Giving Back

From Drafting Table to Mud Bricks in Cusco

by Steven Learner
The salt fields of Maras in the Sacred Valley. Photos by Steven Learner.

CUSCO, PERU – Over the past year, I have been looking for ways to contribute. To do something more than my usual work designing residences and galleries in New York. I closed my office for the Christmas/New Year's holiday and promised myself it would be an opportunity to try something new, to look beyond my own small world and volunteer my time.

Starting with a simple web search of "volunteer + vacation," I came across many organizations that offered these kinds of trips, but only a few that fit my schedule and my temperament. I focused on what I felt I could handle and would benefit me personally. Working with street children in India would break my heart, I don't have any interest in saving sea turtles, and trips to Costa Rica seemed too teen travel.

I found an organization called Globe Aware that focuses on environmental responsibility and provides volunteers all over the world. They had a one-week program in Cusco, one of the most visited cities in Peru, that involved building and design. I volunteered alone but was part of a team of four others from DC, LA, Atlanta, and Miami. We met in Peru. We were all in our 30s-50s, from varied professions, all experienced travelers, all interested in being engaged and giving something to the world.

A cloudy day on Machu Picchu.
The builders hoist their materials; the hoops court.

Peru is vast, and many small villages are without schools. So children go to the cities to attend school and live in albergues — youth hostels of a sort — during the academic year. The albergue we were assigned to is home to about 25 kids, aged 9-15. Given my architectural training and passable Spanish, I figured I was well suited to the project of building a greenhouse that would provide fruits and vegetables for the children's meals. It was fantastic how in a few days we became a team and I learned a new way to work — without extensive pre-planning, on-demand materials, or specific tools for each task. I had to adapt to where I was and to our goals. That we were providing a structure meant everything; that it was less than perfectly constructed meant nothing.

We lived as the kids lived, which meant a week of cold showers, communal meals, and bunk beds. I ate fried yucca and roasted guinea pig, the local delicacy. I slept in my clothes for warmth every night and woke to the sound of roosters in the morning.

I added four days onto my trip to visit the Sacred Valley and hike Machu Picchu. Under any circumstances, this would have been a truly amazing experience, but it was made even more poignant by having spent time living at the albergue.

Since returning to New York, I have continued to look for projects that go beyond what I know. I'm consulting with a foundation that's building 200 relief homes in Haiti. The sustainable housing prototype my company designed for a competition recently broke ground and will help rebuild Greensburg, Kansas, which is still recovering from a devastating 2007 tornado.