasional ‘gracias’. Her remarkable journey is documented in her book Where Hummingbirds Sing*, chronicling her ten-year journey from French teacher and mum, to feisty, passionate advocate for the slum-dwelling children of Colegio Elohim in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city.
But rather than dash to the other side of the world, why not just stay in Sydney to recalibrate her life? “I’d always wanted to make a difference and go out into the world. I went trekking there with friends sIx months after my marriage split in 2006, and realised then, being a language teacher, I could make a difference.
“Of course my lack of Spanish was always a huge challenge but it was also an attraction – I could my skills as an educator and to fend for myself. That was very appealing.”
To say Susie’s decade so far in this volcano-ringed city with its endemic street crime, poverty and vibrant culture has been eventful would be understating things.
She has, together with her Peruvian partner Antonio, been held hostage (blindfolded under a blanket) in a terrifying 17 hour ordeal which started by “hailing the wrong type of taxi” and ended with them parting with all their credit cards and bank account funds.
She has witnessed horrific levels of child abuse and neglect, with children coming to school shoeless and starving, girls of 14 becoming mothers, institutional sexism and foreign corruption; she has grappled with significant health issues and endured extremes of weather with the Peruvian sun and high altitudes wreaking havoc on skin and health of those not used to the extremes.
“We’re up at 2,200 metres up here,” says Susie now 63, “and the sun is brutal with huge ultraviolet rays due to the hole in the ozone layer. That combined with the altitude and the dust is exhausting. I get very tired and faint a lot.”
Torn between the familiarity of home and family, and the excitement and challenge of surviving and making difference in a strange and wonderful foreign land, is a struggle frequently evident in Susie’s early years there. But then things started to fall into place – she joins a gym, she starts a relationship, she starts to master Castellano, she embraces the crazy, hypnotic forms of local dance to keep fit, and she puts down roots by renting an apartment.
Most proud of her eventful time there though, is the huge feat of turning a struggling slum school of just two classes into a modern, four storey school accommodating 250 primary and secondary children and 12 teachers.
This is thanks in part to Susie’s trips back to Sydney which have raised $15,000, helping to complete the walls and roof of the school’s second storey.
“I am also organising an English curriculum, and teaching Peruvian and English, as well as approach people from all over the world for funds to run the school.
“Right now we need a benefactor to sponsor a teacher – they can come here and see the area and the school for themselves. They’re paid just $6,000 a year and we need sponsors to pay for more teachers.”
She also darts back and forth between Arequipa and Sydney to see her beloved children now aged between 28 and 35, and living and working all over the world.
The book is a window on the colourful world of Peruvian culture – from the regular festivals featuring wildly coloured traditional costumes and uninhibited dancing and signing, to the thrill of the bullfight and the shocking corruption from outside charities wanting to take over the school. Home is a rented room overlooking a garden with a jacaranda tree populated by hummingbirds. in a house shared with an elderly Peruvian lady.
Three of Susie’s four children have all been to visit their mum. “When I first left Sydney they all gave me their blessing and said I should do what makes me happy. Now they’ve seen me here and seen the school, they get what I’m doing.
“On days when I feel homesick for them and for Sydney, I remind myself that I’ve started something and cannot leave. The children at the school have given me a new purpose in life and I am here for the duration – however long that is.”
- Proceeds from the sale of the book go to the school Colegio Elohim in Arequipa. Purchase the book at any bookstore or at www.xoum.com.au
- To make a donation, go to www.elohimarequipa.org.