Sandra McGirr

Sandra McGirr

Peru captures the hearts of Chilcotin family

Sandra McGirr and Sanday Hart will be in Williams Lake this month with a slide show about their volunteer work in Peru.

Last fall I visited some old friends who I hadn’t seen for a while.

Their permanent home is Tatla Lake but my trip was a bit longer than a drive to the west Chilcotin.

As the crow flies, the Sacred Valley of Peru is 8,700 kilometres southeast of Williams Lake.

Five hundred years ago it was the heart of the large and well-organized Inca Empire.

Sadly, the Inca were not prepared to defend themselves from Spanish invaders.

Not only were there countless atrocities, but tons of gold that formerly gilded the most important Inca temples was melted down into bars and now sits in bank vaults around the world.

Today, the Quechua people, the descendants of the Inca living in the Andes, cling to traditions rich in arts and crafts, such as their dazzling, hand-woven textiles made from alpaca wool.

However, many of them live in small communities high in the mountains where there is little infrastructure or access to health care and where they subsist largely on potatoes.

Malnutrition and waterborne diseases are particularly serious issues for mothers, babies, and the elderly in those communities.

Sandra McGirr, Sandy Hart, and their teenagers Niall and Tarn went to Peru in 2008 to volunteer in community health and water projects.

They planned to stay for a year, but seeing the great need for sustainable water and health solutions for the Quechua people, they stayed and with Peruvian friends, they formed a non-profit organization called DESEA Peru.

Sandra and Sandy have a unique combination of skills and education for the work they do.

Sandra is a registered nurse with a master’s degree in nursing and global health.

She and a small team of Peruvian nurses and health-care workers provide health education and emergency medical aid to people in six remote villages.

They have been able to stop child and maternal mortality in communities that had levels much higher than the national average.

Sandy is a professional geoscientist with a master’s degree in geography and years of experience as a hydrologist.

He and some Peruvian workers have built and installed 250 “biosand” water filters in homes and school kitchens, as designed by the Calgary-based Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST).

These low-tech filters purify water and are the best filters available for travellers but they have much higher capacities and are easy to maintain.

Safer drinking water and hygiene education are significantly reducing diarrheal disease in the communities in which DESEA works.

You might think that the Hart/McGirr family is making a lot of sacrifices by living in a developing country and working long hours for little pay.

However, after volunteering with them for a month, I can say that they don’t seem to be missing much more than proximity to their families in Canada.

In fact, their work is useful and rewarding. Niall and Tarn like their school, and they live in a spectacular mountain setting with many Peruvian friends.

The area abounds with fascinating archaeological sites and other destinations that attract millions of tourists.

It’s cheap, too, at about a third the cost of travelling in Western Europe.

One of Sandy and Sandra’s favourite anecdotes is that they have more visits from Canadian friends now than when they lived in Tatla Lake.

To find out more about their interesting work, visit or search for DESEA-Peru on facebook. Better yet, come to their slide show while they are in the area this summer.


It’s at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 10 at the Central Interior Community Services Cooperative, 51 Fourth Ave. South across from Safeway. Admission will be by donation and there will be some beautiful Peruvian weaving and prints for sale.

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