In 2008, writer and television and radio host Pay Chen spent a week at an orphanage in Peru. She travelled there with non-profit voluntourism organization Globe Aware, which hosts trips around the world with the intention of promoting “cultural awareness and/or sustainability.” Pay originally shared this story via Instagram, and has allowed us to republish it. Follow Pay on Twitter or Instagram @PayChen.
This was my first solo trip. The children here were fortunate in some ways — unlike most orphanages, many of the kids had some family. They were sent here because their families could not afford to care for them and would have to take them out of school to work and earn money if they stayed at home. The kids who had family would walk home to visit for a day on the weekend. Many would walk three hours each way with no complaints.
When I arrived with some American volunteers, we were asked if any of us had cut hair before — none of us had. With limited resources, they were always looking for ways to save money. The girls had long, thick, beautiful hair that they typically washed once a week. I was asked to cut their hair to help save on shampoo. Imagine the pennies you would save on shampoo by shedding a few inches of hair? Those pennies mattered.
The girls were very upset but they didn’t complain or protest. This girl in the photo was incredibly nervous. She did not speak English and I did not speak Spanish. But I understood she did not want me to cut off more than I had to.
She is clutching the first lock of hair I snipped — and she continued to do so the entire time I hacked away with dull scissors. When I was done, she bolted, fleeing with her hair in her fist. I’m certain she went to cry. This orphanage allowed the kids to go to school, provided tutoring and meals. They were happy kids. Except for that one barber shop day.