Creating community to serve the poor

Creating community to serve the poor

Father Alex

Father Alex

A Maltese priest, Father Alex Busuttil, works primarily with single mothers and their children in the “old” and “new” settlements in Alto Cayma, a mountainous enclave on the outskirts of Arequipa, Peru. Through mutual respect, flexibility and the courage to take risks, Father Alex and the women have created a multi-cultural community of hope.

Representing Knowledge Without Borders, I toured Alto Cayma with Father Alex. He showed me a cluster of facilities, which included a church, medical clinic, childcare centers and pre-schools, a knitting co-op and multi-purpose community center. There is severe poverty and uncertainty in Alto Cayma.  Nearly 70 % of the population (primarily single moms) work as day laborers and there is cultural strife among the desperate people from diverse Andean cultures who daily descend the mountains in search of work. I wanted to see how we could partner with U.S. and Peruvian organizations to sustain and support the Alto Cayma community.

The children are safe

The children are safe

Father Alex, who became a priest at 16, is a member of the St. Paul Missionaries of Malta, an order of priests dedicated to working with the world’s poor. His first assignment was in the Punjab region of Pakistan.  There he met Mother Teresa of Calcutta and together they worked on the peaceful exchange of Pakistani and Indian populations to and from the Punjab. He moved to Arequipa in 1995 to work with diverse Andean peoples. People in Alto Cayma trust and depend upon the Church. Unlike U.S. and Canadian democracies where church and state are legally separated, the Peruvian government has an almost symbiotic relationship with the Catholic Church. And the local priest has a very important leadership role.

Father Alex spoke about the conditions of the poor who live in the settlements. Because most adults are dependent on day labor as a source of income, they used to leave their children locked up in one room shacks.  Children were often left alone for 8 to 10 hours a day! There were fatal accidents that killed children, including horrendous kerosene fires. In the wake of these tragedies, Father Alex brought together members of the community to improve living conditions. Based on what people, especially women, told him, Alto Cayma chose and implemented several goals.

  • Childcare facilities that allowed  parents to leave their children in safety when they went off to work. Childcare is essential to the settlement communities to make sure all children are safe. But children cannot just sit in the childcare center and do nothing all day. So Father Alex, community leaders and local government and education representatives developed an educational program at the childcare centers, which has evolved into a primary and junior secondary school. The children learn academic subjects, as well as practical skills they will need in the workforce and for life.
  • Community-owned land to build sustainable facilities on which to expand childcare and education services supported by medical clinics, community centers and the local church, funded by the Peruvian government and private foundations throughout the western hemisphere. The church in Alto Cayma is the epicenter of a community representing people from many different cultures.
  • Collaborative work to alleviate cultural tensions. Father Alex encourages women of different cultures to get to know each other by working together to clear the land and retrieve garbage, rocks and wood from the surrounding ravines as building materials. The women work in groups of no more than 25 in order to forge new friendships. The new friends share a common interest — protecting and educating their children. Friendships based on love trump cultural differences and nurture community.  “You cannot underestimate the importance of women in building community,” notes Father Alex.


    Migrants from many local Andean cultures

  • Focus on collaboratively designing programs that build community by constantly considering “very fluid” design elements that constantly change. For example, one of the major needs of the community is sustainable medical and dental care for children and pre- and post-natal care for women.  It took 8  years of fundraising to build and staff a community medical clinic, which today provides medical, dental, pre- and post-natal care, pharmacological and psychiatric services.  Established in 2004, the medical clinic has had nearly 50,000 visitors in the past 10 years and projects about 2000 additional yearly visits in subsequent years. All patients pay for their services. Even the poorest of the poor pay a few soles.

Father Alex reflected on what the three major lessons he has learned in nearly 20 years of service to the people of Alto Cayma. The first lesson is simple — listen to the people, especially the poor. Listening helps create a clear vision and set goals that involve and engage the entire community. The second goal is to maintain passion with steadfast commitment to community goals guided by flexible leaders who can withstand opposition. The third and most important lesson is that you must have faith to maintain, expand and improve the services, recognizing the changing needs of the community, especially the poor.



Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



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