Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas are not alone this year in coping with the overwhelming impact of a natural disaster. During the early months of 2017, Peru’s annual rainy season morphed into a climate event nightmare, particularly in the country’s northern region.
“Ten times the usual amount of rain has fallen on Peru’s coast, swelling rivers which caused widespread flooding, and triggering huge landslides which tore through shanty towns,” The Guardian reported last April. “More than 100 people have died, nearly 158,000 are displaced, and 210,000 homes are damaged, according to Peru’s emergency operations centre. The country’s infrastructure took a big hit: 260 bridges collapsed and nearly 3,000km of roads are unusable, cutting off hundreds of villages and towns.”
This was the scene awaiting Meagan Rioux ’18, a business and economics double major from Ohio, and three other Hollins students when they arrived in Peru for Spring Break last March. The four friends traveled to the South American nation to embark on a 12-day hike covering the Cordillera Huayhuash in the Andean Mountains. Considered one of the top ten trekking circuits in the world, the Huayhuash encompasses breathtaking mountain passes, renowned peaks, and a spectacular array of flora and fauna.
With all roads to the Huayhuash blocked due to the flooding, Rioux and her friends were forced to make the disappointing choice to abandon their hike. But the surrounding catastrophe convinced them to take their trip in a new and completely unexpected direction.
“We were really upset about cancelling the hike. But then we saw what was going on and decided, ‘We’re here, how can we help out?’” Rioux recalls. “We visited a local travel agency and asked the woman in charge if she knew of any organizations we could contact that were helping in the relief effort. It turned out she was planning to volunteer the following day in the areas that were affected, so we went with her to offer aid.”
The four Hollins students reached out not only to local residents in need but also gave crucial care to the domesticated animals they encountered, dogs in particular. “You see images of natural disasters, but there is nothing like going through first-hand what a natural disaster does to a community of people, both economically and emotionally,” Rioux explains. One of her most enduring memories occurred after returning on the bus from working in a severely damaged locale. “We were tired and really shaken up, but then the Peruvian volunteers we went with came up and thanked us profusely. ‘There are Peruvians who are not even responding,’ they said, ‘You’re not from our country, you don’t speak our language, but you’re helping.’ They got teary-eyed.”
For Rioux, delivering disaster relief was “the best experience. It completely turned my life around because it changed my path of what I want to do as a career. Before that, I wanted to take a corporate finance route, but Peru made me realize that humanitarian aid is something I want to do, one hundred percent. I’ve always enjoyed helping people and doing nonprofit work, and those moments of helping people in that context sparked something inside of me. It made me realize I want to make a difference. If there are problems within the policies of disaster relief, I want to be part of the solution.”
Rioux recently applied to join the Peace Corps after she graduates from Hollins next spring. In the meantime she’s devoting part of her busy senior year to continuing the work she began in South America.
“When Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria occurred,” she explains, “I had to do something. Not just a fundraiser but an act of support.” A runner, Rioux came up with the idea to promote a 5K run-walk (“a perfect way to get people together”) and created a partnership between Hollins and Roanoke College students to sponsor it. In just a month’s time, Rioux and others organized the event, which took place October 28 on the Roanoke College campus. With participants from Hollins, Roanoke College, and the community at large, the event raised money for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and also facilitated in-kind donations for a Roanoke College student whose family lives in Puerto Rico.
Whether it’s responding to a major natural calamity a continent away or spearheading a disaster relief initiative closer to home, Rioux encourages all students to get involved in some way. “In the future, I hope they see something like this happening and will want to take action.”
Photo caption: Natalie Badawy ’17 (front) and Meagan Rioux ’18 (second from front) assist in disaster relief efforts in Peru following widespread flooding and landslides.
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