Vine Trust: Building a future for the forgotten

RESCUED: Willie McPherson, the executive director of Scottish charity the Vine Trust, is surrounded by children at the clinic in Puerto Belen. Picture: EMMA COWING
RESCUED: Willie McPherson, the executive director of Scottish charity the Vine Trust, is surrounded by children at the clinic in Puerto Belen. Picture: EMMA COWING

AFTER all he’s been through, the young Peruvian boy being helped by a tiny Lothian charity might have been expected to shed a tear.

Abandoned by his family and left to live with sheep, he was penned up alongside the livestock until he escaped to run wild in the city. Now when Fernando does cry – which isn’t very often – he makes the sound of a lamb bleating.

It’s heartbreaking for those who witness it, but at least those pitiful cries are increasingly giving way to a sound that is even less familiar to the tragic youngster – he is slowly learning to laugh.

On Friday, Fernando will move into his new home. Nestling in the spectacular foothills of the Andes on the outskirts of Cusco, the ancient capital of the sun-worshiping Inca empire, sits the low rise, terracotta-roofed centre that will give him shelter and food, where he will be clothed, educated and, most importantly, loved.

It’s a long way – around 6000 miles – from the small office in Port Seton which is the hub of the Vine Trust, the charity behind Fernando’s new custom-built home and a string of similar centres dotted around Peru’s harshest cities.

Yet it’s in the picturesque harbour village of Port Seton that a trio of charity workers gather daily to help transform the lives of Fernando and countless other Peruvian street children.

Only they – and a small handful of privileged others – know the true identity of the mystery benefactor whose generous donation funded the construction of the Trust’s latest centre in Cusco.

And they are sworn to secrecy, laughs expedition leader and education officer Calum Munro. "All I can say is an individual has paid for that centre, and it’s an anonymous donation," he insists. "The donor doesn’t want to be identified and we must respect that."

However it can’t stop the speculation. Maybe a lottery winner, maybe a millionaire business executive? Or could it possibly be Edinburgh-based Harry Potter author JK Rowling – she has previously donated first edition novels to help Ghanaian street children and is co-founder of a charity which works to help vulnerable children across Europe?

Whoever has felt inspired enough to dig deep has Fernando’s gratitude. For the new centre in Peru’s breathtaking Sacred Valley means a second chance at life for the youngster.

"We have fallen in love with this boy," says Paul Clark, of Union Biblica Del Peru, Vine Trust’s partner organisation in South America. "His background is different from any other we have ever encountered.

"Fernando was brought up with animals – mainly sheep, rather than with other humans. He was put out to live in the pens and sheep folds, which are common on Peru’s Andean slopes.

"Some abandoned boys never cry, which is very sad," he adds. "Others, like Fernando, can. Except that he does not cry like a little boy. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he bleats, just like a lamb."

He had become so used to living with only basics that when the charity’s workers offered him a pair of shoes, he insisted he preferred a pair of shepherd’s shoes, ojotas, made from old car tyres.

"We were told by the police in Cusco that every time he was captured and taken to some institution, he would smash windows and escape," adds Paul.

His behaviour has improved dramatically under the organisation’s care. And on Friday he will become one of the first occupants of the new home in Urubamba, close to the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu – the Lost City of the Incas.

In a few weeks, on June 30, a work party organised by the Port Seton team and made up of volunteers will arrive at the Cusco centre for the first time to see the benefits of the new centre.

Before that, STV viewers will be able to witness the next instalment of the trust’s work, when the second series of Amazon Heartbeat – a documentary-style programme charting the charity’s efforts in Peru – hits the small screen.

Unlike the first series, which focused on the charity’s efforts to bring medical aid to locals living on the banks of the Amazon through its two specially-equipped boats, Hope 1 and Hope 2, the programmes explore the charity’s work in the wake of last August’s devastating earthquake – it hurriedly set up seven feeding centres while the cameras rolled – and also its involvement running its eight centres for street boys.

It’s all vital work, says Calum, which is helping to change lives. Without the centres, hundreds of abandoned boys would be left to run wild on tough streets, scrabbling for food in rubbish dumps and stealing to survive.

"For simply cultural reasons, it tends to be boys who become street children," he says. "For them, survival is the key and one of the ways they survive is by selling themselves sexually in exchange for something as basic as soup.

"The conditions on the streets are very grim. There is a lot of brutality, neglect and poverty."

Fernando’s story – desperate as it sounds – isn’t the worst. The charity has records of children being beaten to death after being caught stealing, shot at and then turned away by hospitals reluctant to use expensive drugs on their treatment, and of becoming so withdrawn they lose the will to speak.

Some are desperately young and vulnerable, adds Calum, such as four-year-old Fernando.

"Each child has their own different, but equally difficult, story, but usually we find poverty is at the heart of it," he says. "Once they come to us they can stay until they are around 18 – they are never put back to a life on the streets.

"To be on the streets at only four or five is terrible. Children that young are lucky to survive it."

Each of the charity’s eight centres – some of them still under construction – provides accommodation for up to 40 boys with house parents who look after them.

The charity, launched in 1985 in Bo’ness by local churches concerned by the Ethiopian famine, eventually hopes to open a further seven homes for boys in Peru over the next five years.

In addition to their Amazon Hope medical ships and street boys centres, the charity also runs a clinic in Puerto Belen shanty town, which treats up to 100,000 people every year.

Being part of the organisation and helping change so many lives is, says Calum, 25, a humbling experience for all
involved – especially the 300 ordinary people, mostly Scots, who give up their time to volunteer.

"It is fantastic to see at first hand the work that has been done on constructing the centres," says Calum, who first became involved in the charity on a working holiday to one of its sites.

"You can read about it but it doesn’t compare with experiencing it," he adds.

"There is such a sense of hope which these children would never have had before."

The next series of Amazon Heartbeat starts on STV on May 6 at 11pm. The first series is currently being repeated on STV on Sunday mornings.

The Vine Trust has its roots at the height of the Ethiopian famine of the Eighties, when churches in Bo’ness initially joined forces to raise funds for aid through a second hand goods shop, Branches.

It evolved into a Peruvian aid organisation after preacher Willie McPherson visited the country and was touched by the plight of its people. He raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to provide help for street children and medical facilities.

Later the former assistant minister at Barclay Church of Scotland in Tollcross and one time minister at Bo’ness Old Parish Church, embarked on an ambitious plan to buy and refurbish an old Royal Navy boat and sail it to Peru.

The initial hope was to use it to generate income for locals through a ferry service. However a donation of vital medical equipment led to it being used as a floating doctors’ surgery. In 2006 it was joined by a second vessel, Hope 2.


One thought on “Vine Trust: Building a future for the forgotten

  1. Pingback: Amazon Heartbeat (2007) - Movie

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