Many people in Utah are familiar with the organization EFY, or Especially for Youth, a teen seminar affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some may also know of AFY — Adventure for Youth.

But recently, I found out about and had the opportunity to participate in HEFY. Can you guess what it stands for? Humanitarian Experience for Youth.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming. It’s basically just what it sounds like; a group of about 20 youth, along with two parent volunteers and two HEFY-assigned young adult trip leaders, who get the chance to fly to a different country and participate in a humanitarian project.

Our trip was one of 150 different HEFY trips this year in 19 countries on six continents.

I’d been wanting to go on a humanitarian trip for a while, and this was the perfect opportunity, because I’d also been wanting to go to Machu Picchu for an even longer while. So, when there were available spots for a trip to Cusco, Peru, I clicked the apply button faster than you can say, “Do I really want to spend almost three weeks of my summer vacation doing manual labor?”

After spending the first two days traveling, we finally arrived at 10 p.m. at Aguas Calientes, the city right at the base of Machu Picchu. After a brisk 4 a.m. wake-up, we embarked on the harrowing bus ride up to the top of the mountain. Now, while it’s scary and all to look out the window and be so close to the edge that all you can see is cliff, what’s even crazier is when the buses have to pass each other.

Does it seem possible? Nope. Does it still happen? You betcha.

Mysteries unlocked

After we showed our passports about three different times, we finally entered the Huayna Picchu trail shortly after 7 a.m. This is the tallest mountain in the vicinity that overlooks Machu Picchu.

Not many people get to hike this mountain, as you need a permit and have to arrive on time. It’s also considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the world, as there are zero guard rails and the drop is more than 2,000 feet, not to mention the crumbling, foot-wide steps.

After a brutal hour-long hike up ancient, uneven Incan stairs that often came to mid-thigh, we checked out some of the ruins and finally reached the top — which was only about 20 feet in diameter. The view was amazing, and I had more than a little bit of fun chucking rocks off the mountain and watching until they disappeared from view.

The city was, of course, also amazing. It was super cool to be there in person, and our tour guide explained lots of things I’d never known before. For example, the Inca built all their windows and buildings slanted inward in a trapezoid shape. Result? All the Spanish colonial buildings have collapsed from earthquakes, but the 500-year-old Incan cities are unscathed.

The guide also showed us how almost everything in the city is aligned with the sun in some way.

After a night in Aguas Calientes, we went back to Cusco. They talk about the mile-high city, but at 11,000 feet, I was much more impressed with Cusco, the two-mile high city. We finished our weekend with some more sightseeing and market shopping and a tour of the Temple of the Sun while resisting the impulse to pet the thousands of stray dogs that roam the streets.

But then, that Monday, the real work started.

Digging new spaces

From there on out, we spent every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the worksite. Our project was to build two classrooms within a school complex called Puscarpampa, in the Cusco suburb of Puscarpampa.

Every child there either came from a bad family background or suffered from a mental illness, so it was a very special experience to be serving them. There isn’t currently enough room for all the students, so the older kids are forced to come from 3 p.m. till late in the night — which is why we were building classrooms.

We were the first HEFY group to come this year, and we’re also the first group to ever serve in Cusco. For every HEFY project, there are five groups of kids, each group completing a different part of the project.

Since we were the first, we got the fun job — digging. All day, every day. We used pickaxes and shovels to dig huge trenches that were about 1.5 feet deep interspersed with 16 holes that were each 4-foot by 4-foot by 4-foot.

Now, that’s all very fine and well, except the ground wasn’t ground so much as rocks. People talk about, “Oh, the ground in my yard is so rocky,” but I’m telling you, this was crazy. You would swing a pickaxe and it would bounce right back because you hit a rock. So you’d dig it out and swing again and it’d bounce back because you hit another rock.

And another rock. And another rock.

We ended up with enough rocks to fill about a 20-foot by 10-foot by 5-foot space. And then we washed them all in a wheelbarrow bath before throwing them back into the very trenches they came from in order to strengthen the cement.

Helping kids

As one of the lucky few, I also spent a great deal of time bending rebar, which is a steel rod used as a support in the concrete. It took some convincing for the male Peruvian foreman to allow a female such as myself to bend it, but he finally relented, and so I spent hours bending steel with my bare hands.

Never thought I’d write that sentence!

Every day we had to bend rebar into squares and tie it onto big columns for use in the walls, and I helped bend almost 500 of those things.

By the time we left, we had almost entirely finished the foundation for both classrooms. The groups after us will continue on building the walls, putting on the roof, installing windows, painting and so on, until Puscarpampa will have two brand-new rooms and hopefully enough space for all the students to come at the same time.

And really, that was by far the best part of the trip; we played with the kids every day, kicking a soccer ball around, going on the slides, swinging them around, giving them piggyback rides. They loved to be with us and we loved to be with them, and I’ve never met such innocent and amazing and humble children.

It was a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget.

McKenzie Leininger will be a senior this fall at Bonneville High School. She loves engineering, dogs and skiing. Email her at fiorgaoth@gmail.com.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!