During the month of October, we will be highlighting Heifer's work to empower women in a series we're calling the Power of WE. The series began October 4, and many of our posts will focus on women who are becoming entrepreneurs in their own right. Today we continue the series by featuring Sofia Arivilca from Peru.
A stroke of chance brought like-minded and world-renowned photographer, Annie Griffiths, to Heifer's work. After hearing about Heifer’s work with women, within the year, Annie was in Puno, Peru, in the middle of a tiny island on Lake Titicaca capturing some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. I was lucky enough to be hosting Annie and her crew, which included Pulitzer Prize-winning filmmaker Rick Gershon of Media Storm Productions and Renee Harbers, president of the Harbers Foundation, as we camped to the sound of Lake Titicaca crashing against the rocks. We were 12,500 feet above sea level and the nearest light pole was a four-hour boat ride away.
It is here in Puno, like in so many other remote areas where most people are forgotten, that Heifer has found more than 1,000 families to partner with and lift from poverty though the FEED Project to support women through alpacas and healthy homes programs.
And this is where we met the lovely Sofia.
Sofia Arivilca was homeless for most of her 64 years. Born to a poor family in the highlands of Puno, Sofia was dragged from place to place by her wandering father. They eventually ended up in the Amazon, far from the family and world she knew. At 25 she married an older man who soon began to beat her.
She tolerated the abuse because she had nowhere else to go, no family to welcome her home, no friends to comfort her. She was isolated, lonely and scared. Sofia finally found the courage to leave. She fled her marriage and spent years begging, working for food and housing at any job she could get. She often slept outside or with animals that she tended for others, as she made her way back to the highlands where she was born.
Rejected by her family, she accepted the kindness of neighbors and women who understood her situation. It was after many years struggling to find a home and work in Puno that she finally learned about the Healthy Homes program created by Heifer International.
The Healthy Homes program is the only one of its kind in the world. By rearranging floor plans—redesigning kitchens to keep food and animal meat separate and installing improved stoves with better pipes and filtration systems, as well as providing appropriate sanitation facilities and teaching women how to use natural methods to keep food cool and how to keep their homes and kitchens cleaner—the Healthy Homes program lowers the prevalence of food-borne illnesses, improves sanitation, keeps people warm during harsh winters and decreases the need to haul firewood.
This program has had a profound impact on thousands of women in Puno. They share information they’ve learned, they train each other, they share materials—the project has gone well past the original plan and expanded in ways Heifer can’t begin to capture.
After attending the trainings and understanding the project, it was Sofia’s turn. Sofia received the materials and assistance to construct the first real home she has ever known. All hers. Heifer provided the training and supplies, and the women in her community contributed the help to build it.
Ask Sofia about her life before her Heifer Home and she’ll tell you, “I don’t even want to remember those days. I am looking forward. I still have so much I want to do.”
The trainings from Heifer and support she received from the women’s group transformed Sofia. For the first time in her life she was told:
“You are powerful.”
“You don’t need a man.”
“You are special.”
“You have worth.”
She took those words, though tough to believe at first, and has never looked back. Sofia continues to inspire women in Puno and support the project however she can. The local community continues to honor her and all she has accomplished.
Sofia had a profound effect on Annie, too. "During my short visit to Peru, I was particularly touched by Sofia, who had spent most of her life homeless and alone. Heifer’s Healthy Homes program has restored her dignity as well as her security. I was there the first day that she invited friends over to share a meal in her kitchen, in her home, on her land. I will never forget that meal," Griffiths said.
I was lucky enough to meet Sofia twice in Peru. Both times, the first thing she wanted to show me was “my new house that Heifer gave me.” And of course, both times I obliged. It is pristine; company-ready all the time.
Sofia, though late in years, is young in spirit. She has a playful smile and bouncy step. She once told me that going through the Heifer project was like being reborn—giving her a whole new reason to live. She lives to serve. Her days start at sunrise and go well past sunset every day. For her survival and to make sure other women find the strength in their own life sooner than she did.
While in Puno, I met hundreds of other women as part of the FEED Project. I was interviewed by a radio station that was set up through the project by a group of women seeking to reach other women as far and wide as the radio waves will allow. When they asked me, “What is an empowered woman?” I only had to reflect on the words of Sofia Arivilca: “An empowered woman is one who listens to her own heart first. That is where empowerment begins.”
Spread the Power of WE by giving to other women like Sofia today.