what? A staircase? You can’t be serious! ​I thought with a sinking heart. I’d come 4,000 miles to Peru to do something meaningful to improve people’s lives. How could building a staircase mean anything?

It was the end of my senior year of high school, and my brother had asked whether I’d like to tag along with him on a mission trip. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to help people, so I agreed. A few weeks later, we found ourselves in San Juan de Miraflores which is part of the metropolitan area of Lima, Peru.

After settling into our hostel and meeting some of the members of our group, we headed to the lobby where we were divided into teams and assigned projects. I waited with eager anticipation, wondering how I’d be able to contribute to a Miraflores community on this trip. Maybe I’d get to shadow a doctor for the week or assist a dentist or teach children critical hygiene skills. Finally, the leader, Andrew, reached our group. “Your team,” he announced with enthusiasm, “is going to build a staircase!”

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I was beyond disappointed, but the next morning, I was standing at the foot of a large, steep hill with my team, ready to start our project. The hill, like the rest of the barren landscape, was covered in small, crowded homes, their tin roofs glinting the blinding light of the sun. I wondered how the inhabitants managed to navigate the precipitous terrain. I was surprised to learn that they climbed up and down it multiple times a day, carrying bags of groceries, tanks of water, and children!

While waiting for instructions, I stumbled upon what looked like the remains of an old set of stairs. They were covered in loose gravel and barely deep enough to accommodate a person’s foot. Do the people actually use this? I wondered, deciding to give it a try. I’d only taken two steps when I lost my balance, landing on one knee. Fortunately, I was able to scramble back up before anyone noticed.

Soon our leader motioned for us to climb to the top of the hill to begin working on the staircase. I tried to dig my feet into the dirt to gain a foothold, but within moments I tumbled down to the bottom. Feeling a little embarrassed, I was relieved that most of my teammates were also struggling. The community members seemed to find our clumsy attempts amusing, but they kindly came to our aid, holding our hands and pulling us along. Finally, we reached our destination.

I’d been pouring cement about an hour when the absurdity of what I was doing hit me again. I could have built a staircase somewhere back home if I’d wanted to, I thought, wiping beads of sweat from my face. Why did I come all this way to build one? Feeling the need to get away for a few minutes, I decided to go get a drink.

As I began to chug down some water, I felt a tap on my sunburnt shoulder. I was surprised to see one of the local women who had been helping us carry bricks. There was an awkward moment of silence until she began to speak. “You see this hill here?” she asked me in Spanish. “I tried climbing up it and fell, and that is how my child died. I had to give birth to a dead child.”

At first, I was so shocked that I could only focus on her moving mouth, her words washing over me. But as she continued to share her story, a small part of her emotions became mine. If she’d only had proper stairs with a railing, like we were building now, perhaps the pain in her eyes wouldn’t be there. I looked at her misty-eyed, completely at a loss for words. At that moment, all I could do was give her a hug.

Her story changed my outlook. No longer was building a staircase a meaningless task. The hill would no longer pose a threat to life. Young and old would now be able to travel to see loved ones with greater ease. Arduous tasks like carrying water and supplies loaded on heads and shoulders would now be a little easier.

At the end of the week, the village threw a party to celebrate the completion of the new staircase. I don’t know who was happier that day, them or us!

Now, when life gets rough for me and I’m enticed to give up, the image of this woman comes to mind; the memory of her grasping my arm, the sacred moment of her sharing her story. ​She helped me learn one of the greatest lessons of my life: sometimes the biggest difference can begin with a single step.

My view from the hilltop in San Juan de Miraflores, Peru, where I would help build a staircase during my mission trip.
The new staircase spanned the entire length of the hill.

Shannon Grewal From California, United States, Shannon Grewal is earning a biomedical science degree at La Sierra University in California.