From a humble soup kitchen started by a couple from the Netherlands in 1991 in Cusco, Peru, the HoPe Foundation (Stichting HoPe in Dutch) has grown into one of the most sustainable, efficient NGOs (non-governmental agency) I have ever seen.

A few years ago, while Jennifer and I were working on photo projects in Peru, we learned of a foundation that built schools and helped start community projects among the Quechua people of the Peruvian Andes. Descendants of the Inca, they live above 12,000 feet (3,000 meters) where only they, llamas and potatoes thrive. Walter and his original partner saw the need for schools for the mountain-dwelling Quechua, who often migrated to Cusco looking for work. With no skills and no education, they eventually lived in slums, begging for a living or posing for pictures for tourists (nearly the same thing).

From the start in 1997, the foundation insisted that each village take part in their school’s construction, doing most of the labor. The foundation would pay for the materials, then the teacher’s salaries for one year and then the village was responsible for their salaries. The demand for the solid, efficient buildings was overwhelming. Today, they have built more than 150 schools. The curriculum includes history, math, science and current events. More importantly, the classes are taught in the native language and in Spanish. A little English is thrown in to broaden the student’s learning experience.

A mother listens intently to the discussion at a parent teacher conference.

Parents building a fence around the new school to keep grazing llamas off of the school grounds.

The best part of the Foundation’s work has been their desire for the Peruvians to have ownership of the buildings and of the concept of educating their children. When we visited a few years ago, Walter was no longer the director of the Foundation he had co-founded. He had turned over the control to one of the former students from one of the first schools HoPe had built. Now, the majority of the board members are Peruvian.

Perhaps that should be the model for all NGOs?

However, Walter is still the revered, tall white guy who loves to visit the villages and speaks Spanish with a Dutch accent. When we visited our last school, the entire village had turned out in their best traditional clothing to celebrate the opening of a new school. Everyone was radiant, the children danced brilliantly and, since we and the students were VIPs for the day, we both feasted on roasted cuy (guinea pig). While it was my first taste, Jennifer said it was the best she ever had.

Celebrating the opening of a new school built by the Hope Foundation.

Students performing dances at a celebration for the opening of a new school.

Yum, cuy and spaghetti.