About 13 years ago, Jeff Lobach and his family visited Peru because one of his young sons said he wanted to see the rainforest.
Lobach, partner with midstate law firm Barley Snyder, and his family liked it so much they decided to go back. But on the second and subsequent trips, they decided to help the people who live there as well.
"It's really a vacation, but we devote a few days while we're down there to helping these folks," he said, "and then we devote weeks and months before we leave to gathering supplies for them."
Perhaps the most ambitious effort was in 2005, when another son recruited a dentist and a hygienist among a group of a dozen people for a dental mission as part of his Eagle Scout project, Lobach said.
The dentist pulled teeth and did other dental work with the hygienist while the rest of the team helped to coordinate efforts, fluorinated kids' teeth, educated people about dental care and handed out thousands of toothbrushes, containers of toothpaste and dental floss, he said.
Lobach's mother, who was then 77 years old, went along and sterilized dental instruments, he said.
"They don't have any dentists in this area. It's very remote. And some of them had very serious dental problems," Lobach said.
The family recently returned from its sixth trip when, among other things, they saw firsthand that dental hygiene has taken hold, he said.
They also got to watch scores of species of birds and other wildlife during the vacation part — and took along about 80 pairs of reading glasses to distribute to local village residents who need clearer vision to make a living.
They also took suitcases of other supplies for the people.
"If you hit 40, 45, and you can't see to tie your fish hook or thread your needle, you're almost disabled," Lobach said.
The effort distributed most of the pairs of glasses and allocated them according to the strength people needed, Lobach said.
For a makeshift eye chart, they used words with different font sizes on sewing needle packaging.
The reward for all of the work, Lobach said, comes in moments such as when an aging fisherman who, at first, couldn't make out the biggest letters and then can read the small "Made in China."
"Seeing these people light up when they could see again was pretty darn affirming," he said. "Instead of being dependent, a fisherman can fend for himself or an artisan can make her crafts effectively. It makes a big difference for them."
Overall, the purpose of the outreach is to help the people improve their lives without changing their culture about 100 miles from the nearest city. People who work can grow enough food, and the river is full of fish, Lobach said. But little things like toothbrushes and glasses go a long way, he said.
"It's tricky to hit the right balance between making their lives more sustainable and, in doing that, not changing their culture," he said. "They aren't starving; they are just doing without some of the stuff in the developed world that we take for granted, like electricity and doctors down the street."
The work also helps to preserve the rainforest, he said. The people who live in the remote area on the edge of a major reserve are the eyes and ears to watch over the rainforest. If someone is poaching wildlife or illegally cutting trees, they'll see it.
At the same time, helping them make a living in a sustainable way is important to make sure residents themselves don't turn to hunting endangered species or cutting the trees themselves, Lobach said.
The family used ecotourism company Amazonia Expeditions for its first trip and has gone back with them for subsequent trips.
The Lobachs also financially support an associated nonprofit, Angels of the Amazon, which helps with translation and coordination when the family is on the mission side of the trip.
Paul Beaver founded Amazonia Expeditions in 1981 after he thought he hit rock bottom professionally and personally in the States and the director of the Chicago Zoological Society gave him a job in Peru, he recalled.
Seeing the people of the area changed his life, Beaver said.
"I saw how illogical I was when I was surrounded by people who were struggling every day to stay alive, and they did it with grace and dignity," he said.
When his job wrapped up, he put his evolutionary biology training to work to find an unoccupied niche to exploit and stay in South America. In other words, he started thinking like a good businessman, Beaver said.
Amazonia Expeditions basically started with an investment in some tents and machetes. More than 30 years later, it's a top-rated travel business with two lodges — one for guests and one serving as a research center — and hosts about 2,000 visitors per year, Beaver said.
Years after starting the business, Beaver met the woman who would become his wife. Dolly is a native of the region and passionate about working to educate and empower the people there — particularly women and young people — through supporting education, health care and sustainable economic activities.
Her extensive efforts led to the formal founding of Angels of the Amazon in 2006, the construction of a health care clinic, an initiative for students to attend high school and other works, Beaver said.