Michael Murphy, a retired civil engineer living in Killucan, has been building soup kitchens (20), houses (24) and drop-in centres (2) for disabled children and the poorest people of Peru since 2004.
The Laois native who called Killybegs, Donegal home for most of his life, travelled to Peru first on holiday, hoping to be able to do something to help those living in the shanty towns.
At most, he planned on spending two years there. Now, 15 years later, he says he will never leave, having witnessed the generosity of the people despite the extreme poverty.
“I’m really no good at asking for money,” says Michael, who self-funds the majority of his projects, with help from friends and family.
But he is hoping to raise awareness of his Peru Children’s Charity (reg charity no 17279), to attract volunteers, medical students, physiotherapists or speech therapists, or anyone wishing to lend a helping hand. Donations, big or small, are also welcome.
It started in 2004 when Michael went out to Peru for a holiday. “I had a friend out there, Eric, and we went to see different sites but I really wanted to visit a shanty town,” said the 71-year-old.
“He really wasn’t on for it because he said it was too dangerous, and when they see you’re a westerner and tall, they know straight off you’re a tourist and you could be robbed.
“The holiday was for two weeks and it was coming near the end, and I said I really have to go to one of these places – that’s the reason I came, so Eric got one of his friends to take us up.”
While there, Michael met a nun, and his friend who translated and explained that Michael was from Ireland and wanted to help.
“I told her I was an engineer and she said she had plenty of work for engineers.”
Shanty towns surround the city of Lima, which is on the coast in the foothills of the Andes.
“This nun explained that there’s no social welfare or protection for poor people but what the government do is give a certain amount of food every month to a community – potatoes, rice, dried fish, and tinned fish. The condition attached was that the community had to cook in a soup kitchen and distribute the food.
“She explained that these people wouldn’t have the money to build a soup kitchen, so I had a look around and I said I’d do it there and then. I think it was something like €700. So that was the first one.”
Michael returned six months later, and stayed a number of months, to face a list of people “as long as your arm” looking from help from the “gringo”.
In the end, Michael built 20 soup kitchens and dining halls to help the 88,000 families living in the area.
During that time, people also approached him looking for houses.
“A lot of them would have been living in makeshift huts, with pallets on the side and plastic roofs. They had a bamboo material and they’d split it down and weave it to make walls.
“There’s no wind there, and no rain, but it’s cold at night. Some were living in mud houses, and some had brick-built ones, depending on whether they got up in the world a bit or not.
“I said I would build on the condition that I would provide the materials and the community would provide the labour. I was there for about three months, I’d go down every day to the providers and buy the materials and take them up that same day.
“If you left 10 bags of cement it mightn’t be there tomorrow. This went on for a long number of years and during that time different people came to me, telling me they really needed a house, so I started building little houses in the same way.”
Much like the thatched cottages of old Ireland, Michael built three-room houses for 24 families.
“It was on the same basis that they would provide the labour, they’d get family, friends and neighbours to help them out.”
“My family were very good and our friends. I looked for sponsorship elsewhere but never got anywhere. I looked for money off the government but got nothing.”
The soup kitchen and house building continued until 2007, during which time Michael noticed a lot of disabled children living outside.
“They were crawling on their backsides on the streets, more or less abandoned. There was a stigma on families who had disabled children, and it used to be the same in Ireland 60 or 70 years ago.
“I got the idea of having a drop-in centre, a place you could go to and shower. In 2008 I did that, and I built a bigger centre again in 2011 because I started off with five and the number of kids kept on rising, so I had to build a place, about the size of an average sized bungalow here.”
And that has been Michael’s main focus ever since. One hundred children attend every week and receive therapy. “It took a lot of money to run. I started off with a physiotherapist, and then I got a speech therapist, followed by psychologist, and an occupational therapist. This was all adding up and I couldn’t spread myself too thin, so I stopped building the houses.
“In the beginning we provided the service for free, and many people told me, but I didn’t listen, that we should charge a little bit.
“But the people are dirt poor there, and I mean dirt poor. We gave them the service free for a good while and then a couple of years ago we started charging a very minimal amount, 10% of what they would pay if they went to a centre in the city.
“The people continued to come and continued to pay, but we still would give the service for very poor families.
“The currency is the sol, so we charge two sol, and if they couldn’t afford that we wouldn’t really stop them. I started to ask people if they would like to sponsor therapy for a child for a year or two or whatever and that’s working well.”
“This was something I had in my mind all my life. When I was young, you didn’t travel. Going to Dublin twice a year was a big thing. But of course we used to hear about the ‘black babies’ out in Africa from the priest or nuns who would be going around the schools.
“So I was thinking about Africa first, I was thinking I would lay water mains or build a school. Then around 2000 I started organising my life, my family were grown up. My wife, a Donegal woman, passed away a number of years ago, and I began organising my life so that I’d be able to do this.
“I go out twice a year for about three to four months but now I’m trying to cut back, I’m 71 after all.
“I have six children and seven grandchildren and they had all moved around this part of the country because I had very strong family ties to Laois, and they had cousins there that they had very strong connections, to so I moved to Killucan. I have great neighbours, so it was a good move.
“My children are very good and have been out to Peru on numerous occasions, Michelle and Ciara help me set up the drop-in centre for the disabled children.
“This year I plan on travelling only once to Peru now that I have a good management structure set up. We have a WhatsApp group with the workers so I know what’s happening all the time. There are nine working in the centre.
“People say the poor would steal the eye out of your head, but if you’re out there and you’re with them, you can understand that completely because of the grinding poverty. They would take your watch and think nothing of it – only that you could get another one.
“And in a sense it’s true. I know it’s not the right thing to do but this is how they look on it because they are so poor.
“They’re a small race of people, and when they see me, I’m a target, but I’ve never had any problems because the community protect me.
“Out in Peru you have two types of people, you have some terribly rich people and terribly poor. But I never got any help from Peruvians because they never recognise the poor people at all.
“I have friends out there that are middle class, very good friends and they wouldn’t be very sympathetic at all. They would have come up with me to the shanty town off and on, and they would say, ‘Well, I was born into a very poor family and I had to pull myself up’.
“But it’s not that simple. They probably had a good family support and a good start in life.”
Michael’s first impression all those years ago was “shock” at the poverty: “I’m going out there now 15 years and they still have no roads, all they have are dirt tracks. It’s the very same as the desert, there’s not a blade of grass.” But two great additions in those years were the arrival of water, and the internet, which is accessed via satellite. However, both cost money.
“It is extreme poverty, yet the generosity of the people is extraordinary. I love the people.
“It has given me wonderful joy, to be doing something for people who really are in need. We have so much here. And that’s what gets me when I come home. It’s very hard to adjust.
“Just to see the waste that happens here, what people throw out food-wise would feed a family out there. They recycle everything, women go round collecting plastic bottles and that would get them a couple of sols to buy rice. Others wash clothes, some clean houses.
“The funny thing is that the most important thing in their lives is the television. In the worst houses, where they are sleeping on white plastic chairs because they don’t have a bed, but they always have a television.”
Michael hopes to spread word of his charity, hopeful of a donation big or small, and for volunteers, medical or otherwise who wish to help out.
- Find out more on Facebook; and at: peruchildrenscharity.org; email firstname.lastname@example.org.