Rotary Visit to El Salvador
January 10-17, 2020
Rotarians, here is your first installment of our trip to El Salvador. I will endeavor to keep it short and pithy for you busy folks who may not particularly like the fact that we are enjoying warm weather in a beautiful country!
We had easy travel from Boise to Houston to San Salvador and easy customs and entry to our hotel. We were hosted the first evening by Rolando y Fatima, relatives of our partners in San Salvador who run the education program. They were kind and generous hosts who fed us and even hooked up Joel to the Facebook page so he could see son Caleb shoot free throws to ice the game against Baker City Friday night.
Today we visited with our students in the village. I will give a report tomorrow on the incredible progress of young women who have been given the opportunity to go to school. Your work to support these young ones makes a difference!
Day two we travelled to the El Congo region, north of San Salvador, where we met with many of our new students. These 16 year-olds were selected based on need and potential to complete high school and to advance beyond. Dayana, Eyleen, Valery, Nayeti, Liliana, Marlin each recorded a video thanking La Grande Rotary for the opportunity to go to high school. We will air those on return to La Grande. Look at these young faces and know that if this opportunity were not offered they each would be constrained to marriage at 16 and to raise a family on a dirt floor with an income no more that about $150 per month.
Individual pictures of each at:
These young women come from exceptionally poor neighborhoods and from a town where gangs reign supreme. The night before our visit, one gang member was killed across from the community center we were meeting and several police and others were wounded.
Giving these young women a chance to change the trajectory of their family and escape a life of poverty and worry for safety makes our work here worthwhile. Rotarians make a difference!
We travelled to the coast of El Salvador with a group of college students and graduates of the programs. We spent the day chatting with these young people, eating lunch and enjoying the 90 plus humid weather under a large cabana near the water. The sun seemed incredibly hot, but many were enjoying the water and frolicking in the surf.
Each student told their story and heaped praise on the program that brought them from poverty to either a fruitful position or the prospect of one. Sandy’s story is amazing:
She is pictured here with Jon Kukankos and Jerry Westermeyer who run the college scholarship program. This program offers our high school graduates amazing opportunities to extend their studies. Sandy is a lawyer. She is now vice mayor of a town and has her sights on a career in public service–who knows, maybe one day she becomes the presidente!
It is wonderful to hear the many stories of how these young people excelled through circumstances that would have failed most of us. Resilient, hopeful, hard working youth that have smiles from ear to ear and who, in most all cases, articulated a desire to pay this scholarship grace forward.
We see a future when this program can self-sustain from the gifts of alumni who see the value in investing in their fellow El Salvadorians.
Mucho Gusto todos!
The sun is down on day four of our sojourn to El Salvador. The 75 degree breeze and Cuban music greets our window at the hotel welcoming us after a long day of warm travel to a rural area north of San Salvador. Suchitoto and small villages near the large interior reservoir, Cerron Grande, are mountainous agricultural growing regions sugar cane, orchard crops, and various vegetables.
In a small village of about 800 people, we met with a micro lending cooperative. These women had received some initial funding from our NGO partners here as micro loans to start up small businesses. One woman received $50 to buy baby chicks. She sold them when they were partially grown for $5 and when maximum-sized for $10–expensive for people who average $5-$10 a day cutting sugar cane and doing other farming! With the profit she can payback her loan over time, grow her business, and help support the family.
Maria, pictured below, used her start up funds to sew clothing and linens for families in the community. She sells them in the town and in the region.
Maria is one of thousands of women her age who fought in the civil war from 1980-1992. She said that sewing took her mind off the memory of war and gave her a sense of pride in self and in her community.
The cooperative elects an organizing committee to distribute, collect and track funding. This program, and many others in the region, empower women to take transformative roles in creating a healthier life for themselves and their families. The women are proud of what they had accomplished and are confident about their future.
It is amazing what a few thousand dollars and some caring support can stimulate. These women are now self-sufficient and are charging forward! Asombroso! (Amazing!)
Had I mentioned that the weather here is close to perfecto? It is warm enough by 1 PM that you want to avoid the hot sun, but by 4 PM the breeze comes up and the evening is a pleasant 75 degrees.
Today we met with the larger group of college students. Many have graduated from the high school programs that La Grande and Wallowa and other foundations have supported. Over 50 current and returning students celebrated the progress made in the program. They students are studying medicine, engineering, education, agriculture, language and other disciplines. I enjoyed talking to Denis about his current job after completing a degree in agriculture. He hopes to find that next opportunity that capitalizes on his education. Right now he is running an ice cream parlor! One young woman was in her fourth year of medical school–four more to go!
I latched-on to one special student, Gisselle, pictured below.
Guess her major and passion? Rocks. Yes, she is learning to be a geologist working in the field of volcanoes, earthquakes and ocean geology. Of course, she was my favorite! I told her that I wanted to sneak her back in my suitcase so she could see the volcanoes in eastern Oregon and hunt a thunder egg or two!
Each region made a presentation about the progress of their students. The students and their mentors and program volunteers acted more like family in that they encouraged and supported one another to excel and to spread hope to the villages from which they haled. Over lunch we talked about families, interests and their dreams. I attempted jokes in Spanish that often required a great deal of explanation. For example, when the cake was delivered to the table celebrating a birthday, I said to the students “Un momento en los labios, para siempre en las caderas.” (A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.) After some discussion, and puzzled looks, there was a collective “Aaah!” and then plenty of laughs. It is hard to be funny in any language! After hundreds of photos in dozens of different combinations, many hugs and expressions of appreciation, students gave small gifts to mentors and benefactors. I felt especially blessed as I received a terrific rock sample from guess who? Gisselle!
On return to the hotel in the early evening we met with Rolando, a business fellow who wanted to talk about a number of issues, including sustainability of the program.
He explained the economics of El Salvador and the over reliance on remittances to the GDP. “It encourages migration to other countries,” he said. Over a half billion is sent from Salvadorians living outside the country to their families at home. That comprises about twenty per cent of the total GDP. He emphasized the need to change the system to extend the economy to regions beyond the capitol. “These students have hope that they can make a difference in their communities.” Rolando was hopeful that education programs like this could help make the changes needed in the country.
We discussed a number of strategies to make the scholarship program sustainable including developing a Rotary Global Grant to encourage alumni giving, developing a student business that would export high profit products to other countries, and marketing of the benefit of scholarship programs directly to business and industry in El Salvador and the US.
Smart, connected, and caring people like Rolando are key in developing some of these ideas. He can help us connect with Rotary clubs in El Salvador and to businesses that specialize in export methodology. We have some ideas we what to share with the club that will ultimately shift the support of scholarships from ongoing Rotary contributions to Salvadorians solving Salvadorian problems. Their hope is our hope!
In every paradise there seems to lurk a serpent. We were awoken this morning by the crack of a firearm close to the hotel. Although we had a sense of alarm, the rest of the 2.5 million people in the capitol city just seemed to roll along with their daily routines. El Salvador is plagued with an incredible murder rate. It is down from 15 per day in past years to only 5, but that does not count the 10 people who turn up missing each day. The gangs, corruption, extortion, and high proportion of people living on the edge in poverty makes living in some parts of this country impossible. Hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes due to these pressures.
There is good news, however. There is hope. We met with about 30 young people today in the town of Sonsonate, about 50 miles west of San Salvador. We filed into a small room, perhaps 20 X 15 feet, and awaited the program director. The photo backdrop of the room depicts the environment and the reliance on agriculture in this community (tobacco, alfalfa, truck crops, and cattle).
Beto Rivera, our local representative and coordinator for the scholarships, gave students an orientation of the expectations and processes required for students to keep receiving support. “You must read three books per year, you must attend monthly meetings and/or workshops that we sponsor, and you must keep your grades up.” The program requires a grade minimum of 6.5 in each course and a 7.5 accumulated GPA each semester. (They do not use the A-F system.) Shown below is a typical grade report showing the class, scores on exams, and the final grade (nota). This particular grade report of 7.9 is considered very good.
We listened to Beto talk with Marlene (pictured below). He discussed her grades and checked in on her needs and her progress report. Having satisfied the requirements, he then gave her the check for the month that pays for transportation, tuition, and materials. Only one month’s expenses are distributed at a time for both practical and safety reasons.
We asked Marlene about her family and the barriers she had experienced in participating in the program. Their family did not have the money to send her to school, but she was persistent and applied to the program. She received a scholarship to attend high school and won another to attend college. Marlene wants to learn English and be a mathematics teacher–something El Salvador needs lots of! Her parents were angry with her and have not supported her efforts because they want her to work on the family farm. Her older brother left home, so now there is pressure on her as the eldest to help support the family. Despite the two hours of transit to school, often to night classes, Marlene continues to press forward. The buses are often not safe. (Another student told us that he had been robbed three times on the bus going to and from school.) College students struggle to find access to a computer to do their work. The Foundation, and kind Rotarians contribute laptops to these students so they can complete assignments at home. The latest gift sent by Spencer Luke went to Rocio, a college student in English, who graduated from our high school group. She was delighted to receive the computer as it will make her journey more smooth, but had to wait to take it home because someone would surely steal it on the long bus ride home.
The success stories make your heart soar! These young people take risks, persist in an environment that is often hostile, remain cheerful through the adversity, and continue to hold onto their dreams to improve themselves, their families, and their communities. What a lesson for us all given that we live in a country with plentiful resources and opportunities. Let’s take those resources and also make a difference!
Our last moments in El Salvador were bittersweet. Celebrating the good work being done there to support young people, yet saying goodbye to the friends we have made. These are gracious, generous and loving people genuinely appreciate the efforts we, as Rotarians and private citizens, have made to reach out and support their work.
The foundation partner their, The Association for Human Development , ADHU (https://adhu.org/), is a private non-profit association, with neither political nor religious affiliations. They provide socio-economic opportunities to the most needy sectors of the country. They recognize the immense reality of marginal communities that lack all the basic elements for a dignified life and work to mitigate these circumstances. Our companions on the trip, Jerry and John from Chicago, have been working with this organization for many years, dedicating their personal resources and service to seeing that disadvantaged young people have basic opportunities that will provide elements of a dignified life.
As we travelled back on two relatively quick flights, we reflected on how our Rotary can make a difference and how we can involve others in the community to contribute to the narrative. Joel and I are ready to return soon bringing new friends (are you hearing that Tim, Jessy, Evelyn, Spencer, or anyone else that thinks they would like to join?). We are ready for a road trip!
Hasta la vista, El Salvador y los jovenes del pais!