By Melanie Sharpe

The actors, along with nine other enthusiastic Canadians, laced up their hiking boots and set out on a rugged nine-day trek – sleeping in tents, cooking around a fire and enduring extreme altitudes. The trek was a test of personal endurance and team work but most importantly, it was in support of UNICEF’s work for the world’s children.

Trekking Machu Picchu was UNICEF Canada’s first ever Charity Challenge, an opportunity for Canadians to combine their love for adventure travel with fundraising to support UNICEF’s work ensuring the hardest to reach children survive and thrive.

Participants signed up for the challenge last year and spent months training and raising funds for UNICEF programs they would eventually visit in person. When the actors heard about the trek they immediately agreed to take on the challenge.

“I’ve supported UNICEF for years now, so when I heard about the opportunity to go on this incredible trip, and meet children and families who benefit from an organization I am so committed to, I knew it was an experience I couldn’t miss,” said Sullivan.

Blessings from the mountain gods After a 4 hour bus ride out of Cusco the group started their trek from Peru’s breathtaking Sacred Valley. There are about 24,000 kilometers of Inca Trails throughout the Andes. The UNICEF group would take the less popular but more scenic Lares Valley route to Machu Picchu.

Before setting out from the Valley the actors built small rock statues on the mountain side – an ancient tradition of asking the Inca Mountain Gods for a safe and successful journey. The trek was a success but at points the route was treacherous.

Some people were physically ill from the altitude; others were out of breath, exhausted, and had blisters. But the scenery was simply spectacular – with farmers herding sheep and alpaca, and children in bright traditional clothing running through the mountains to and from school.

On day seven Charlotte, Peter, Priscilla and Peter arrived together at the Sun Gate – the official entrance to Machu Picchu and spent a day and a half exploring the ancient Inca ruins.

“The sight of Machu Picchu really takes your breath away, but it was equally moving to meet the local farmers and children from the communities,” says Stebbings. “It really was an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience – something I will never forget.”

After the thrill of reaching the Lost City, the entire group headed out to see firsthand the UNICEF programs they help support. no child too far Like many countries in the Americas, indigenous children are particularly vulnerable, and are the hardest to reach in Peru.

Nearly 80 percent of indigenous children between the ages of three and 17 live in poverty compared to 40 percent of Peruvian children whose first language is Spanish. Indigenous children also suffer higher rates of malnutrition, anemia, and death, as well as have more limited access to safe water, education, and timely birth registration.

In Peru, UNICEF reaches these children with health and nutrition care, better education and improved water and sanitation.

The first stop for the group was a small primary school in Ccuani, a remote village several hours away from Cusco.
Funded with support by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) the school-based child-friendly education program focuses on gender equity and child rights. Children are taught in Spanish and Quechua, the local language, giving them the greatest advantage to stay in school and succeed as adults.

The actors were greeted by a teacher, community leaders and 19 children in the small two room school. After an introduction, students read poems, proudly showed off their school work and performed traditional dance and music. After the presentations, the group had a chance to talk and visit with the children.

“Ccuani was a very remote community. The children were so full of life and proud to show us their school and their schoolwork. It was so im pressive to see that UNICEF reaches these children and makes such a significant impact on their lives,” said Faia.

The rest of the day was spent at a UNICEF supported nutrition centre that improves the health of expecting mothers and children 3 and under. “The entire experience was very rewarding. The stunning scenery during the trek and having the opportunity to meet children who come from such a different place but who we were all able to connect with,” says Mooney.

It is clear the inspiring nine day journey was not just about searching for Peru’s ancient past, but also supporting the country’s future generation.

“Participating in a UNICEF Charity Challenge provides Canadians with an incredible opportunity to travel, immerse themselves in a new culture and visit communities who are reached with the life-saving work their fundraising helps support,” says UNICEF Canada’s President and CEO David Morley. “We look forward to even more people getting involved next year.”

For more information visit www.unicef.org