Making a difference

Making a difference

A DREAM to use his teaching skills to help improve the lives of others is what inspired former Wangaratta resident Harry Hildebrand to leave a good job at Melbourne’s renowned Wesley College in the late 1990s and head overseas.

While he had already travelled a lot, Harry said the easy option at this stage of his life and career would have been to stay exactly where he was, but instead he wanted to shake things up; packing up stumps and setting out with a plan to teach overseas for 10 years.

When he landed in Peru, he didn’t expect to find a place he had such an affinity with (or a Peruvian–born wife), but it’s where he was to settle, establish a home and family and spend the next 25 years.

Harry, his wife Vanessa and their 14 year old son Luka – who describes himself as half llama and half kangaroo – have returned to Australia this month to visit family and friends for the first time in five years, with COVID having prevented them from making their usual biennial visit.

The former Wangaratta High School student who moved with his parents and siblings to the King Valley in the 1970s, used to play football for King Valley and later the Wangaratta Rovers.

He also played cricket for King Valley and Wangaratta’s City Colts, taking those sporting skills over to Peru where he captained the Peruvian national team and is still their president; steering them to membership of the International Cricket Council.

Harry will share his experience of living and working in Peru when he speaks at Remel 185 in Whorouly next week, and anyone interested in hearing more is welcome to come along.

He plans to talk about his role as deputy head of Markham College, a British/Peruvian school in Lima with 2000 students, the innovative program he has undertaken with students to foster a sense of social responsibility and care for others.

They will also talk about Casa Amazonas (Amazon House) – a boutique hotel and yoga retreat the couple established – which Vanessa built from the ground up on 14 hectares of Peruvian rainforest.

Harry said Peru was probably hit harder than any country in the world by COVID, with possibly the most people dying per capita and limited access to hospital beds.

He said there were also very strict lockdown rules which were enforced by the army, leaving them unable to leave the house for months and without on–site classes at school for nearly two years.

“Now it has relaxed a fair bit and we can do anything, but tourism is one of the biggest economic activities – second only to mining – and it has been severely impacted,” he said.

“People were scared of going to Peru due to COVID, and now due to advice from countries (like the Australian Government) which says it’s unsafe to travel there due to political unrest.

“We have the insider knowledge to know that’s not the case and some sensationalised news reports put people off.”

Harry said he’ll be discussing topics including the outdoor education and activities programs run at the school, including a leadership program for year 10 students.

Students attend a leadership course run at the end of that year and apply for a leadership position, and when they embark on year 11, he says they effectively run any activities which happen outside the school, relying only on advice from teachers.

“It’s great for the kids, who then go to universities all over the world where they have great success,” he said.

While the elite school is considered international, Harry says the vast majority of students are Peruvian and Spanish is the most widely spoken language, but classes are delivered in English.

“I imagined when I was first going to teach in another country that I would help kids and people who weren’t economically well off, but I quickly found out the kids I teach (from the top five per cent of the economic strata) are going to have the opportunity to make a difference in Peru,” he said.

“They are going to be better placed and certainly better educated, so I set out to take them out of their comfort zone and show them what Peru is really like.

“I take them to all sorts of different realities within their own country and it blows them away, and with that experience and understanding they are in a much better position to make a difference in whatever they do.”

Harry said over the last 25 years he’s seen his students thrive and go on to take up pivotal positions throughout Peru working in government, the education department and facilitating projects which are having a positive impact in the country, which he says is what it’s all about.

One of the projects he developed in 2007 following a devastating earthquake where thousands of people were killed and others lost everything, was to build schools, community centres and in 2010, houses for people who were still living in makeshift straw huts.

The community centres were needed in order for those communities to receive food relief from the government; Harry and teams of students setting them up across affected zones.

Since 2010 those teams have also built 450 houses on weekends, with student leaders as young as 13 working in pairs, engaging with families on what they need, then managing groups of 10 young people aged from 11 to 18 who make it happen.

Meanwhile primary students do their bit by collecting donations for the families.

Working together, they managed to build 15 houses out of concrete sheet with a pine frame in just two days.

While the building project had to pause during COVID, last year it was revived and another 72 houses were built.

“The kids go back to Lima euphoric (about what they’ve achieved) – it’s quite amazing and it’s aspirational, because they go back talking about all the things they want to do next,” Harry said.

“Projects like that give the kids an idea about what the reality of Peru is, but they also feel empowered that they can actually do something about it.

“We work on empathy not sympathy – and one of the key focuses is to work with the family – the student leaders meet with them first to find out exactly what their reality is and what they need.”

Harry said the experiences the students have had in these projects has had a remarkable impact on them later in life, helping them to achieve goals and earn scholarships to prestigious universities.

Word of the success of his projects has spread across the country; so much so, the school is now approached by communities asking for assistance; conundrums Harry asks his students to help solve.

Harry and Vanessa will talk about their incredible adventures at Remel 185 in Whorouly on Tuesday, January 24 at 7.30pm and all are welcome.

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