Running with Smiles: A Story of Community and Joy

By Olivia Nelli (PCV in Ancash, Peru)
Feb. 22, 2024

"Huffing and puffing, I am trying to make it up the hill. Only a little more to go, but I can feel my lungs burning due to the lack of oxygen. I feel as if I might have to walk to the finish line, but in between the pauses of the song in my headphones, I hear someone yelling "Senorita Olivia, Senortiaaaaa Oliviaaaaa". I take a quick glance back with the energy I have left and see running right behind me and cheering me on are a few of my amiguitos with big smiles on their faces. Their energy is contagious, and we make it to the finish line sprinting, where I collapse, but they are jumping around and asking to do it again.

Running at 10,000 feet is by no means an easy task. However, running has always been an outlet for me when I am under stress -- it gets me outside, breathing fresh air and interacting with my environment as well as allowing me to process my thoughts and emotions. It is a hobby that, while extremely challenging, brings me lots of joy and has taught me many lessons in strength, resilience, and accomplishing goals. When I arrived in Peru, with the stress of trainings, learning a new language, and living in a new culture, running was the activity that I immediately turned to in my free time to help me process and overcome all these new challenges. Little did I know that running in my tiny, rural site in the highlands of Ancash would provide me with a unique way to connect with my community.

kids running

In my first months in my community, you could often find me doing a combination of running and walking down the main streets of my town -- adjusting to the altitude and stopping and talking with all that were there. As I got to know my community more, I found a regular route that began above the plaza, brought me down the main highway and looped back around to the plaza through various farms. Initially, when I ran this route, kids would pop up, stare, and ask questions but always would keep their distance. However, over time, I found that they started to follow behind me first with distance, then at my ankles, and finally, until they were running ahead of me and yelling at me to catch up. The number of participants and the activity itself have grown every day since then, starting with 4 primary-aged kids running aimlessly with the "gringa" to now around 20 primary- and secondary-aged youth participating in an official after school running club.

group of runners

The structure of the running club has changed a little bit since the original days, but the idea has always stayed the same -- to provide the youth of my community with a meaningful and productive outlet to spend their time. Almost every afternoon between 4:30 and 5:00 pm, youth trickle into the plaza, a time when they normally would be in their houses playing videogames on their phones, ready to play a number of games from freeze tag to hide-and-seek to soccer. Through the club, youth have an opportunity to exercise and run around in a fun manner, while they also learn about respecting others and rules (through respecting the rules of the game), teamwork, active listening (when learning how a game is played), controlling and regulating their emotions (when they lose a game) and positive gender relations. Kids who were known to play "rough" or cheat to get ahead in a game are now participating in a kind, friendly manner. Girls are no longer scared to play with the boys, and the boys know that some of the girls are even better than them at soccer. I have seen and continue to see positive behavior growth in every single one of the children and adolescents that come and participate.

While I don't have the personal running time anymore to process the challenges of service, I get to participate in something even better now. I get to share the hobby of running that is so special to me with my community while creating magical moments that are full of smiles, laughter, hugs, and high-fives."

kids playing in street