While most people rake leaves or recover from Halloween this weekend, Parkdale residents Marcus and Cathryn Whitman will be on their way to Peru to help needy children.
The Whitmans, who own Good Fortune Farms Alpacas, leave today for a 19-day trip to the South American country, two weeks of which will be spent as volunteers for the Quechua Benefit, a charity led by Oregon alpaca farmers.
The Whitmans will join Dr. Mario Pedroza, a dentist and alpaca farmer from Hillsboro who started the organization in 1996, and eight others from Oregon and elsewhere in the U.S. The group will converge in the southern Peru town of Arequipa, on the western edge of the Andes. From there, they will travel to several towns over the two weeks before returning to Arequipa.
“We’ll go on kind of a big loop, traveling over some pretty harsh terrain,” Cathryn said. The group’s mission is to provide basic dental care to the native Quechua Indian children of the region.
“It’s very grassroots, very basic,” Cathryn said. “We’ll be doing only (tooth) extractions.” The Quechua people live a subsistence existence in the harsh conditions of the Andes, and dental hygiene is practically nonexistent.
Pedroza, the dentist who founded the Quechua Benefit, was on vacation in Peru in 1995 when he noticed the locals’ terrible dental conditions.
“I guess it’s an occupational hazard when you’re a dentist to notice bad teeth,” Cathryn said. “He saw it everywhere, and vowed to return.” With the help of the common denominator of alpacas, Pedroza enlisted the aid of fellow alpaca farmers at home to raise funds and provide volunteers to take rudimentary dental care to the Quechua people.
The Quechua people domesticated alpacas more than 5,000 years ago, and the highlands of Peru are home to the vast majority of alpacas in the world.
The Whitmans, who have been raising alpacas for three years, got involved in the project after seeing a slide show put on by Pedroza and his wife, Barrie, last winter.
“We were so totally taken in by the pictures they showed, we knew we wanted to get involved,” Cathryn said. At a minimum, the Whitmans figured they could help raise money to fund the project.
But then, a little over a month ago, they were invited to go on the trip as volunteers.
“We hadn’t really expected to be invited,” Cathryn said. “We’re not doctors or dentists — or Spanish-speakers.” But Cathryn is a former EMT and Marcus is a veterinary assistant at All Animal Care Clinic. They are also inveterate scuba divers and scuba instructors trained in first aid.
“We have a bit of medical background,” Marcus said. Along with the dental outreach, the Quechua Benefit provides each child it helps with a pair of shoes and a toy. With collaboration from two Peruvian alpaca mills, blankets are given to the children as well.
“Even though they live in the land of alpacas, some of them don’t even have warm blankets,” Marcus said. Some of the children the project sees are so desperate for dental care, their families travel for two days from remote Andes villages to the larger towns where the group stops to set up its temporary clinics.
The Whitmans figure they’ll be doing a bit of everything — assisting the dentists, handing out toys and blankets and whatever else they can do to help. Last year’s Quechua Benefit aided more than 1,000 children.
“They pulled about 1,500 teeth,” Cathryn said, as well as distributing 1,000 blankets, 300 pairs of shoes and 600 pairs of rubber boots. The benefit’s long-term goal is to establish a permanent dental hygiene program in the region, including a mobile clinic that would traverse the area on a regular basis.
But for now, the Quechua Benefit provides much-needed care for kids who wouldn’t get it otherwise, and the Whitmans feel honored to be a part of it.
“It’s really an alpaca outreach from North America to South America,” Cathryn said. Marcus agreed.
“It’ll be so much more than looking through the window of a bus,” he said. “We’ll be able to give back something that the alpaca has given to us.”