A second-year student at the University of Virginia and her younger sister went on a family trip to Peru and came home with more than the usual warm vacation memories or splendid tales of Machu Picchu.
Instead, the sisters, who were 13 and 17 at the time of the 2019 trip, came back with a plan to build a medical clinic.
The two were most affected by the children they met in the village of Huacahuasi when they learned their parents must hike over an Andean mountain path for two and a half hours to get the children to a doctor.
The sisters, whose parents are physicians, could not stand the thought of that so they started a non-profit called Sisters Project Peru to bring a clinic to Huacahuasi.
In a step toward their goal, Maya Koehn-Wu, now 20, who is majoring in urban environmental planning and minoring in dance, and Natalie Koehn-Wu, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond and hopes to be a doctor, are holding a fund-raising art auction tonight at Fry’s Spring Beach Club from 6 to 9 p.m. More than 75 pieces of art donated by artists from Charlottesville, Richmond and UVa artists will be for sale.
The fundraiser has been a long time coming. While the sisters have previously raised some money, their main work since their return has been with members of the Peruvian government to get a commitment to staff the clinic with a nurse.
And while their work was slowed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they became more determined than ever to help. They knew the village depends on tourism for income.
Even separated by the miles and the pandemic, the sisters said they could not forget the sweetness of the children and families they met there. That has kept them inspired over two-and-a-half years.
“They were so eager to invite us inside their homes, so inviting and so generous,” said Maya Koehn-Wu, adding that she loved everything about the village, including its beauty and simplicity.
Once inside villagers’ homes while they were visiting, the sisters saw the meager circumstances in which their new friends live.
“We had never been to a place so centered on subsistence living,” said Maya. “Houses were only one room, and everyone in a family slept in the same bed. Few had electricity.”
Some houses had the luxury of a solar panel that could power one light bulb. The villagers were very excited because they had just received access to water, Natalie said.
The teenaged sisters got to work once they returned home, connecting with international non-profits and getting advice and instruction on how to write grants, deal with policy makers and cut through red tape.
The first hurdle was getting the Peruvian government to agree to fund a nurse in the area. Now the sisters are working to raise the money for the clinic itself.
Their mother, Deborah Koehn, said it has been incredible to watch and listen to the sisters do their work, all without her and husband Theodore Wu’s help.
“These kids have found the right resources and the right people to guide them. When they’re on these conference calls with the Peruvian government, they’re switching between Spanish and English, and I can’t even understand what they’re saying.”
Koehn said it was amazing to see how her children and the children of the village connected.
“A lot of times when you are on a family trip, it’s more about the adults,” she said.
When the tour guide brought the Koehn-Wu sisters together with the Peruvian children, they all started playing together right away, even though they did not speak the same language.
“Their eyes lit up,” said Koehn. It was “quite joyful,” she said to see the magic of a strong connection happening right before their eyes.
Both sisters have many other activities; Maya has danced internationally, and Natalie plays soccer and the piano. But Sisters Project Peru is their top priority.
“It’s something I really like to do, so it doesn’t feel like work,” said Natalie.
What does the high school sophomore say to other teens who want to get involved in a cause?
“If you want to make change in your community, just try it out,” she said. “This could have easily gone nowhere, but you just never know.”