At age 26, Jay Chavez went to Peru for six months on a trip that led to her setting up a volunteering agency. Five years later, she has changed the lives of hundreds of Peruvian children
Born in Peru while her parents were on a teaching exchange, Jay Chavez always felt a connection to the South American country. Her parents returned to the UK just before she was three, but in 2006 she embarked on a six-month visit to her birth land. She wanted to connect with the people and culture but little did she know quite how much involvement she would have and how her own direction in life would change forever.
Initially she followed the tourist trail, but seeing the stark needs of the people all around her, she began to feel compelled to do something to create a better life for the local children. At the same time, she fell in love with a Peruvian man, Luis Chavez, who she’d met while travelling and who shared her desire to improve the world.
Jay and Luis spent the first few months of their relationship volunteering together in a rundown school, which ran entirely on donations and was struggling to survive.“We began bringing tourists along to help, and the idea for Traveller Not Tourist (TNT) was born,” recalls Jay.
The following year, they set up TNT to provide volunteering opportunities for foreign visitors. Five years later TNT has built a school teaching English to 50 children, helps run a local orphanage and is now building another orphanage.
The name of the company comes from the couple’s shared belief that a traveller can be someone who considers the environmental and human impact of their journey and strives to increase the positive influence their presence has on places they visit.
“Our mission,” says Jay, “is to give foreigners the opportunity to be involved in the true Peruvian reality and to empower children below the poverty line to create a better future for themselves.We started with just a laptop and the idea, built a website with some out-of-date software that we bought from the market for £1, and got stuck in.”
Starting out wasn’t easy. “There were some days we only just managed to buy lunch. Luis sold many possessions to fund the organisation and was working all hours,” says Jay. But following a generous donation from a couple who had previously volunteered at TNT, Jay and Luis were able to rent a small flat as their first makeshift office and accommodation space for volunteers, in the city of Arequipa.
Jay attributes TNT’s unexpected fortunes to the same “law of attraction” that first brought her and her husband together. “It’s like some invisible force pulling the things we need towards us,” she believes.
Soon after the couple had moved into their premises, a nearby orphanage contacted Luis, desperate for help. Named Casa Hogar Luz Alba, it is staffed entirely by volunteers. Children range in age from just a few days old to seven years and are referred because they are deemed to be at risk due to neglect or abuse.
“We immediately started sending volunteers to help and the orphanage remains a sanctuary of shelter, nourishment and love,” says Jay.
The couple then became involved in a community on the outskirts of Arequipa, where TNT began giving English classes. These originally took place on a basketball court and later a communal kitchen, but it was dark and cramped with just a single table, which wasn’t the right height for the children.
With new responsibilities, the law of attraction returned as the couple were given a desk in a friend’s tour agency. More people started to find out about them, and volunteer numbers and donations increased. It meant they could set about building their own classroom.
“We bought a piece of land and the volunteers did us proud. After a while we had our very own custom built classroom complete with child-sized tables and chairs and even a couple of toilets. You don’t know what you can do until you try,” Jay says.
“At that point, we paused to take it all in. It felt like we’d been trudging uphill looking at our feet and, when we stopped and looked around, we’d found ourselves at the summit with the world spread out below,” she recounts.
This coincided with news that Jay was pregnant and the couple decided to return to the UK for the birth of their son. TNT was left in the capable hands of Luis’ sister, while Jay, has now launched a Bristol-based charity that raises money to support TNT’s activities in Peru, called Pachawawas (“Children of the Earth” in the Peruvian indigenous language, Quechua).
Pachawawas is currently fundraising £75,000 to build a new orphanage. Supporters can ‘buy a brick’ through the organisation’s website and the Pachawawas team is also raising money by selling clothes and handicrafts made by Peruvians, online and at events in the Bristol area.
To date, Jay and Luis have worked with 1,500 volunteers in Peru and changed the lives of hundreds of local children. And as Jay affirms, TNT’s journey has been hugely fulfilling for her as well: “I can’t begin to describe how much valuable experience, life lessons and joy volunteering has given me.”