By Stacey Gualandi/May 4, 2011
Nancy Santullo calls the Peruvian rainforest her home. As the founder of Rainforest Flow: A House of the Children Project, she has gone deep into the Manu rainforest to bring clean, healthy water to the indigenous people who live there.
“Our lives are interconnected…as we help one child, we help all children.” Nancy Santullo
In 2000, this former fashion photographer embarked on a journey that she says not only transformed her life, but also the children who can now drink safely. Within eight years, Nancy says her organization served approximately 450 adults and children in remote areas of the rainforest.
Rainforest Flow has successfully brought clean water and reduced diseases in two remote villages, and she is about to return to help yet another one.
Nancy puts her life in danger for up to nine months at a time. To reach these villages takes several days – by plane, by jeep, by boat – with snakes, mosquitoes, and disease always posing a threat.
The rainforest is the last place I would think of for a life-altering career change, so I wanted to see why Nancy won’t stop until there’s enough drinkable water for all the tribes of the rainforest…
EYE: How and why did you select the name House of the Children?
NANCY: I was studying with my Spanish tutor, and she said how about House of the Children? I said that’s IT, the metaphoric version of the Earth, the home of all children. We are now shifting the branding on our social networking and website to the name Rainforest Flow.
EYE: You’ve just come back to the U.S. after a nine month trip. What is it like to be here in the states (for now) from the forests of Peru?
NANCY: It’s always nice to return here. I’ve learned to adapt quickly to all of my surroundings. You do shift back into having to be “on time” again. In the forest, there’s no time schedule. But now it is second nature to me.
EYE: What is it about the rainforest that attracted you?
NANCY: It’s a land energy that’s hard to put into words. Back in 1999, as I went up 13 thousand feet, then dropped down into the lowland tropical rainforest, through the clouds, I began to feel a profound experience. I understood its magnitude.
It’s a living machine. I just have the ability to connect with it and not to be afraid of it. There are lots of risks that are involved when you’re in a tropical forest.
“…I wanted to know what happens when we are more connected with our surroundings.”
EYE: What took you there initially?
NANCY: It was a sabbatical. I wanted to connect with the indigenous people…the medicine people who still worked in harmony with nature. I wanted to work with medicines that are natural. Beyond taking a pill to fix something, I wanted to know what happens when we are more connected with the land and our surroundings.
EYE: Is there one visual that captures what you are doing in the rainforest now?
NANCY: A child drinking and allowing that clean water to pass their lips is pretty magical. It had never been accomplished before for these native people.
EYE: Is that ultimately what is driving you… the children? Do you have children?
NANCY: No, and I’m single although I have about 150 adopted kids…the children that I watch over! I have a deep connection to the land and to these people. I’ve learned from them to be content on the most basic level. I’m privileged.
When that water arrives clean, as I walk back through the rainforest to our camp, tears just roll down my face…tears of gratitude. It was the experience, the journey to the tap, that was the most profound.
EYE: Have you ever considered actually adopting a child?
NANCY: No, I have always felt the children are best cared for by their own.
EYE: If you hadn’t stepped in with HOTC, what would happen to these native people?
NANCY: Native cultures have been surviving for years. What has happened is over the generations they have become more sedentary, so what they were doing in a sense was contaminating themselves and these concentrated settlements. If we didn’t come in, they would have continued to live in a horrible state.
They were sick and kids were having diarrhea for 20 days a month when we first started. It was chronic. When our efforts allowed clean water organically to come in, they began to get healthier. They integrated into this new way of living. We were able to observe the people, what worked and what didn’t, and make changes along the way. Eventually, dangerous parasites decreased 94%.
“What I said to the villagers is that they would have clean water.”
EYE: What have you been able to accomplish?
NANCY: Rainforest Flow’s emphasis is on making a lasting program of sanitation and health education. This marks the first working relationship between an indigenous tribe and an outside group.
The water for me was always the vehicle which I used to awaken a potential that went from “I can’t” to “I can”. When we first entered that village, the people didn’t believe because they have gone decades with people promising them things and not quite delivering it.
What I said to the villagers fromour recent Project Tayakome is that they would have clean water. I delivered water to them within five months. And within 14 months, we delivered a sanitation infrastructure, organic gardening and health education to the children and mothers.
EYE: That’s an amazing acomplishment. Did you always want to do this kind of work?
NANCY: No way! This was not on the multiple choice question when I was growing up. From age 12, I wanted to be a photographer. I photographed celebrities like Cameron Diaz and Anthony Hopkins. My goal was to shoot the cover of Vogue by age 28. It would have been nice, but that wasn’t my destiny. I documented the exterior beauty of people, but that led me to touch a deeper beauty within. That’s when my world began to transform.
EYE: You did have to sacrifice…
NANCY: I had to give up an old definition of who I thought I was. By choice in 2000 I began to sell all of my things that were in storage which included every beautiful piece of furniture I had. I was so angry at first at a friend who suggested I do this, but within a month everything was gone.
My passion, my purpose, changed in me because I was willing to let go and take that step. My mantra is: “Please guide me to a place in the world where I will most grow the soul.” Maybe I should start to say “where I will be comfortable, too.” Ha!!
EYE: Right…sleeping on a 2-inch mattress can’t be that fun?
NANCY: I joke that I traded all of my designer furniture – the Nancy Corzine table – for a Eureka tent and a 2-inch piece of foam!!!
NANCY: From base camp in Cusco, I drive 8 -10 hours northeast into the tropical forest on a one-lane dirt road. I am one of only two women I’ve seen drive this road. There’s always two-way traffic on one lane, so literally every time you go in, you take your life in your hands with head-on collisions.
Then we get on a 16 meter riverboat with a roof, and it is a two to four day trip along the river. It’s raining…it’s cold…it’s physically not easy. All I can say is there’s something greater than myself, and there’s an ability to adapt to challenging surroundings.
You don’t have a choice. It pushes your physical limit. As the director if I cave or whine, the crew will too. I submerge and adapt. The forest has been my greatest teacher and helped me to stop whining!!
EYE: What about the mosquitoes?
NANCY: There are more than you can imagine. They are very problematic on the three day boat ride to the villages because we camp on the edges of the river banks. The best I can do upon arriving at our night camp is set up my tent FAST. I only leave for a bathroom run.
I wear long sleeves always, especially from 6 pm to 6 am. That is the most dangerous time for contacting things like malaria. They just bite me enough to keep me humble and keep me there working to the good of the whole.
EYE: Have you ever had close calls with illnesses, snakes bites, or anything else that you have to concern yourself with in the rainforest?
NANCY: Back in 2005 I contacted typhoid fever and lice in the same day! Hay Caramba! I was not happy. The lice took almost a month to get rid of, but the typhoid was better inside of a week.
No snake bites, but there is a big black ant that bites. It’s a most intense pain that lasts for six hours. I have gotten bitten twice over all the years. The first time I was bit, I could not sit or lay for over four hours. The pain was so intense.
All I could do is pace back and forth until it passed. The second time, I was smart enough to have my extractor with me. You put it over the bite and suck out the venom or sting.
EYE: How scary! How do you stay in contact while deep in the rainforest? Can you actually get wireless?
NANCY: I can get wireless at my hotel in the main pueblo where our jungle office is, outside of our pilot community of Huacaria. Once we begin our boat travel, about two days into the trip, I can get a very slow wireless connection at a biological research station in the protected zone via satellite.
Villages in the protected zone are equipped with one public phone charged by solar panels that links into a satellite connectiion, but there is no formal means of electricity.
We bring in a generator so that the team in residence can charge batteries, operate carpenter equipment, and watch movies at night or listen to music.
The jungle will be fully online soon enough I predict. Cell phone coverage has already moved into some of the more colonized jungle villages that have populations of 2500 or more.
EYE: When you first left for the rainforest, you’ve said your parents thought you were crazy. Do they still feel that way now?
NANCY: They are so proud, but they still ask me why I continue to stay there. They still don’t understand why it is that I choose to live with that risk on a daily basis.
EYE: You’ve accomplished an unbelievable challenge. What is your next goal?
NANCY: I want to turn this into a global model. We want to replicate it within 10 communities in the Amazon. Then we want to share this with other countries like Brazil, the Congo, countries that have the most rainforest coverage.
We want a model that protects the rainforest through helping the people integral to its existence. The forest prospers and the people get healthy. They protect their land from outside encroachment because they are stronger, empowered, and educated.
EYE: If I went along on this trip with you… any advice from one female to another in dealing with humidity?
NANCY: Mind over matter!!! Be accustomed to being sweaty, dirty, not looking in a mirror for days. You have to transcend those fears or you’re going to be miserable out there.
“The journey is awakening humanity’s potential…making the impossible possible.”
EYE: What have you learned so far on your challenging journey?
NANCY: Water is the vehicle but it’s really secondary. The journey is awakening humanity’s potential…making the impossible possible. I believe that our lives are interconnected and that as we help one child, we help all our children.
EYE: We wish you much success as you prepare for your next trip to Peru on the 20th. Send us some photos! Be safe. And don’t forget your extractor!!! People can find out more about your organization by visiting Rainforest Flow: A House of the Children Project.
And a huge thank you to Virginia Paca, the gardener with a homegrown foodbank we profiled last fall, who told me about Nancy’s mission in the Peruvian rainforest!