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

First Impressions

El Salvador seems so far to be a blend of the chaotic and peaceful.

Chaos: Tossing our bags into the bed of a pickup and climbing in the back seat – four of us with our backpacks – before zooming wildly down the freeway, weaving around slow trucks and trying hard not to spill our coconut water, fresh from the side of the road, on our laps.
Peace: Turning abruptly into the gated community of COAR (Comunidad de Oscar A. Romero), a small complex where children who have lost or are searching for their parents can find refuge and attend school, safe from gangs and violence.

Chaos: The city of San Salvador, which is filled with lush greenery and flowering trees that seem out of place next to the streets teeming with potholes and people out among buildings of concrete squished side by side. They look out of place next to the flowers, or is it the other way around?
Peace: Margarita’s soft – but not soft-spoken – voice as she and Ruth, the two Pastoral workers with whom we’ll be working more closely while we’re here, introduce us to the humble men and women in the Pastoral office, located in the middle of all the chaos.

Chaos: Up in the communities, the same potholed streets and juxtaposition of human life and sprawling forest, although this time the roads turn to dirt and the homes are impoverished, built of concrete covered in dust and tin roofs, standing alongside scattered trash and junk.
Peace: The volunteers, who listen earnestly to the workshop on preparación Bocachi, which they will take back to their own communities so that they may start their own small gardens.

This is how things seem to be. There is no self-pity regarding the conditions down here. What exist instead are the recognition of poverty and poor health and the staunch desire to make a change, and that is what is so inspiring.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Overview of Pastoral de la Salud

On our first full day here, we met with Fatima, Clelia, Ruth, Margarita, and Mercedes, who together form the team at Pastoral de la Salud. On the top floor of Pastoral’s office building, the women gave us an overview of how Pastoral is structured and how this setup helps them enable individuals to improve the health of their communities.

Pastoral de la Salud is part of the Archdioceses of El Salvador’s social services. Located in the heart of the medical district in San Salvador, they share an office building with the Tutela Legal and Pastoral de la Tierra. Pastoral works in all three departments of the country; San Salvador, Cuscatlán, and La Libertad and the projects in each department are overseen by Mercedes, Clelia or Ruth, while Fatima is a medic. The child nutrition workshops we’ve been funding this year are taking place in Ruth’s department of La Libertad, where, according to Margarita, some of the poorest communities in the country are located.  

The majority of Pastoral’s work is done through holding workshops for community health workers (promotores) who replicate the process with a team of volunteers in their own communities. In this way, community members take control of their own health by sharing the information they have learned from the workshops. Pastoral works with 35 parishes in 59 communities in 32 municipalities to educate the people on topics such as first aid, the human right to health, how to survey the health of communities, hygiene, nutrition, and disease prevention. 145 community health workers and 475 members of health committees volunteer their time to both attend and then share these workshops because, as one community health worker told us, they see a need and want to fill it.