Lancfound Blog

Baldwin Leader Dispatch: Gail Rittenhouse


Baldwin Leader Dispatches is a series featuring the stories and experiences of participants in the Community Foundation’s Baldwin Leadership Program!



By Gail Rittenhouse

It is not our material possessions that make us rich but rather the life experiences and people in our lives.

I feel blessed beyond words to have had the opportunity to fulfill a dream of mine to volunteer in a third world country.  I really didn’t know how it would affect me or the challenges that would arise, but I can truly say that my trip to Lima was something that impacted me at my core.  As a human services professional, I am well aware of poverty and need in our community, but I did not understand REAL need and poverty until I traveled to Peru.  Lima is an enormous city but incredibly impoverished in most areas – and impoverished in a way that we Americans would not understand.  I saw shanty towns where no running water or electricity is the norm and begging or prostitution a common way to earn money.  I saw the worn faces of people who looked 20 + years older than their chronological age peddling their wares to earn a few precious coins to use to get fresh water or food.  I saw children out on the streets coming up to the cars when they were stopped in traffic and begging.  This was the reality of the people.  Every day was a struggle, a real struggle but the people were happy, kind, warm and accepting.  They were not bitter because of their plight but rather embraced life and kept trying.

As a Volunteer in the PPA orphanage, which is the largest orphanage in South America, I saw over 200 children ranging in age from 3 month old infants to 18 year old young adults.  I learned from the staff that many had been abandoned, one sibling group of 3 had been left at a small restaurant and stayed there for three days waiting for their mother to return – she did not.  And then there is the story of Arnold who was found in the street as an infant and now, at age 15, has spent all of his childhood at the orphanage, or the five siblings all taken from their heroin addicted mother.  At the orphanage, none of these children had lots of toys, or fancy clothing or electronic gadgets like cell phones, but they were happy and contented.  A volleyball game was enjoyed with a beach ball and a rope tied to create a net and a fishing game was made with a dowel rod and handmade fish.

On a home visit we went on, a birth father who was trying to regain custody of his two young children proudly showed us his apartment.  It was one small room with bunk beds for his children and a double bed for he and his girlfriend.  Neatly tucked into a corner were two sewing machines where he made clothing to sell in the markets.  A tiny bathroom was off another corner.  The room had the basics but no extras and was immaculately clean.  Down the hall was the kitchen which was shared by all people living in the building.  To Americans, this housing would be unacceptable, but in Lima, he was doing well and so incredibly proud of what he had.

I returned to the states happy to be able to drink the water and enjoy the many conveniences that I take for granted, but my perspective has been broadened and changed.  The Peruvians I met and worked with were not “rich” by American standards but rather poor, very poor, but they exemplified richness in other ways: richness in family, richness in happiness, and richness in warmth for others.  I wish all Americans could have seen and experienced what I did because it does change you, it does make you question our values and expectations…but that is a topic for future writing!


Gail Rittenhouse is a 2016 Community Foundation Baldwin Leader. To learn more about the Baldwin Leadership program click here.