HIGH in the Peruvian Andes, surrounded by misty mountains, I choked back tears as I watched a six-year-old girl shaking violently in the freezing cold, and knew Christmas would never be the same again.Dressed in brown and shoeless - at 4000m above sea level - she looked stunned as I bent down to hand her a doll and a Christmas bread roll typical of Peru.I stayed squatted at her level for a long minute, also shaking from the cold through my thick jumper and jacket, taking in the immense sadness I felt, having met her and knowing my first Christmas away from home was going to change my life forever.I was in the Lares Valley, at the junction between the Andes and the jungle three hours from the tourist mecca of Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca empire.The region is one of the poorest in Peru and half of its children suffer severe malnutrition. Their cheeks are dry and rough even at two years of age and many have rotten teeth.It is a sad reminder of their poverty when Christmas morning comes and there are no presents to exchange, no decorated tree to admire and barely a plateful of food to celebrate one of the most important dates on the Catholic calendar, despite the fact most Peruvians describe themselves as Catholic.Their experience is in deep contrast to my own in Australia, where the weeks leading up to Christmas are full of parties, spending sprees on presents and decorating the house red and green.However this year, after spending eight months in Peru volunteering at a school in a mountain village, I decided to give up the presents and forget about the decorations. Instead, I asked my family and friends to donate money, to help bring a little Christmas cheer to children ordinarily forced to work long hours herding animals or tending to fields, and who survive on one small daily meal of rice or soup .With almost $2500, I bought toys for more than 1400 children and 100 items of clothing. With my Peruvian host family I travelled to Lares and another rural region, Cochiray, to experience the other side of Christmas.The little girl I encountered on my way to Lares had walked an hour from her mud-brick home, with other children from her village, to wait by the road hoping the rumour that a Cuzco family was coming with presents was true.As we drove through the mountains, we passed toys and bread through the window to children waiting along the road.One mother had carried her infant child on her back - and her seven-year-old disabled son in her arms - for half-an-hour, to make sure they received a Christmas present. For her, it was the least she could do. She could not give them one herself.More than 100 children from a remote community walked more than an hour to meet us, because there was no road access to their homes. At each location, the children lined up patiently, graciously taking their presents and whispering "gracias". Never did they push or shove, nor take from another child.A week later, we again loaded boxes of toys, clothes, food and hot chocolate into a hired van and drove five hours from Cuzco, to some of the most remote and poorest communities in Peru.The mountain scenery and mud-brick homes with ichu grass roofs were like nothing I had seen before, even after eight months in Peru. I was the first foreigner the majority of the citizens had ever seen, either in real life or otherwise, considering they don't have television and very few books. The children stared with astonishment at my blonde hair and white skin.About 300 people live in Cochiray and there are 80 school students. The town has no light or running water. Its school has just received its first computer, an old machine donated by a former teacher.Because Cochiray is also about 4000m above sea level, it is difficult to grow food.The children are severely malnourished and suffer bronchitis constantly during the rainy season from December to February. They are forced to continue to work, herding sheep, goats or cattle or in their parents fields, even in the pouring rain and freezing temperatures, with little clothing and only sandals on their feet.The children were already waiting when we arrived at their school. It was raining and frosty, but they still lined up to receive their Christmas bread, hot chocolate and toy. We also served the elderly - their faces severely wrinkled from long lives of hard work. Some were toothless.They huddled under the verandah, sipping their hot chocolate, with blankets or plastic draped over their shoulders to help stay dry. We also gave out clothes.However, we were disappointed some of the children could not come because they had to continue to work in the mountains. We left food, toys and clothes for them.In the nearby village of Pampacucho, a tiny collection of simple mud brick homes high up the valley, I met three-year-old Yaneeth, who has Down's syndrome.In such a remote and underdeveloped area, no-one in the community knows how to raise her. She cannot walk or talk and barely knew what to do with the bread when I tried to feed her.I was heartbroken, having gone to school with a girl with Down's syndrome and knowing what beautiful, affectionate people they can be. This time, I could not hold back the tears.After our third stop, in Apachiway, we began the long journey back to Cuzco, zig-zagging up and down the valley, passing lush green fields and magnificent mountains. Random huts were dotted across the vista, with couples working away in their fields.As we drove past children we threw toys to them out the window. Children came running from the fields towards the road when we waved a doll or toy car at them.One little boy was walking along the dirt road, probably returning from a field to his home, when we threw a toy car at him. His face lit up like he had seen a million dollars.Another boy was skipping down a side street when we threw him a toy car. As it landed on the road, 10m from him, he stopped skipping and ran towards the toy with a beaming smile on his face. Around a large bend we noticed a boy on the other side. We eagerly waved a toy at him out the window and, when he saw us drop it for him, he literally sprinted as fast as he could, all the way around the bend until he got it - a good 400m.I have never felt so incredibly happy. Watching children so eager to receive a simple toy that cost the same as a loaf of bread back home, made my heart ache. It was like giving them the world and I'd never seen kids so appreciative before.The final gift giving session was at my host family's gym in Cuzco. For the past four years, they have handed out hot chocolate, Christmas bread and toys to hundreds of children. This year was the biggest yet. Children were already lining up outside at 6.30am. By the time we started to hand out the gifts at 9am, the queue was 100m long. Almost three hours later 900 children had turned up. Unfortunately, this was double the number from last year and I had only bought 500 toys. However, we were able to buy every piece of Christmas bread we could find in the nearby bakeries and continued to distribute it, and hot chocolate, to hundreds more children who had walked from all over the city. Some of the children were among the city's poorest, with rag-like, dirty clothes. Teenage girls came with younger siblings on their backs, wrapped in the typical brightly coloured blankets. They act as mothers, caring for their younger siblings while their parents work. Some poor elderly people also begged for something to eat. Of course we gave it to them. The bright eyes and wide grins of the children when they received their presents was overwhelming. But I was suddenly brought back to earth when, at the front of the queue, stood a boy of 10 or 12, holding his shoe shining kit. He was one of the scores of young boys forced to beg on the streets to shine shoes for about 50c. He had obviously heard what was happening and took a short break from work to receive hot chocolate and Christmas bread. He sat on his box on the other side of the street and ate for a quick minute or two before heading back to work. I could not stop thinking about him all day.But he is not alone. When I visited Cuzco's main square late at night on December 23, young children and their parents were sitting huddled under blankets waiting, to have the best selling position for the annual Christmas Eve markets, when many thousands of people pack the city square. Some of the children had been forced to sleep on the streets for days to save their parents a spot. They had nothing with them and begged for money from foreigners.I thought about them walking back to their mountain communities in the dark as I ate my midnight dinner on Christmas Eve, as is traditional in Peru. I struggled to conjure up the excitement I normally felt at Christmas, my favourite time of the year. I hoped that, while my Andean Christmas experience had created a new-found solemnness in me, it had brought a previously unknown Christmas cheer to 1400 children in one of the most beautiful, yet poorest regions in the world.