After one trip to the remote, but culturally rich, Huacahuasi Valley in Peru, one University of Virginia student and her sister dedicated themselves to improving that community’s access to quality health care.
After the Sisters Peru Project hosted a silent auction for donated art at the Visible Records gallery on Saturday night, Maya and Natalie Koehn-Wu say they’ve now raised more than $10,000 of their $100,000 goal to help build a new medical center in the valley.
Maya Koehn-Wu, a third-year UVa student double majoring in urban and environmental planning and global sustainability and minoring in dance, said art auctions are a go-to fundraising event, because they combine her love for the arts with her passion for community engagement.
“I think there is so much power in expression that can hop in with the arts,” she told The Daily Progress. “I had a lot of photography that I took from the community in Peru. Through that, we’ve had a lot of student donations and we did a collaboration with the Art Club at UVa, so it’s another way to bridge communities.”
Sisters Project Peru auctioned off many of the pieces that local and UVa artists donated for the most recent event, but the rest of the items will be available for purchase on the organization’s website until the end of April, Maya Koehn-Wu said.
Maya Koehn-Wu brought the organization to the university in 2021 and grew a team of students to fundraise in Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County, working with her sister Natalie, a junior at Maggie Walker Middle School in Richmond.
The Koehn-Wu sisters traveled to Peru for a family summer vacation in 2019. They traveled four hours from the closest city, Cusco, and stayed at the Huacahuasi Lodge which is set on a trail to Machu Picchu. Maya Koehn-Wu said she and her sister were pleasantly surprised to discover that the hotel and the ecotourism group, Mountain Lodges of Peru, which led tourists on the trail to the ancient Incan citadel, donated a portion of its proceeds from each stay and tour to the community.
While on the tour, the Koehn-Wus learned that, through the community partnership, the tourism group raised enough money to bring clean drinking water to the village and was laying the groundwork for its next big project: a medical clinic for the Huacahuasi Valley community.
After returning to the States, the sisters reflected on their adventure – hearing children sing in Quechua, meeting family-raised alpacas – and thought of ways to help the Mountain Lodges of Peru from afar.
“We thought, ‘I wish there was more we could do,’ and then COVID shut everything down in 2020,” Maya Koehn-Wu said. “My sister and I were reflecting on this trip and we thought, then more than ever, that community needed a health care clinic and the ecotourism partnership was a big source of income to raise money for that clinic.”
That year, Maya Koehn-Wu connected with developers at FNE International, a global nonprofit organization that funds and develops education, housing and health projects for communities in developing nations such as Peru, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
With an aligned mission of bringing accessible health care to a rural community in need, FNE International made Sisters Project Peru a branch project of the umbrella organization. Maya Koehn-Wu said the support from FNE has allowed her and other organization members to focus on fundraising efforts rather than the paperwork usually associated with establishing a 501©(3) nonprofit organization.
“Maya traveled with us to Nicaragua and sometime in the beginning of the pandemic she had written because she and her sister Natalie had this beautiful, wonderful idea and lacked a little bit of experience and development,” said Michael Cipoletti, executive director of FNE International who travels to Peru up to seven times per year. “We have a well-established relationship down there with the Ministry of Health in that region, so it just made sense.”
Cipoletti told The Daily Progress the mission of Sisters Project Peru aligned with FNE’s, which prioritizes bringing groups of volunteers in the Global North with communities in the Global South in order to highlight the cultural similarities while meeting community needs.
Last summer, Maya Koehn-Wu returned to Huacahuasi as a nonprofit branch co-founder with a renewed mission to bring an accessible medical clinic to the community she calls “culturally vibrant and one with the land.”
Maya Koehn-Wu and Cipoletti took the 11-hour flight to Peru and spoke with the community’s financial officer to get a better understanding of the residents’ expectations and needs for the new clinic to accompany the demographic survey that Sisters Project Peru and FNE International conducted before the trip.
Having conducted a soil sampling survey to determine to the best location in the valley to place the clinic, the team went to visit the site in person.
“They took me on a walk to the nearest health clinic to Huacahuasi on a track, and for whatever reason, I didn’t bring altitude medication and I have never felt more out of shape in my life,” Maya Koehn-Wu said. “The walk was so hard, it was absolutely crazy. I couldn’t imagine doing that if I was sick or hurt.”
She said her second trip to Huacahuasi fully immersed her in the villagers’ way of life and allowed her to see her mission from their perspective.
This summer, she said she hopes to give the Sisters Project Peru members at UVa the opportunity to experience the same enlightenment to contribute to their further fundraising and community planning efforts.
Maya Koehn-Wu said once Sisters Project Peru and FNE International finalize the construction and development plans for the medical clinic, the UVa members will begin the grant-writing phase of the fundraising efforts.
“We’re not building the clinic tomorrow, but we have the foundation and all of the pieces in place for this project,” Cipoletti said. “Maya, Natalie and the team at UVa are the perfect example of what FNE is all about.”