Thousands of kilometers away in the popular tourist city of Cusco, Peru, Nathan Beninger and his wife are raising their young daughter.
However, apart from the beautiful sights one’s imagination might place them in, Beninger and his family decide to live and work among a darker truth.
“In the last year, child prostitution has doubled in Peru,” said Beninger, a Nelson native who operates a shelter for young girls who have been severely abused or sexually exploited.
A photographer by trade, Beninger first went to Peru to capture its natural beauty. What he stumbled upon was the beauty of the country’s people.
His mission to change lives began in 2005 after volunteering at a similar shelter for young girls.
“I just saw how poorly managed it was and I wanted to do something more for these kids in regards to rehabilitation and helping them finish their schooling,” he said.
“It’s a tough case when you’re working with some of these kids who have suffered from child prostitution.”
The Pura Vida Foundation — which means Pure Life in Spanish — was established in 2005 with the goal setting up a permanent shelter. A small shelter was finally realized in 2009 and now there is a push to build a larger facility.
Currently at the shelter, Beninger and his wife are housing six children, one of which has a two-year-old baby boy.
Beninger said child prostitution is on the rise due to such extreme poverty that families are selling their children.
“The owners of these brothels will come into Cusco and in the mountain towns where the poverty level is almost 100 per cent and tell their parents that they’ll be working at a restaurant or as a nanny and offer to send them $15 a month for their work, but in reality they’re being exploited for God knows what.”
Beninger said the social service program in the area is like any other third-world country — very undermanned.
“A lot of times my wife and I will have to go pick girls up who have been severely abused or beaten up and they’ll stay with us for a night or a week until they find another place because right now at our house there is very little space.”
Currently, his own family is also living in the shelter, but he hopes that one day they will have the funds to build a bigger shelter that will hold up to 30 children.
“A lot of people don’t know that we’re working for no money. My parents give me $300 a month so we can buy Pampers and stuff for our daughter, but we don’t make any money,” he said.
“My wife and I will get paid a penny for what we do here — which is fine it doesn’t bother me, I chose to do this and I’m not doing this so I can buy flat-screen TV’s and nice cars — but it’s a 24-hour job for us, so what we really need is to have a bigger shelter.”
“We’ve told the social workers hundreds of times that we have no more space, but they still bring us kids and it’s really hard to say no. I’m not going to say no to an 11-year-old kid that’s been forced into prostitution for the last year… if she’s not going to stay with us, I know where she’s going to go and it just makes be feel so bad,” said Beninger, who has taken the burden upon himself to care for the children with the little resources he has.
“I’ll tell you the honest truth, the last couple years I’ve just wanted to quit. A lot of people say ignorance is bliss, and if I never knew about this I would be living in my own little bubble, but I do know about this and it’s really hard.”
Despite the lack of funds and the difficulty with his mission, Beninger says there’s still unbelievable change that occurs.
“They were born into this and their life path was already chosen for them when they were born and we are literally changing their life path from severe abuse, prostitution, living on the street… we’re changing these kid’s lives in a way that is unbelievable… but here it’s more evident because they’re living with us and we’re seeing how we’re changing their lives little by little,” said Beninger.
“The first time they come it’s really hard because the street life, there’s no love, there’s no rules, there’s nothing, but six months later they’re starting to have respect and they’re actually enjoying going to school.”
“It’s a real trip for me how one person can change another person’s life so dramatically.”
The city of Nelson will have a chance to make a difference in Peru at a fundraiser January 27 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Selkirk College 10th Street Campus for a night of Latin food and dancing with Nathan Beninger as a speaker. Tickets for the event can be purchased at Kootenay Valley Financial and Mountain Waters Spa for $60.