Skaltsis ’13 wins Projects for Peace grant, will travel to Peru

As we approach the summer months, many of us make plans to secure jobs and internships with which to occupy ourselves for the few months following the end of the semester. In some cases, these plans are philanthropic in nature and are exceptional opportunities to bring about change in less fortunate areas of the world. For Molly Skaltsis ’13, a Davis Projects for Peace scholarship has made it possible to continue a project from last summer, helping to increase ecotourism in the Andes Mountains of Peru.

Molly began the project last summer, blazing trails alongside several waterfalls in the Andes Mountains. A local organization, the Amazon Waterfalls Association, oversees the project. The closest village is Cuispes, where many local people have begun to develop an interest in ecotourism and formed a committee to promote it. Last summer, they constructed signs from the bottom of a mountain in a small city called Pedro Ruiz, to guide ecotourists up to Cuispes. From Cuispes, tourists then pay a fee to hike the trail.

Though the project was off to a good start, it suffered from funding problems. “It was really slow-moving last summer and it was frustrating because the will was there, but the money just was not,” said Skaltsis.

In one instance, Molly tells how they tied her scarf around two trees to use as a ladder in order to get up high enough to build the roof on one of the rest-stops they were building along the trail.

Funded by philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis, the Davis Projects for Peace scholarship grants $10,000 to chosen undergraduate students who attend colleges in the Davis United World College Scholars Program and who have designed a grassroots program to promote peace and address areas of conflict in some region of the world.

Skaltsis learned of the scholarship while attending what she thought was a Watson Fellowship meeting. “This sounds like just what we need, this sounds like something that could completely turn this project around,” Skaltsis recalled thinking.

During the “grueling” application process, she worked closely with Associate Dean of Studies J. Alex Trayford, whom she met with weekly, drafting her essay about six to eight times before submission. The rest of the application included a description of the project and reasons for continuing work in the Andes, as well as a budget proposal.

There is still much to be done on the project, with about half of the 15 kilometer trek left to complete. After a section of the path is cleared, the days after are spent replanting the area using plants from a plant nursery with a ten thousand species capacity. Skaltsis admits this labor is tedious and difficult as workers must carry heavy plants and trek several kilometers up and down the trail.

This summer, however, ten fellow Wheaton College students will join Skaltsis, all of whom applied to volunteer on the project for several weeks beginning in July. Skaltsis will first lead them in an orientation to get them adjusted to the new culture and setting before beginning work on the trail.

Most of the funding from the scholarship will go to labor costs for workers from Cuispes who are helping to build a large halfway house along the trek. The grant will also help pay for plumbing, electricity, hot water and bedding for eco-tourists that they hope to house here soon. The lodge will be owned by the entire Cuispes community, with revenue going towards areas that will help better the community as a whole, like improving the local school system.

“We’re hoping that at least some of that revenue they’ll set aside for legal representation,” said Skaltsis, in case any legal disputes may arise in the future that could threaten their ownership of the area and buildings.

With the Davis Projects for Peace scholarship and additional help from Wheaton students, this project has serious potential to greatly enhance ecotourism in this area of Peru and significantly improve the livelihood of the Cuispes people. It is uncertain how long it will take to reach all of the goals of the project, but Skaltsis’ dedication and determination is clear.

“I’ll be in Peru seeing this through as long as it takes,” she said.