LIMA, Peru — Scores of Peruvian babies were dying preventable deaths when a young doctor in Lima signed up for neonatal resuscitation training in 2000.
Tania Paredes was bright, professional and conscientious. It hurt to watch 18 of every 1,000 children die near birth. The training provided by LDS Charities lit a spark in her.
Paredes has worked tirelessly to help her country’s infant mortality rate improve from 18 per 1,000 to 10 per 1,000 last year. In Lima, the rate is 8 per 1,000. She gives part of the credit to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors LDS Charities.
"The training the church has provided has been a significant reason for the reduction in mortality rates here," Paredes said.
On Friday, as Paredes spoke and the church's leader, President Russell M. Nelson, boarded a flight to Lima to begin a five-nation tour of South America, the impact the church, often called the Mormon church, has had on millions of Peruvians was evident throughout the capital city and beyond.
In fact, LDS Charities has helped 4.6 million people in Peru since 1985, according to statistics provided by the church, which now has 593,854 members in the country.
President Nelson will speak to missionaries from five missions in Lima on Saturday afternoon in a meeting to be broadcast to all missionaries in the South America Northwest Area. On Saturday night, he will speak at a devotional that will be broadcast throughout Peru from the Coliseo Mariscal Caceres, an indoor arena with a capacity of 7,000.
At the top of 155 steep cement stairs carved into a hillside in an impoverished district of Lima, little children danced, sang the national anthem and shouted, "Viva Peru!" during an emotional ceremony at their preschool.
Just a few months ago, their parents and teachers condemned their ramshackle building. They considered the Heart of Jesus Preschool, closed for good, a harsh end for neighborhood children ages 3 to 5. On Friday they celebrated in and around three small, prefabricated buildings provided by the church that they said revived the school.
"We couldn't have done it without the church's help because there isn't enough money here," said Jenny Velasquez, the head teacher. "The families could not have funded it themselves."
Some of the parents carried the prefabricated wooden walls up those stairs themselves. The buildings, with corrugated roofs, will allow the school to double in size from 20 to 40. The church member who learned about the school’s plight and suggested helping was in Italy on Friday. She cried with joy as she joined the event via FaceTime.
At about the same time, the children sang a song: "If you have the faith of a mustard seed."
The relative scale of the project was small, but the impact in an economically challenged area was large.
"I'm very emotional," said Hilda Pacheco, who runs a nearby shop, during the ceremony. "We're grateful for the help you're giving our children. Thank you very much."
"We have 41 active projects in the country now," said Elder Floyd Rose, 60, a former IBM executive serving with his wife Sister Valene Rose, 59, as Welfare Services missionaries in Lima.
Some of them are far larger.
Two hours after the school celebration on Friday, in a chapel across the city of 10 million people, the blind president of the National Federation of Disabled People said he was "profoundly grateful" to the church as his organization distributed some of the 1,150 canes and 1,150 braille readers LDS Charities has provided this year.
"The cane is the symbol of independence for the vision-impaired," added Olga Marthe Villacrisis, director of the Luis Braille School.
"It's a great opportunity as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be able to share with you, to serve you in the way our Father in Heaven would serve you and his son Jesus Christ would," said Isidro Vilchez, first counselor of the Las Brisas Ward.
Meanwhile, at the Institute of National Rehabilitation, a hardworking doctor-nurse team prepared for the December arrival of shipping container from China bearing 1,200 wheelchairs from LDS Charities, which provides 95 percent of the wheelchairs distributed by INR.
"Having a wheelchair changes lives," said the nurse, Diana Cam Chiok.
Chiok told the story of a mother who carried her 40-pound daughter to school everyday. Then INR provided them with a wheelchair from the church.
"Now the mother takes her daughter to school easier," Chiok said. "And her daughter can play at school, where the other children push her around in her chair. That chair changed the mom's life and it changed the child's life."
The need is keen in Peru, where steep challenges are common as speed bumps the locals call "axel-breakers." In fact, 10 percent of the population has some form of disability, the country's president, Martin Vizcarra, said on Tuesday, the national day for persons with disabilities.
Of those, 48 percent are vision-impaired, according to Julio Guzman, president of the National Federation of Disabled People, and 25 percent need wheelchairs, according to INR.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been working for years in Peru helping people who are disabled," Guzman told those receiving new canes.
"Working together (for) Peru means working for an inclusive country that treats all Peruvians on an equal footing," Vizcarra said at a wheelchair basketball event on Tuesday.
Claudia Villenueva, 42, is a hard-working single mother of two who scrapped to raise two children alone, working as a waitress and in the kitchen at a club. In 2016, her Latter-day Saint bishop called her to facilitate one of the church's Self-Reliance Services classes.
Scared, she tried, but the participants dropped out. It took another start and six months to complete the course, but it inspired her to return to school to study fashion design. She applied for a loan from the church's Perpetual Education Fund and received about $2,300.
Fear returned when she turned on an industrial sewing machine for the first time. Zip. When she pressed the foot pedal, her material when flying. But before long, she had mastered all of the machines and learned how to use computer software to design clothes. She is scheduled to graduate in January, two months after her oldest child returns from a church mission to Argentina.
"He tells people, 'My mom is a fashion designer," Villenueva said. "It makes him proud. He's asked me to design a tie for him when he comes home."
She began to cry.
"I've learned to trust in the Lord. "It was a miracle. I'm happier. When my son left two years ago, I was just beginning the Self-Reliance group and hadn't even started school. Now he says, "When I come home, I'll find a new mom."
Since 2001, the church has provided 12,600 loans to Peruvians, said Melissa Riley, senior manager of strategic initiatives.
The church's self-reliance courses also have generated what it calls 23,500 "starts on the path to self-reliance in Peru since March 2015, she said. That includes 7,100 businesses started or improved, 8,400 people who have started or completed an education program, 6,300 people who have found a new or better job and 1,700 who have completed a personal finance course.
Additionally, the church-owned BYU-Pathway Worldwide program has launched new English courses in Peru and neighboring countries. More than 13,000 people in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia since August, said Sister Lily Rosario, a church missionary from Durango, Colorado, who works in the faith's South America Northwest Area office in Lima.
Freedom of religion
Guillermo Garcia-Montufar is a Catholic law professor at the Universidades of Lima who has served as outside counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Peru for 39 years.
He has watched the church grow quickly. In the 1980s, he said, he was helping the faith buy three to four sites for meetinghouses each year. In one year in the 1990s, he saw the church buy 60 sites for chapels and the site for the Peru Lima Temple. Today the church has a temple in Trujillo, too, and another under construction in Arequipa.
But for him, the church's impact in his nation extends beyond its growth.
The church has worked with a past First Lady of Peru and through Brigham Young University and its International Center for Law and Religion Studies it helped Peru cement religious freedom in law.
BYU law professors helped Garcia-Montufar draft the law, which passed unanimously in Peru's Congress in 2010 to the benefit of all churches, he said.
He also praised the humanitarian work the church does to respond to earthquakes and, most recently, a volcanic eruption.
"The benefits that come from the church to all Peruvians can be found in the social programs the church has in the country," he said.
Saving mothers, too
Neonatal training has saved thousands of babies' lives in Peru, and it would not exist in Peru without LDS Charities and the church, Paredes said. It is not part of any university curriculum, because schools don't have the equipment and mannequins that the church leaves behind after each training.
The doctors and nurses who receive the training pass it on themselves, using the equipment. Next month, Paredes and three others will travel, using their own vacation time as they do for all the trainings they hold, to Florida to take a recertification course.
Since the first training in 2000, she and other doctors have trained over 500 doctors and nurses in and around Lima how to save an asphyxiating baby. Since 2006, LDS Charities has trained another 100 Peruvian doctors per year, conducting two trainings annually in targeted areas of the country.
Usually, they are in the mountains or jungles, where the neonatal mortality rate remains as high as it was throughout the country in 2000.
"This training has filled a gap here," Paredes said. "It's a seed that will continue to grow."
In 2016, the church added new training to help mothers survive childbirth, focused especially on hemorrhaging. The more women are educated about childbirth in Peru, the lower their mortality rate in childbirth. Teenage mothers are at the highest risk, Paredes said.
But overall, maternal deaths have fallen almost by half.
The church seeks organizations or individuals who can act as partners on every project, said Alexander Principe, welfare specialist for the faith's South America Northwest Area. He called INR with wheelchairs and Guzman's group for the vision-impaired "premier partners."
Principe said the church's primary welfare focus in Peru is on education for children ages 3 to 8 and the health of mothers and children. Each project is designed to include help from church members along with the work of a partner usually outside the church.
Paredes is "the church's champion" in the neonatal program in Peru, he said.
"Our personal satisfaction," Paredes said of the doctors with whom she trains other doctors, "is seeing the improvement in the ability to help people in these health situations. I saw so many babies die when I started in 1998. It was hard. We've been able to create a team that is very motivated, with support from the church."