Sunday 1 April 2012
By Fiona BasileKairos Catholic Journal
Sr Joan Doyle RSM was in Melbourne last month to say thank you to all who have supported Caritas Australia's Project Compassion. In a series of public talks held with school leaders, parishioners and hospital staff all over the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Sr Joan provided examples of projects and people who were receiving tangible benefits thanks to the funds provided.
Sr Joan is director of Mercy Family Health Services in Cerro Candela, which is located in a parish run by the Columban Fathers on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. She has been working in South America for the past 17 years, 15 of which have been in Peru. She has done this work with two other Sisters of Mercy from North Sydney—Patricia McDermott and Jackie Ford.
"Peru has a population of 29.8 million people," Sr Joan said. "But 9 million of those people live in poverty and 5 million live in extreme poverty—which means they're living on less than $1 a day.
"There is a high level of unemployment—many people eke out a living selling things on the streets or in the markets and a lot of the men work on the transport system or in construction as unskilled labourers. Housing is poor and inadequate and it's a very harsh environment—it has never rained in the section of Lima where I am. I've never had to use an umbrella in all my time there.
"There's no running water or sewerage, so consequently there are high levels of contamination and sickness. That was one of the things that really concerned us when we first moved there—the number of people who were sick or who had someone sick in their family."
Early on, the sisters spent a lot of time getting to know the local people and coming to understand their needs.
"One of the first needs the people expressed was for medicines," said Sr Joan. "Most people could not afford to buy medicines and the local health service was very inadequate. So the first thing we did was to start a small medical dispensary in front of the parish church.
"The women also expressed that they needed somewhere to meet and to learn something. Fortunately, through the generosity of people in Australia, we were able to build a 'Women's House' in 2000 and we now have three women's houses in different areas of the parish, which 800 women use.
"They've been wonderful places for women to relax, make new friends and learn skills such as hairdressing, sewing, computers and literacy—20 courses now run in each house. Our aim was to empower the local people to help themselves, so the women now run the houses."
With additional funding, the sisters, working with the local people, later established two child-care centres and the Mercy Family Health Service.
Having been in partnership with Caritas Australia since 2003, the sisters have been able to implement health and education programs—including nutrition and sanitation projects—for some of the poorest members of their community.
"The health education has been really important because we discovered that a lot of mothers didn't have basic knowledge about hygiene and prevention of illnesses," said Sr Joan. "Our big focus in health services is prevention because of the nature of the area and the high level of contamination.
"The Mercy Family Health Service is a lovely two-storey building, open eight hours a day, Mondays to Saturdays, and we offer general medicine plus specialist services such as paediatrics, gynaecology, X-ray, pharmacy and dermatology. And thanks to Caritas we also have the services of a psychologist, speech therapist and social worker—we try to offer an integrated health service.
Sr Joan expressed special thanks to Caritas Australia and its supporters for the funds provided, which have helped so many.
"We have a health education program—we currently have 25 health promoters, who have been trained to go out into the community, to schools, soup kitchens and child-care centres to educate the community on health issues.
"We also have a nutrition program—50 children aged one to three pass through that program each year—and a sanitation program. Last year the government started putting in pipes for water but a lot of families didn't have the money to get pipes and sanitary fittings inside their homes. With the help of Caritas, we were able to give 100 families a toilet, hand basin and shower fitting."
Sr Joan said, "Despite the extreme poverty, I have been so moved by the tremendous spirit of the people—they're a people of great faith. In spite of their disadvantage and their very poor circumstances, they can still say 'Dios es grande'—God is great. That witness has done a lot for my own faith. It has been a privilege to work with these people."
For more information, see www.caritas.org.au
Photo: Sr Joan Doyle RSM visiting families in Candela, Peru. Photo supplied by Sr Joan Doyle RSM.