Walking Through Walls – Leigh Rawdon

This season, Tea is partnering with The Global Fund for Children to give back to several organizations located in South America. This month, we’re featuring the Asociación Civil Los Pioneros in Callao, Peru. Tea CEO, Leigh Rawdon, was fortunate to be able to take a trip to Los Pioneros and meet the wonderful children the grantee works with. Here, she shares her story with us. 

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My sons love riddles and brain teasers.  One of their favorites: There is an invention that allows people to walk through walls.  What is it?

When I had the chance to travel to Peru and visit a community program in the Callao district in Lima, I kept thinking about walls. The neighborhood we were to visit is very poor and considered dangerous.  I had been afraid of the visit. The poverty had created a wall for me. I was thinking about the drugs, crime and conflict.  It was easier to look the other way at art, shopping and food.

On the day of our visit, Wendy, a merchant at Tea who came on the journey with me, and I waited in the hotel lobby to be picked up.  Wendy and I would first spend the day with our agent, Iliana, who works with us at our knits factory in Lima.  Iliana arrived wearing designer jeans, bespoke Vans, and amazing jewelry. A powerful female entrepreneur from Peru, Iliana was at once down to earth and at the same time, aspirational.

We hopped in her backseat and began our journey. We talked through the itinerary for the next two days. She knew about our plans to visit one of the Global Fund for Children grantees and asked for the address. Iliana looked at Wendy’s phone to see the address – then she took a deep breath, turning to us:  “this neighborhood is VERY dangerous.”  She let this idea sit in the air a bit. My stomach dropped.  Of course the kids that the GFC supports wouldn’t live in a ritzy area – but dangerous?

I asked if she thought it would be okay for us to visit (because her comment had somehow suggested that we weren’t being very responsible). She was calm and thoughtful. “Yes, it will be okay. But I will take you in my bulletproof car with my driver.” Bulletproof car?  I had never had any exposure to anything bulletproof except on TV.  My stomach sank some more.  I felt the cortisone pulsing through my veins. Fight or flight.

The warnings sat with me all day through our tours and dinner. I told Wendy she definitely didn’t need to join me (what kind of CEO am I if I put someone on our team in danger? What kind of mother am I to put myself in danger?).  I called my husband for a rational perspective. He reminded me that Nick Kristoff had traveled the world and had undoubtedly put himself in dangerous situations. Then I texted my grad school friend who lived in Peru. He texted back:  “Wear a hat. Don’t look like a foreigner. You will be fine. I trust God will take care of you.” Faith and reason, both encouraged me to go. Never mind that I hadn’t told my husband about the bulletproof car nor that I didn’t have a hat to wear – and my hair is definitely very, very blonde.  There would be no blending in.

By the time we needed to depart the office to drive to the Los Pioneros grantee in Callao, Wendy and I were all nerves. Some fear lingered but at this point, excitement had overcome the fear. We got in the car with Nacha, Iliana’s right hand woman, who explained the location—“a road off the obelisk”—to the driver.  They both had a concerned look.

I sent my husband the “here we go” text, because for some reason there is comfort in knowing that someone who loves you knows where you are (sort of). When we entered Callao, it seemed quiet and empty, with only an occasional pedestrian or bicycle vendor.  One vendor was selling ice cream and had a crazy loud whistle.

Then we saw the obelisk.  We were close. We turned on a road.

It was a dead end, gravelly dirt road, flanked by buildings on either side with colorful chipped paint.  Then there at the end, we saw a couple dozen kids.  In a circle – stretching.

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For some reason, I was overcome.  My throat got that little tingle and my tearducts felt a little twinge. I unbuckled and was on the edge of my seat so I could see more. Wendy was also so excited that she nearly opened the car door before the car had even come to a complete stop. Something drew us in. We had to be closer.

The next half hour was chaotic, stimulating, full-of-life, all-present, nothing-else-matters, everything.  We shook hands, hugged, greeted each other with Peruvian-style single kisses, smiled, snapped pictures, took notes, nearly dropped what we were holding, and felt our cheeks hurt from smiling. The sky was blue, the kids were real, we were there.

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Lorenzo was the founder, but his son Edward was clearly the man in charge according to the kids.  Edward has one of those resting facial expressions that looks like he is about to burst into a smile but for some reason he tries to contain it.  You can see it in his eyes.
In fact, you could see it in many of the kid’s eyes too. As the grownups talked, they surrounded us.  Looking up. Listening intently. So curious. I would try to catch their eyes and see if I could get them to break into a smile. I could. It was like a staring contest, except instead of trying to get someone to blink, you wanted them to smile.

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We didn’t need a translator for this. No English. No Spanish. Just open eyes and open hearts. There was real, full connection that filled me with feeling. Facial expressions transcend language – but only if eyes and hearts are open.

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We spent a couple of hours with the people of Los Pioneros.  There was curiosity. There was connection. There was LOVE.

We had been afraid and yet now, all we felt was love. Fear comes from walls, from the unfamiliar, from being closed. Once the foreign is familiar, once we find a sincere connection, once we are open to something new, something different, then we can experience love.

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Because of this visit, I walked through a wall.  I realized the wall was just artificial, a perception.  The reality was that the world was already opened if only we could see.

So back to my kids’ riddle:  What is the invention that lets us walk through walls?
An open door.

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