Impacting Meaningful Change

by Steve Dougherty

n 2009, I decided to leave a long career in political campaigning to look for something more meaningful. I had traveled some throughout the years and I knew that I wanted to spend time volunteering in a foreign country, specifically a Spanish-speaking country in Latin America. I found a great niche in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa. With a population of 1.4 million people, Arequipa is called “La Ciudad Blanca” (“The White City”) due to its many stunning baroque-style buildings made of sillar, a white volcanic stone generated from the famous “Ring of Fire” in the western Andes. With the regional distinction of being Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa has a very strong Spanish/European feel with a vibrant culture represented by a very proud people. It is also often the base for visiting Cotca Canyon, famous for its massive condors.

Taking a Leap

Because my Spanish language ability at the time was marginal and I had no real experience in social work, I was unclear about what I would actually do. But I knew this was a good time in my life to make an important change, and I was confident that I would find some way to not only make it work but make it meaningful. As I contemplated the skills that I felt would be valuable in a country so outside of my comfort zone, a central theme began to evolve: I have a capacity, desire and heart for helping people.

Making people feel valued as human beings is central to my core, especially in a world where humanity seems to have lost its way. As I evaluated the types of things that I could contribute to a community in a foreign land, I decided to teach conversational English at Mission Alto Cayma. The idea was sparked by a conversation my mother had with a close friend who volunteered at this Mission, and the plan was set into motion.

The Journey

Roughly 25 minutes up the side of one of three dormant volcanoes on the eastern side of the city, Mission Alto Cayma is a Catholic mission that helps the poor and marginalized who have moved to the city of Arequipa in search of a better life.

The people of the region are very kind and humble, and many of them are starting over. Many “immigrants” are indigenous Quechua people from the Cusco area, who speak Spanish as a second language. The mission provides many services to these new arrivals and the larger Alto Cayma community. There is a small clinic that sees roughly 22,000 people a year, a large kitchen that provides on-site and delivered meals for 250 to 800 people per day, and an orphanage that houses approximately 30 children. This is in addition to the seven parish churches that help to build a strong sense of community in the different areas.

Fast forward a decade and I have just completed my 10th visit to Mission Alto Cayma. It would be too simple to say the experience has been life-changing. What I hoped would be a meaningful adventure has developed into an annual journey that deeply feeds my soul. While I initially performed administrative tasks along with teaching English, I also helped with food preparation and food delivery. This variety exposed me to different aspects of local life, and throughout the years I observed the types of things that are needed to help this community grow and prosper.

Impacting Meaningful Change Image

In 2010, I began coordinating a large annual Peruvian fundraiser in Alaska to benefit the mission. To encourage local enterprise, I hired a group of women who knit exquisite llama and alpaca sweaters, scarves, hats and mittens to knit Alaskan animals and ornaments to be sold in Alaska. All of the funds generated go to financially help the mission. Additionally, I expanded my efforts by loading up on critical items that are unavailable in the area, too expensive to buy or, in many cases, things that individuals may not know exist. This includes kids’ backpacks, laptops, cell phones, electronics, vitamins, medicine and cosmetics. Family and friends in Alaska have really opened their hearts to try and improve the lives of the people in this beautiful country, and I have always been impressed with how far the dollar can be stretched in Peru.

Unity in Community

Four years ago, I was approached by Willy Lazo Alvarez, a baseball fan who wanted to start a baseball school in the Alto Cayma area but had only one baseball with re-stitched flaps. Soccer is the national sport in most of Latin America, and Peru is no different. There is, however, a strong baseball presence in both Lima and Arequipa. Growing up in Anchorage, I played Little League baseball and saw firsthand how it built a sense of community, so I was eager to help. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any stores that sold baseball equipment. Consequently, I started loading up on new and used equipment along with all of the other items people needed. The seed was planted, and I have enjoyed seeing the size and scope of the participation grow.

The impact of this simple game throughout the years has been amazing. The community has always been supportive of one another, but this was different. There is something uniquely special about the game of baseball that brings people together for a simple game of catch and rounding of the bases. Throughout the years, the single team has grown to four, complete with embroidered uniforms, hats and gear that allows the kids to practice and play ball every Saturday.

I attended a game this past spring and was very happy to see fantastic results continuing. There is a tangible quality in the air that speaks to community, happiness, sports and friendly competition. Parents and families are cheering on the sidelines. There is laughter, sportsmanship and even a concession cart cooking food and providing beverages. Baseball brought this community together. This year was especially rewarding with the addition of many Venezuelan kids to the teams. Peru took in one million refugees from Venezuela, and it has been especially gratifying to see my efforts grow with inclusivity.

Lead, Learn, Grow

Helping people in Peru has added a wonderful new facet to my life. The poor and marginalized people in the world can easily feel as though they are invisible and forgotten. Sometimes it takes the smallest assistance or resource to lift them up and create positive change. What assistance or resource can you provide? If you’re worried you don’t have the experience to make a difference, I want to encourage you with these four lessons I learned from my time with Mission Alto Cayma:

  1. Start small and focus on one area at a time to make improvements and expand your efforts.
  2. Be creative. You might be surprised by the skills you already have that can be utilized and appreciated in different situations.
  3. Leverage past experiences to contribute your perspective and unique knowledge. In this case, my political fundraising experience was invaluable.
  4. Reach out to your network and share your experience and/or new endeavors. This is a readily accessible bank of supporters who can help build your efforts.
  5. Welcome new ideas, expand your contacts and share your leadership knowledge. For example, I have worked closely with Health Bridges International in Portland, Oregon, so that donors who contribute through them can receive a tax deduction.

Strive Photo courtesy of Steve Dougherty Baseball Image
Photo courtesy of Steve Dougherty

I have taken it slow during my time in Arequipa and figured out what works and what doesn’t in a place so different from my day-to-day in Alaska. It has not always been easy, but the investment has returned tenfold in the people who are now part of my life, the experiences that have enriched me personally, and the knowledge that I am making a difference in some small part of the world. I encourage you to get involved. Find something that you are passionate about and reap the benefits of mindfulness and a meaningful life.

Steve Dougherty Author Image
Steve Dougherty is a third-generation Alaskan. A graduate of the University of San Diego, Dougherty earned a degree in Business Administration and has applied those skills in Alaska’s political and public policy arenas for more than two decades. For additional information or to donate items to the Peruvian community Dougherty serves, email him directly at
Steve Dougherty is a third-generation Alaskan. A graduate of the University of San Diego, Dougherty earned a degree in Business Administration and has applied those skills in Alaska’s political and public policy arenas for more than two decades. For additional information or to donate items to the Peruvian community Dougherty serves, email him directly at