Munay Project


[Munay is a Quechua word meaning unconditional love.]

While we were in Peru in 2007, Vanishing Cultures Foundation was touched by an eleven-year old boy named Elmer who had an affinity for art. He was working with the herdsman, leading our group on Mt. Salcantay, to help support his family in Mollepata.

We all felt a strong connection to Elmer along with a huge desire to help him. As we discussed the possibilities in our tent that night, our first Munay Project was born.

Elmer now travels four hours into Cuzco most Saturdays to study art with a renowned Cuzco artist. Because of the efforts of VCF this child has been given a huge opportunity to better his life.

With the success of this project, we are hopeful that there will be more children we can help in the future as part of our Munay Project.


“I’m being kidnapped!” yelled one of our group from up ahead. We were all relieved to see that she and her horse were just being guided up a different path by an 11-year old boy with no kidnapping intentions. This little boy, named Elmer, along with five other herdsmen, led us through the mountains to Salcantay. However, it was Elmer who struck a chord with us. He wore tattered sweatpants, a light jacket and the typical “made from old tires” sandals. (Mind you, we wore hiking boots, down coats, hats, scarves and slept in 20 below rated sleeping bags.) He was a very quiet, timid, shy boy with eyes that glowed and a radiant smile. 

As the days went on, Elmer warmed up to us crazy Americans. He would sing as he guided the mules and horses and actually joined a ceremony we performed by the lake. He saw our obsession with rocks and spent time gathering quartz and distributing it as gifts to each of us. The last night we were at Salcantay, we gave Elmer crayons and paper and the use of a headlamp. He lay in our communal tent drawing pictures of mountains for all of us. We were all so surprised to see such talent in this young boy. We asked him why he wasn’t in school. He told us his family couldn’t afford the $70 to send him. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we would be paying this for him.

Elmer’s spirit came alive when he was with us. He finally was able to relax and just be an 11-year-old boy. He got to lie in a tent and have seven mothers showering him with attention. He got to spend the next morning blissfully blowing bubbles. For this short time, he had not a care in the world. 

On the way down the mountain, we dropped Elmer off in Mollepata to run home to get his mother. We went ahead to his school to register and pay for him. He and his mother were supposed to meet us there. We found that surprisingly he was already registered and paid for. The teachers told us that his alcoholic, abusive stepfather forced him to work to help support the family and would not let him go to school. Our hearts were broken. We waited for Elmer and his mother at the school for about an hour and they did not show up as we all had suspected. As we left Mollepata to go back to our hotel, we all felt an incredible heavy sadness for this amazing, straight-A student who stole our hearts. 

The next day, after spending the whole night thinking about him and where he might be and what really happened when he got home, we were in the van driving around Cusco when suddenly someone yelled “Hey, that boy looks like Elmer.”  We stopped, threw open the van door and grabbed this child, taking him into the van. Actually, we were kidnapping him!!!  We squealed and hugged this boy for a good 3 minutes. We all had tears in our eyes and big huge smiles across our faces and in our hearts. He told us that he rode the four hours into Cusco just to look for us. He said he even went out to the airport thinking we would be there. He confirmed the connection we all felt to him. We entertained him for the evening taking him to a party, feeding him well and showering him with even more love and attention. We even introduced him to an artist who offered him weekly art lessons. We said goodbye to Elmer after the night was over, leaving him with two very loving people in Cusco for that night and any other night he might need a safe place to be. We all left in tears, giving him our jackets, our money and lots of other small gifts.

Elmer will forever be a part of my heart. He truly is an “old soul” who has had a hard life so far. He is blessed with talent, charm and innocence. In our brief time with him he was allowed to just be an 11-year old little boy and feel our love. Our sadness turned into hope in those few short moments in Cusco when we found him or when he found us. I hope that he will always remember us and keep our love for him in his heart. He can carry with him the love of his seven American mothers and his two American fathers anytime he feels lonely. 

by Alison Winters

    © 1995-2011 Vanishing Cultures Foundation, Inc. -All Rights Reserved