Monday, June 11, 2012

Meeting with Father Octavio

     In our meeting with Father Octavio, he discussed varying topics from politics, culture, and gang violence, to the health situation in El Salvador. The clear message that I got from him was the need for a new culture of humanitarianism, health as a human right, respect and solidarity. I can see subtle hints of this culture emerging here in El Salvador with institutions like Pastoral, which encompasses our partner, Pastoral de la Salud. What astounds me about this network is that much of the work could not be done without its teams of dedicated volunteers. They show incredible commitment to their communities, despite the fact that they already have other responsibilities, such as working and taking care of their families.
The work that the Pastoral does offers people a wide variety of opportunities. Pastoral de la Tierra works with volunteers and people from communities to promote sustainability in agriculture. This effort promotes better nutrition for children even if the economic situation of a family may not be able to afford it. There is also Pastoral Asistencial which offers humanitarian help to the elderly, orphans and victims of natural disasters. Then there is Pastoral de la Salud which focuses on preventative work, educational activities, and primary care. Pastoral de la Salud works in varying levels from basic primary care, clinics to hospitals. Most fascinating about this network is that all its strength stems from volunteers who devote their free time to work. This new culture that Father Octavio speaks of does not seem farfetched but attainable, especially because there already seems to be such willingness for people to take responsibility in the betterment of their communities’ situation.  
It was good to see this commitment especially because often what we hear of El Salvador is its gang violence. Even if violence is a problem that cannot be ignored it also should not be the defining characteristic of El Salvador. Instead there should be a focus on this new culture of solidarity that Father Octavio pointed out, and hopefully this culture will keep getting stronger here in El Salvador and around the world. At the end of our meeting with Father Octavio he thanked us for being part of this new culture based on understanding and solidarity. He also urged us to stay committed to this culture and he said that he hoped this new culture would continue to grow.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pastoral de la Salud offices in Cojutepeque
Meeting with Pastoral de la Salud & Pastoral de la Tierra

Group shot in a natural preserve

Philip & Sara playing fĂștbol with local teens

Action shot, courtesy of Jaya

La Casa Amarilla, our lodgings in Cojutepeque

GROW team outside the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in San Salvador

Schoolgirls composing original poetry at a cultural center devoted to teaching creative thinking.

Mr. Cameraman

Philip, Jaya, Felin, & Lawrence at the construction site of a tilapia pond

Blanca Margarita & Jaya

Phil & Blanca Margarita

Helping with fish pond construction

Sifting sand to make a sand, dirt, and cement mixture that lines the walls of the estanque, or fish tank

Lawrence's hard work and enthusiasm on display


Pastoral Social's workshop utilizing small groups to draw connections between the church's Social Doctrine and current issues facing El Salvador.

Phil & Sara listening to a small group presentation

Jaya, Rigo, & Sara at the restaurant Buena Vista.

Phil, Jaya, & Rigo at Buena Vista

Don Valentin, the director of Pastoral de la Salud's committee of health in the southern region of La Libertad and his granddaughter
The GROW team visits a greenhouse in La Libertad where peppers and herbs are currently grown. Rows of bagged tomato plants outside the greenhouse further illustrate the community's dedication to finding sustainable forms of agriculture to supplement and improve diets.

Hermana Mirna leading construction of the tilapia pond.

On June 1, the GROW team got the see, for the first time, one of the projects our GlobeMed chapter at Amherst College funded with campaigns yearlong: the fish pond! Located thirty minutes away from Rigo’s house by car, we arrived at a home located on an uphill plot of land a few steps above the unpaved and rocky road on which we drove. The fish pond was there, at the back of the home, in all its glory: dug by the homeowners and volunteers of Pastoral de la Salud in their backyard, it was one meter deep, one and a half meters wide at the top, one meter wide at the bottom, and two meters long. At our time of arrival, there was nothing in the pond; actually, the pond was not even finished. The shape was there, but it still required a cement overlay and fencing to stabilize the structure once the water and the fishes were added.

The GROW team worked on the pond for three hours, two before and one after lunchtime. In the beginning, we stood at the side and observed the process of finishing the fish pond—the measuring and cutting of metal diamond fence wire to line the fish pond, the digging of a canal leading out of the pond used to exchange dirty water for clean water, the creation of the cement mixture—but slowly we became more involved as time passed and we grew accustomed to the people and the setting. It was warm when we worked, as it is always in El Salvador, with the sun shining above and the relative stillness of the air; it was something we pushed to the back of our minds as we measured and cut the needed segments of metal diamond fence wire, removed dug up dirt from the canal, and helped cover the pond walls with cement. Philip and I alternated between shoveling dirt out of the canal and using a double shovel holer to give it shape, while the ladies shoveled extraneous dirt out of the pond and lined it with cement. It was tough and sweaty work. The people who gave the pond were not finished when we left, but it was close! It was missing one side of fencing, and the canal simply needed to be fleshed out.

We contributed in a tangible way to the progress of our partner organization that day—one that we could see—and that was very gratifying. We witnessed the coming to fruition of a plan towards which over forty students hundreds of miles away spent hundreds of hours altogether funding. I was impressed by the effort the family and volunteers put towards the construction of the fish pond. Everyone worked diligently, and when they met us, greeted us warmly—with smiles and handshakes. It was wonderful to see the support our chapter provided El Pastoral come to life before my eyes, and that made all the work (and physical labor) totally worth it.

-Lawrence Yu

Monday, June 4, 2012

Hermana Mirna (r) and Hermana Guadalupe (l)
Small group presents on a current social, economic, or political issue

     My past birthdays have been marked with family dinners, cookouts, presents, and a cake accompanied by a heartfelt “Happy Birthday” song from friends and family. I expected my twentieth birthday here in El Salvador to be a little more underwhelming and (dare I say it?)-boring. As with everything else our GROW team has encountered over these past couple of weeks, it was a day unlike anything I expected.
            The day began with a wake-up “Happy Birthday!” from the rest of the team and our host, Rigo, over breakfast. We then set out for El Centro of Cojutapeque where Hermana Mirna and Rigo were directing a Social Doctrine workshop for about thirty El Salvadoreans affiliated with the Catholic Church. Hermana Mirna works for Pastoral de la Salud, our partner organization, in the region surrounding Cojutapeque, and Rigo works for the archdiocese’s social work branch, Pastoral Social. Together, they led the group on a walk up the mountainside to a restaurant called Buena Vista, or “good view,” where the workshop was held. Although the workshop did not pertain to our specific interest of public health, it was incredible to see the dedication everyone put into drawing connections between pressing issues present in this country and their belief system’s explanations for addressing them. The passion with which small groups presented their specific issues, ranging from the importance of the nuclear family to the economy, was a reminder that Pastoral is an organization that inspires such passion in everyone it touches, and how lucky we are to have a partnership with them.
            After eating a delicious lunch of puposas and hot chocolate with breathtaking mountain views, the workshop drew to a close. Hermana Mirna and Hermana Guadalupe, who also works for Pastoral de la Salud, came over to me and asked quietly if they could sing a song for me on my birthday. We walked to the same area where we had eaten lunch, overlooking the mountains, and the two women proceeded to sing a beautiful melody, wishing me a long life of happiness with love. The serenading continued later that night when Rigo arranged for a few of his friends to sing several traditional birthday songs and share a delicious ice-cream cake with us. Rigo surprised all of us with the party, and we spent the rest of the evening singing along to one of Rigo’s friends, Marvin, on the guitar.  It was such a special way to celebrate the day.
These two events are examples of many gifts our GROW team has received throughout our stay here from everyone we have encountered in El Salvador. The kindness and generosity everyone has treated us with is incredible. When we were planning our stay here, we were very aware of the violence and instability El Salvador is infamous for, and as a result felt wary about the interactions we would have with the people here. In complete contrast to our suppositions, we have only been met with smiling faces and hospitality. Forming relationships and experiences with Pastoral and the people in the community here has allowed us to see El Salvador for what it is; a country with a people whose heart is matched only by their dedication to educating themselves and each other to improve the lives of its citizens.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A couple of days ago we met with David Blanchard and heard him give a presentation to a group of students about his work in El Salvador.  Father David, as he’s called here, has lived in El Salvador for the last 20 years. He’s the director of Pastoral, and an important part of the church and its social work here. This social work was the object of his talk, directed at a group of students from a Jesuit University from Ohio in El Salvador on a mission trip. He opened with an overview of the situation in El Salvador, describing the huge problems caused by poverty and machismo, such as domestic violence and illness of all kinds. Then he spoke about las pandillas, the gangs. He described in great and specific detail the kind of violence they cause across the population, and the situations that lead to thousands of kids only 12 or 13 years old joining the gangs every year. He told personal stories about rape and murder, and a massacre of a bus full of innocent people.
A few days before that we sat at a table with a group of five women who devote a large portion of their lives to improving the health of those less fortunate. An hour later, we met 20 female volunteers who run parroquial clinics to make sure rural towns have access to better health. A day after that, at COAR, we met a group of people who volunteer their time and efforts to protect and nurture a group of children who are victims of the very situations Father David described.  Gang violence is something all of these women spend their weeks fighting against, and a lot of their work shows some level of success.
Here in Cojutepeque, our host is a man named Rigo. He’s not a part of El Pastoral, simply a member of the church here who helps out with a variety of church social work, including some of Pastoral’s projects. He is absolutely beloved by the community. He and the other man who lives here, Daniel, have welcomed us into their home and their lives without a second thought. They rearranged the house for us, they cook for us, and Rigo spends hours showing us around Cojutepeque. We asked Rigo on our first night if it was safe to live here – we’ve heard the stories about las bandillas like everybody else. He told us about a pact the church made a year or so earlier with the gangs, that they would stop killing people if the church advocated to improve jail conditions. We’re not sure if this has actually had an effect, but his final reply was simple – there are gangs here, and we have to be careful. But here things are calm, and there are good people. 
 The truth of the matter is that, as in all other places, things are complicated here. There are conspiracy theories and politics and all sorts of institutions at play here, just like every other country, and even the people who work within the institutions don’t really know what’s going on. As a young employee of Pastoral told us, “I’m Catholic, so I’d like to believe that what we’re doing is good, and has a purpose. But I just don’t know.”
            At the training retreat for the GROW interns, Alyssa told us that above all we were to look for connections instead of differences. To look at El Salvador and see only the picture that Father David painted for us is only to focus on the differences. There is incredible violence here, but there is incredible violence everywhere. Here, at least, the higher rate of violence seems to be accompanied by a higher rate of people who are working hard to turn things around in their country. The truly sad part for me was that the group of students in Father David’s presentation will go home talking about the violence and poverty that reigns in El Salvador, and the gangs that cause it all. This is the true injustice, because there is truly so much more.