Westminster teacher makes international connections

Program helps Peruvian women in the Andes break the cycle of poverty

WESTMINSTER — Outside the small village of Andahuaylillas, in the even-smaller community of Q'ewar, situated high in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru, indigenous women in the area can find a way out of the cycle of poverty by employing therapeutic art skills.

Begun by sculptor Julio Herrera and Lucy Terrazas in 2000, the project, “El Proyecto Social Q'ewar,” now employs 47 women south of the capital of the region, near Cuzco, Peru and has captured the imagination of one southern Vermont educator.

What began as an effort to hire four local women to make dolls has now grown to an all-encompassing effort centered at the Q'ewar workshop: from shepherding alpacas in the high mountains, to cleaning and spinning, to collecting materials for dyes, to weaving and sewing and knitting clothes, and to putting together the dolls.

A Westminster early childhood educator and elementary grade-levels teacher, Teresa Savel became acquainted with the project through the Green Valley School, a now-defunct Waldorf-based preschool and kindergarten that she helped to found in Westminster.

She said she had purchased some of the dolls for the school. The money from such sales goes back to the project to support ongoing efforts to provide medical and dental resources and continuing education for the children of the doll makers.

When Savel attended a workshop in 2012 in Ecuador, to learn how to make marionettes for early childhood education, she met Herrera and Terrazas, and thus “began the conversation” of how to be involved in the project, she said.

In November, Savel spent three weeks in Q'ewar teaching workshops in child care and early childhood education to the teachers in the new kindergarten project that was just completed for the children of the doll makers.

She also mentored the women in morning circles, where conversations about their lives took place. Savel said discussions there covered childcare, health and nutrition, problem solving, and early childhood development.

She said she came away from the project really understanding its importance in the lives of the women there.

“These women are the sole breadwinners,” she said. “Besides giving them a sense of doing something, it helped them get out of and away from the alcoholism and domestic violence, which is so common now.”

Savel said the women were empowered to be able say to abusive partners: “It's not okay. You must leave now. And you will come back when I say it is okay to come back.”

When one woman asked Savel why she took pictures with her camera and video, the Vermonter told her, “So that I can help you sell your dolls. And so others can appreciate your work.”

Savel said she heard about how important the latter was when one woman said, “We need to hear that people admire the work that we do.” When Savel remembered and conveyed all the comments and responses from this region, the woman thanked her.

“That is what we needed to hear,” the woman told her.

Laughter and smiling

JoAnne Dennee, who teaches at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Charlotte, has been involved in the Q'ewar Social Project since its first year.

She said the program intends to use art as a therapeutic tool to give women in the region caught in the cycle of poverty and an opportunity to learn skills that could change their economic conditions.

These formerly downtrodden women were bowed beneath the weight of a difficult life, says Dennee, who said the women in the project are often single mothers, either by tragedy or circumstance - for instance, after the husband had to leave the family to find jobs in the city.

In the process, she said, the women have discovered an identity that is culturally their own.

Many of these women are their family's sole wage earners. Their income from making the dolls provides access to medical and dental care, which now comes once a month to the village and is arranged through the project.

Dennee said that Danish and European funders are the biggest resources for this project, which has grown slowly and now boasts child care and a Waldorf-inspired, early-childhood-development center. This year, the project broke ground on a first- and second-year grade school.

“If you look at photographs from the first year to the years following, the same parents or adolescents have a complete glow to their face,” she observed.

Dennee said the “strain and the difficulty was apparent on all the women's faces. Now there is laughter and smiling.”

“That doesn't mean life is without its huge struggles, but the camaraderie in the social project allows them to discuss and support one another,” she said. “And the founders built in a support system.”

Dennee explained that women use indigenous arts skills like back-strap loom weaving and now use natural plant and insect dyes to obtain the colors.

She noted that, when she arrived, the project was using chemical dyes on the alpaca fibers. She said she was familiar with Navajo dyes and asked the project to “change from dying with chemicals to using plants and insects instead.”

She said the source for the violet, red, and pink dyes is a “cochineal beetle collected from prickly pear cactus by the women.”

The wool is first gathered from alpacas owned and shepherded by high-mountain families. From the shepherding, to collecting plants and insects, to cleaning and carding the alpaca wool, to spinning, dyeing, and weaving, the women's process of creating the materials for the dolls uses traditional skills. Dennee said that while knitting came to the area with the Spaniards, it is commonly used to make clothing for both dolls and humans.

In workshops built at the beginning of the project, the women take the final steps of forming and creating the doll parts that are stuffed with alpaca fibers in the “workshop of windows,” sewing and making the clothes, and putting on the finishing touches.

The cleaning and spinning is done by the high-mountain women, who come in once every 15 days for eight hours, often traveling two hours.

The line of dolls has expanded, Savel said, because of marketplace demand for more ethnically and culturally diverse dolls. The dark-haired, darker-skinned, ethnic and traditionally dressed dolls of the early days are still made, but the women now also make dolls that sport more modern clothes and that have blonde or red hair and paler bodies.

The positive effects of the project go beyond the women's own respective homes.

“The [women] find meaning in work and contribute to the social life and economic work of the pueblo itself,” Dennee said.

But the project is not just focusing on doll making. The women (and a few men) are trained in the skills of making clothing and working with clay.

“Those skills are being given to them so they can find employment that will then give them access to economic stability if they have to relocate out of the pueblo,” Dennee said.

Projects also include water purification for the entire village, as well as a trash recycling operation.

The end result of the individual projects creates an overall social integration, which, Dennee said, “is what we are really after.”

Telling a story

Teresa Savel is in her early 40s, with elfin features and stature and long, silvering, dark hair, wrapped in earth-toned alpaca wool clothing against the cold of the New England afternoon. There is a soft Cuban influence to her thoughtfully slow and warm speech.

Asked how she came to the path she now finds herself on, Savel said, “This is really a question of biography, for all of us, is it not?”

The daughter of a Cuban-American single mother, Savel explained that following her childhood in Los Angeles, she pursued her interest in child development and education, earning a bachelor's degree in education from Temple University in Philadelphia.

She then joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Morocco in 1991, a stint that ended abruptly in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, when uprisings began in Iraq and Iran and created instability in the Middle East.

Savel said she continued to volunteer in Guatemala in “very rural” settings, and in India, mentoring in early childhood initiatives.

She also started the Green Valley School, a Waldorf school that operated in Westminster from 1999 to 2012. She became involved with the Winston L. Prouty Early Learning Center in Brattleboro, developing and implementing curricula sensitive to the needs of developmentally, emotionally, and physically challenged students.

Savel said that very early in life, she came to understand the importance of a child's connection to nature in creating a healthy sense of self and connection with others. This led her to explore Waldorf School founder Rudolf Steiner's educational philosophies, as well as to the approach of Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler to the education and development of children.

“I am an early childhood advocate,” Savel said, “I'm really honoring early development for the world.”

Early childhood education “is so important because it lays the foundation for all of life,” Savel explained.

Savel said that the children of the Q'ewar workshop who started as infants are now reaching the ages of needing higher education.

She returned from Peru with several goals.

The first is to find people to adopt all the dolls she brought back, and that goal is nearly complete.

Another goal? Savel said that she took many hours of video of her experience at the workshop, and that she is interested in putting together a short film with someone who would also be interested in creating one about the topic.

Savel said that all these tasks - meeting the doll makers, getting the dolls themselves out into the world, traveling to Peru and other communities, coming back to Westminster, and connecting with people who want to adopt the dolls and learn more about the project - are concrete examples of how neighbors can connect with neighbors, in the same way that the doll-making women of the Q'ewar Social Project connect with and support one another.

A third goal is to raise money for a wheelchair and crutches for one woman, Jesusa, whom she met at her home outside of Q'ewar.

In describing this goal, Savel displays a photograph of Jesusa, sitting in bed with her blind father on a chair beside her, in a one-room, earthen-floor adobe house.

Jesusa's face hardly betrays her 31 years, or that, during a festival last year, a drunken woman fell on her and broke her leg.

When a doctor examined Jesusa, her bones were very porous and contained tumors. She has since been bedridden in her house, under the care of her blind father.

Savel said that Jesusa does work for the workshop cleaning wool from her bed, so she does receive an income - the only one in the family.

“But the project is interested in providing her with a wheelchair so she can be socializing with her friends,” Savel said.

“The women could bring her and take her back in her wheelchair, and it would change her circumstance,” she said. “That is the importance of this project for her.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates