Sonoma woman opens school for poor, indigenous girls in Peru
For 32 years, Rae Lewis has been asked the same question over and over again.
Friends, acquaintances and strangers, some disbelieving, want to know what inspired her to establish a nonprofit organization benefiting impoverished children in Peru, nearly 3,500 miles from her home, family and nursing career in Sonoma Valley.
The short answer: Lewis listened to an “inner nudge,” an intuition that ultimately would improve the lives of countless children a world away from her comfortable Wine Country lifestyle.
She goes into greater detail in her new book, “Jump On the Love Train: Many Hearts Await You,” an inspiring story of taking a chance to make a difference for overlooked children.
Now in her mid-70s, Lewis was 41 when a friend invited her to trek along the famed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. Lewis recalls that she wasn’t in the best physical condition for the expedition, but she’s grateful she abandoned her concerns and instead packed her bags.
“That adventure changed my life forever,” said Lewis, founder and president of Chicuchas Wasi (Children’s Home) School for Girls in Cusco, an ancient city near the Andes mountain range in Peru.
During her travels, Lewis was shaken by the numerous street children she encountered in Cusco, hungry, abandoned and without shelter. When she returned home, the images didn’t fade. She knew she had to do something to help.
Lewis told a group recently gathered at a book launch at Sonoma Valley Regional Library that she couldn’t overcome the heartache she found in Peru.
“I fell in love with a group of ragamuffins living in Cusco,” she said.
Within a year of her trip, she headed back to help the street children. She explained to her three adult sons, reluctant at the time, that she couldn’t ignore the despair she’d witnessed in Peru.
“My heart was speaking to me,” Lewis said, “not my head.”
Although she initially founded an emergency shelter for children - and lived in Peru for a decade - Lewis realized that to make a long-term difference, she needed to educate poor, indigenous girls, who traditionally aren’t valued like boys and are expected to do little more than provide domestic help. She wanted to break the cycle, helping girls obtain an education and eventual economic opportunities.
She opened the nonprofit Chicuchas Wasi school in 1997, working with a compassionate, young Peruvian educator, Ruth Uribe, who today is the school’s longtime director. Girls from kindergarten through sixth grade attend classes for free. With an enrollment of 130 students, the school emphasizes gender equality, self-esteem and human dignity through education and empowerment.
When the school opened, parents were hesitant to enroll their daughters.
“It was like pulling teeth,” Lewis said. “Before, they didn’t see the worth of the girl.”
Now the school often has a waiting list.
Lewis is grateful she listened to her heart. “It’s so rewarding for me to feel the contentment I feel,” she said.
She works on fundraising from home and returns to Peru annually. She’s repeatedly inspired by the employees, students and families of Chicuchas Wasi.
Lewis credits supporters who’ve donated to the school, including a European investor who funded construction costs to build the permanent campus. The school operates on an annual budget of $138,900.
“We were one of those nonprofits that didn’t have a dime,” Lewis said. “It’s a very blessed organization. We’re really grateful every single day of every year.”
Contact Dianne Reber Hart at email@example.com.