Friday, June 6, 2014

The One in Which We Don't Meet Funes

It's hard to believe we are more than halfway through our GROW trip already! We continue to enjoy meeting new people and visiting the various communities in which Pastoral works.

On Wednesday we went to the rural community of Santiago Torres in El Paisnal with Mercedes. There we got to see a nutrition clinic aimed at incorporating leafy greens like spinach and lettuce into daily meal preparation. I loved seeing soy milk made from scratch, as well! Even though the GROW team was definitely shown up in an fast-paced game of futbol with the little kids in the area, it was certainly a fun adventure.

On Thursday we returned to Santo Tomas with Clelia to attend a self-esteem workshop. This workshop was for children from several local schools. The energy of our new friends Daysi and Ingrid, who helped run the workshop, was so much fun to watch. We started the workshop with a game to get to know each other. Each person said their name and a little bit about themselves and made up their own dance move. Each subsequent person in the circle had to do their own dance move, as well as all of the dance moves from the people before them in the circle. As someone who was toward the end of the circle, let me tell you that is quite a lot to remember! With a lot of help from Imani, and a lot of laughter from the students in the workshop, I managed to make it through. But my dance moves still leave a lot to be desired...

Throughout the workshop, the students worked in small groups to discuss definitions of self-esteem, and situations in their lives that could be improved with self-esteem, self-respect, and self-knowledge. I was very impressed with the focus of the students and the thought they put into their discussions. We finished up with an interactive song and said our goodbyes.

After having a truly incredible lunch at the home of one of the women who attended the piñata workshop last week, the GROW team got to talking with Clelia. She told us about how she loves being in charge of one area - Santo Tomas - in her work at Pastoral. She said it lends consistency and reliability to her work in these communities, and contributes to the success Pastoral has had in getting people involved in workshops, and keeping them involved. Seeing Clelia in Santo Tomas, I got the feeling she was in her element. I could see the trust and respect she has built up with women in that community, and it made clear to me the profound effect that Pastoral is having.

We want to give a big shout out to Globemed at Amherst's very own Reynaldo and his parents for hosting us for one of the best dinners I've had in a long time. Yum!!

Mucho amor de GM,

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Soy el Mapa; Soy el Mapa; Soy el Mapa; ¡SOY EL MAPA!


The workers of Pastoral have been extremely gracious to us for the last week. They have provided beautiful housing, safe transporation, and a wealth of new knowledge. We got a grand introduction to Pastoral, its directors, its staff and its missions on our second day; we have vistited with priests in El Paisnal; in the town of Santo Tomas we watched a piñata making workshop and met the mayor; we have visited Mayan ruins in Joya de Cerren and San Andrez; last Saturday, we hiked near the volcano Cerro Verde.  They have given so much and we do not have many opportunities to return the favor while we are here.

One opportunity for us to give to el Pastoral is our creation of digital maps of the communities. The workers of Pastoral requested we complete this project via e-mail before our trip.  Scarlet and I have taken the lead on this project. We were unable to follow up with questions about the specific purpose and intended end-users of the maps because el Pastoral's computers were down for a while.  However, based on our translations of the limited e-mails we received from el Pastoral we decided using a GIS program would be the best tool to created the final product they wanted. Thus, with our limited technical skills and knowledge, we set off to master the world of GIS! Of course we did not take on this challenge alone we enlisted the help of Amherst College's GIS expert Andy Anderson. Mr. Anderson patiently endured training sessions full with an exasperating abundance of questions, fumbles and giggles from Scarlet and I. He also patiently responded to many frantic e-mails from me.

One of these e-mails was sent on our second day here in the office. After I spent most of my nights in El Salvador teaching myself how to use GIS and spent the greater part of the morning trying to find the right version of QuantumGIS for the computers here, I finally discussed Pastoral's specific vission for the maps with Mercedes. She patiently endured my broken Spanish and explained that the maps did not require  any geo-spatial information. Her vision was to create a more professional version of hand drawn maps of the communities that highlighted risks and resources of each community. Alas, GIS proved nearly useless! Scarlet and I returned to the drawing board. We soon discovered SketchUp and fell in love with a new free computer program. Now we are trying to master this exciting program. (Can you say on the job training.) I have taken the approach of downloading every manual on  SketchUp known to man and intensely skimming. Scarlet just jumped right in and started creating shapes and structures with this 3-D modeling program. After, we both mastered some basic skills our collaboration has been fruitful:

We have learned some valuable lessons from this experience: basic GIS and SketchUp skills, the importance of tenacity and flexibility and the power of person to person interactions. In cyberspace the danger of information being lost in translation increases. Pues, adios y que le vaya bien.

¡Hasta Luego!
Imani Nia

Monday, June 2, 2014

Piñatas and Pupusas

¡Buenas! No matter how incredulous the looks when we first arrive, every time we greet someone with a cheerful "¡Buenas!" (slang for good day), they reply warmly and welcome us with open arms. On Friday we attended a piñata workshop in Santo Tomás with Clelia, one of the women from Pastoral. While all the staff members have a specialty (Clelia is a social worker, others are nutritionists or doctors), each staff member also has their own community where they run the workshops, allowing them to form closer relationships with the community members that they work with. The goal of the piñata workshop is to teach women how to make their own piñatas, which in turn they can sell to generate their own income. The women were all welcoming, even teaching us how to make pupusas!! On a side note, pupusas are harder to make than they look. We tried to make them a couple nights later and well, it's good we have another two weeks to practice!
Between the five of us we are able to get the gist of almost everything, however every once in a while things get lost in translation. For example, Friday, the day we made piñatas, was also Mother's Day. Clelia had told us that we were all supposed to get her a small gift, so we ordered a bouquet of flowers. First, I accidentally ordered 5 bouquets instead of 5 flowers, but that wasn't my only mistake. In the afternoon, Clelia took us to a Mother's Day celebration. We met the mayor of Santo Tomás and as Clelia shook his hand she handed him two wrapped gifts. Suddenly, things clicked. Of course! The gift was for the mayor for inviting us to this Mother's Day celebration!! Without hesitation I handed over all 5 bouquets to the mayor and we went to sit down. After a while, the more astute members of the group clarified who exactly the flowers were for and it turns out that they were in fact for Clelia. Oops. I bet the mayor sure was confused when a little gringo (foreigner) handed him 5 bouquets of flowers. When Clelia heard she laughed, and it is now a running joke in the office. 
More than anything else so far I am humbled by the simultaneous diversity and familiarity that surrounds me. There's a universal communication beyond words that I never in a million years never expected to find as I interact with 8 year old Jaimee who called me gringito ( little foreigner) and Señora Terecita who told us how to fry plantains and Dr. Fatima, the product of Salvadoran medical education (which begins with 8 years in med school as opposed to the 4 in the US). At the same time, though this connection is tangible, I'm constantly worried about offending my hosts, staring too long at the police and the seemingly nonchalant way that they grip their shotguns, or eating a slice of crisp ruby red tomato that had been washed in dirty water. I think I speak for the whole group when I say that I am incredibly thankful that we have two more weeks here, because there is so much more to soak up. There are so many more papusas to attempt, places to go and most importantly, people to meet. I have not yet said "Buenas" nearly enough.

GM love,


Thursday, May 29, 2014


We made it! Keelin, Imani, Scarlet, David, and I are safely in El Salvador. I can´t even begin to describe all of the things we´ve done over the past few days, so I will just give some highlights.

I think I speak for all of us when I say that the people we have met have been our biggest highlight so far. Margarita and Ruth met us at the airport and they were a wonderful welcoming committee. They are patient with our Spanish and committed to familiarizing us with El Salvador and the work that Pastoral is doing. Yesterday, Mercedes and two other volunteers took us to visit El Paisnal, one of the communities that Pastoral serves. We had a wonderful time meeting Padre Filadelfo who works in that community, as well as his parakeets, dogs, and turtles. Who knew that turtles ate bread?? Certainly not me.

Our excursion to Joya de Cerén to see the ruins was certainly one for the books. Around 600 AD the area was abandoned due to the eruption of a volcano known as Laguna Caldera. The lava actually preserved the ruins so archaeologists have been able to uncover entire buildings and identify their original purposes. We even found ourselves sitting in a replica of a sauna, although the temperatures here have rendered the addition of a fire pretty unnecessary…

We can all now check showering in rain water falling from a roof off of our bucket lists. Our water has mysteriously shut off, but we are becoming masters of improvisation. We even managed to cook a delicious dinner of rice, vegetables, beans, and fried plantains for dinner last night, although the real challenge was washing the dishes.

Today we are beginning to work on digitalizing the maps of various communities in which Pastoral works. Imani and Scarlet are our fearless Quantum GIS software experts and they are hard at work preparing the maps. The whole Pastoral team is supportive and helpful and I am really looking forward to getting to know them better over the next three weeks. Stay tuned for more updates from the rest of the GROW team.

GlobeMed love,

Friday, June 14, 2013

New Places, New Faces

The past couple of days we’ve spent getting to know more of the communities where Pastoral works. Two days ago, we started out in a meeting with the priest in San Jose Villanueva. It was a very frustrating experience, actually. He was uninterested in Pastoral de la Salud, let alone GlobeMed. A new priest, he had come to Villanueva, an impoverished parish, from one where there was much more money, and he seemed disdainful about the move. Though his disinterest was clear, Margarita told us later that at the very least, he knows of Pastoral de la Salud’s existence and can open the door to our partner to continue doing work in the community (“as long as he doesn’t get in the way, it doesn’t matter”).

After a meeting with Ruth and Margarita about playing a more active role on GROW, we spent the afternoon in La Serena on a child nutrition project. A couple of months ago, the children under 5 years old of La Serena were measured and weighed and compared to a growth curve. The 15 families with the children who were most undernourished were then chosen to participate in a follow-up study, in which the children’s health is monitored every two months and the mothers receive nutrition advice. In return, the families have agreed to create a family garden. The project is taking place in five communities, and the children in La Serena were well fed, but it was still fun to watch the children be measured.

Yesterday, we had a very full day. We started out meeting the priest of the parish in Santo Tomás, who was much more interested in service projects than the priest the day before. He and the director of Pastoral Social, another division of the whole Pastoral network, explained to us a social and health project taking place in the parish in which a group of fifth and sixth graders are working on their own community garden. The idea is to keep the children out of trouble and to teach them important agricultural skills and nutrition. We visited this garden, where the schoolchildren gave a short presentation about building the garden and using organic fertilizer. They’re being supervised by a few nutrition students from the university. We helped pick fresh radishes from the garden and dig a new plot for planting in the near future.

After that, we went to Santiago, another town where Pastoral de la Salud has projects. We met with volunteers over a lunch of caldo de gallina india, pollo, arroz, y ensalada. They told us of the projects in distributing food staples, promoting oral health, educating community members about HIV and other diseases, and providing psychiatric services that they’re working on. There are at least eight communities where they hope to bring these services and education projects. Though the projects are moving slowly because of little funding, the volunteers were optimistic that they could make important progress, especially in the upcoming years.

We went with the volunteers on a short walk around the parish, and then to a coffee cooperative. It is owned by one of the parish members, and it is the only coffee co-op in El Salvador whose president is a woman. We met the president of this small plantation, and she was clearly a fierce lady with a lot of fight in her. We just saw the packaging plant, and on Sunday, we’ll go back to see the farm. It was another great day!

Monday, June 10, 2013

COAR, MPI, and gardens

Buenos Dias from El Salvador!

My name is Jesse and as a rising junior at Amherst, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to participate in the GROW trip to La Libertad, El Salvador and meet our partner organization, Pastoral de la Salud. The Pastoral staff has very warmly received us and arranged for us to stay in COAR (Community of Oscar A Romero), a Catholic community for displaced children that last year's GROW team visited. We've spent much of the first week making the rounds and meeting different members of Pastoral, from the health team who gave us an overview of the healthcare system and recent reforms to some of the community health volunteers who gave us an outline of the public health issues they've been working on - water sanitation, nutrition, and various other efforts. A common thread among all these meetings has been the importance of education as a preventative measure against many of the social determinants of health plaguing the community, such as poverty, violence, and other problems - many things that we have been learning about and discussing in ghu.

Our hosts have also been kind enough to accommodate our more touristy requests like visiting a famous national park with a volcano and a beachside restaurant. One of my favorite excursions, however, was a visit to the "Museo de la Palabra y Imagen," henceforth referred to as the MPI. This humble museum showcases the history of El Salvador's Civil War. According to the MPI, a slew of social injustices and human rights violations led to calls for democracy in the 1970's. A bloody civil war eventually broke out from the political and social turmoil and ravaged the country throughout the 1980's until a political solution was reached in the early 1990's. Especially poignant to me was an exhibit at the MPI with post-it notes written by children of their "Salvadoran dreams." The American dream often connotes material wealth, social mobility, and a sense of individualism, but the post-it notes I saw called for things like "a just society," "peace," and even a "fine arts university."

El Salvador obviously has a legacy from this civil war that has, at least in part, influenced an extreme street-gang culture that is usually one of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks of this country. The MPI also featured Oscar Romero, who was archdiocese of El Salvador during part of the civil war until he was brutally assassinated. He was known as "a voice for the voiceless" as he fought for social justice and human rights; he fought for a just El Salvador. In the same way, today the conversation shouldn't be just about how El Salvador is responsible for one of Latin America's highest homicide rates or how access to healthcare is still in a problem in the more rural communities. We can instead look to groups like Pastoral de la Salud, which works to promote health and human rights. GlobeMed at Amherst should be honored to work with such a professional organization that works at the grassroots level to improve health in various communities around El Salvador For example, we attended a workshop on how to create community gardens. A worker taught some community members how to prepare organic fertilizer, how to plot out community gardens, and the various benefits of doing so. We then prepared the fertilizer and saw the whole process firsthand. This system of educating and training community members so they can return to their respective communities and use what they've learned is central to GlobeMed's model. One of the tenets is solidarity and sincere partnership with grassroots groups like Pastoral that are working towards sustainable solutions to big problems like malnutrition and access to healthy foods.

All this is just to say that, as in many other places, problems are complicated and multifaceted, but at least to me, there seems to be a movement of rebuilding and growth that is working towards justice. This spirit is carried on by people who are working hard to turn things around in their country, people like the workers of Pastoral, and the spirit championed by people like Oscar A Romero.

Photographs from San Jose Villanueva and Taller Huertos Caseros

Jesse, Nicole, and Kokaale enjoying their drinks at a reunion with Pastoral volunteers in San Jose Villanueva

A boy walking through a community of San Jose Villanueva

Community members learning about huertos caseros, community gardens.

Tránsito working on one of the materials needed for the preparación Bocachi.

Preparing the Bocachi fertilizer

More preparations

Turning the fertilizer is hard work!

A storm brewing in the distance in Palomar
Digging a plot for the community garden

More digging

Filling up the plot with moist dirt to become fertile over the next few weeks before planting