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Day One Reflection by Grace: A Salvadoran Education

This trip is providing fruitful experiences, which I hope will benefit people other than myself. It’s a whole new world here in El Salvador, and the lives of people here are greatly affected by violence that I have had the luxury of not knowing.

Yesterday we went to see the children at the school in El Espino, and it is like night and day in terms of the school back in Grand Junction. The first thing we heard was the children gleefully yelling, “gringos, gringos!” at the gates, which was very endearing. We pulled up and brought our annoyingly heavy bags—filled with school supplies and donated books—into one of the school buildings. We unloaded everything in a storage room by the principal’s office, where I saw the same English books that I used when I was first learning here in America. Other than that, however, it was clear that the work the FCE is doing is benefiting the school, and therefore the community. The books we brought added to the library the FCE is helping to build in the community.

Then the students and teachers welcomed us and even allowed us to participate in their assembly by letting us present the books that we brought. After that, the children practically attacked us with their love, and even though most of the time I had no clue what they were saying, it was a beautiful experience and I could see their equally beautiful souls. We took pictures and exchanged many, many hugs. They were the most accepting and wholesome people, let alone children, I have ever met. There was this little girl with flowers in her hair who was totally mesmerized by my camera, so I let her take a few pictures. It was extra cute because the little girl had a hard time pressing the button to get the picture taken.

We then spent the rest of the morning giving each child two pencils, which is a really thoughtful gesture the FCE makes, because sometimes those two pencils are all these kids will get to use for the next school year. Anna told us before we came that there are times when the students can’t do their homework because they don’t have the resources, like writing utensils, that they need to do their homework.

While we were parading around with the smaller children who adorably attached themselves to our sides, the high school students were taking a four-hour math exam. Every time we went to get more pencils, we had to walk through where they were taking their test. They were in the old auditorium, which was kind of like a courtyard with a tin roof. Besides us going back and forth, commotion also came from the classrooms, which don’t have windows, only bars. I don’t say that to compare the school to a prison but to highlight another difference between schools in the U.S. and El Salvador.

We ate lunch in the school’s computer room, because it’s the only room with real windows and air-conditioning, so naturally it was our favorite. While eating lunch, we had a meaningful reflection about the situation that people here are living in, and about the gangs’ tyranny. For example, it’s really hard for students to get into the morning classes (as opposed to the afternoon schedule). Anna compared it to Black Friday in the way the moms line up at 3:00 in the morning to try to get their child into the morning shift. The reason they are so worried about this is that afternoon kids get out at 5:00 and the gangs are out. So getting to and from school can already be really dangerous because the school is the dividing line between the two gangs and because of that a lot of parents won’t enroll their child if they get the afternoon shift.

After lunch, we went out and attended the afternoon assembly, then we distributed the rest of the supplies. The afternoon was pretty much a repeat of the morning, except that there was a soccer game for the high school students and a banner art project for the younger children. Evelyn and Moneé played soccer with everyone. Needless to say by the end of the day we were exhausted. So we headed home and ate tamales for dinner. And just so the world knows, my host mom, Jamie, is like the best cook in the world. After dinner we played a game called Spot It that Andrea brought and Crazy 8’s. We laughed late into the night.

This morning we had to wake up early to head to San Salvador and I thought I was going to die, because we really don’t get coffee. Then we set out to meet Fernando Llort, the iconic painter who lives in San Salvador. Growing up, his dad wouldn’t buy him art supplies so he made abstract art from materials he found on the street. Another artist told him that he had potential and was very talented but that he needed to find himself. So he left home, and while he was gone, he came across a little boy on the street who was rubbing a seed on the ground. When Fernando asked to see it and the little boy showed him, he saw a landscape in the seed.

I thought that story was beautiful. Fernando then told us about how he began to teach art and how the workshops became an industry and provided so many jobs to people.

After we visited his beautiful workshop and giftshop, we headed to the university to hear about the Jesuit martyrs. Then we headed to CIS (Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad) to become more informed about all the opportunities that we have to get involved here and gain a better understanding of the foundation Anna had built.

A short while later, we went to the place where Oscar Romero (the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador) was killed, and then to his home. I think that gave us a deeper understanding of what living simply means. I think that his loving education and how he was an advocate for the people is what makes the people admire him as much as they do.

After seeing Romero’s home and hearing about him I think that the term living simply has changed for me. It’s no longer a concept used to label the minimal amount of material things, but a term that defines how you appreciate what you have and who you have to share it with.

My Salvadoran family also has shown me this in their own way. The mother, Jamie, hardly talks but she labors to get us the best food she can and is very generous. Abelardo, one of the FCE’s high school scholarship students, is very funny and he loves his animals. The family has 21 animals, not counting the chickens! My favorite are the geese. His little sister Mayerli is quiet like her mother and runs around their house getting things and helping her mother.

Anyway, then we attended church at Romero’s chapel, and it was in Spanish so I can’t tell you what the priest said, but it sounded pretty. Then we meet a gypsy from Germany who knew three languages. I think this has shown me the importance of education and how necessary it is to be able to speak more than one language.

All in all, this trip has been really eye opening; there is so much out in the world and I have been lucky to live in a place like the United States, where we are not oppressed. People in our country joke about the presidential elections, they choose not to do their homework, they take advantage of the life they live. They have opportunities that are ignored, but they think it’s fine because they have the freedom to do what they want. But on the other side of the world, people are dying in the hope that their children might have that chance. This experience has humbled me so much, and now when I think of America, I think about all the opportunities that are being wasted because people don’t know what truly being oppressed feels like.

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Day Four Reflection by Jordan Gray: Family Values

Today we went to Santiago Texacuangos to visit the coffee cooperative, and I’ll be honest, I don’t know my way up from down here.  But the city, the city is so beautiful I can’t help but watch it go by, a mish-mash of homes and restaurants and markets.  From the mountain it looked like a huge splatter of red brick and white in a valley of green hills. Of course, up close the view was a little dirtier than that.  In fact, that is the exact way I would describe El Salvador: a beautiful mess.  A living, breathing city of pupusas, coffee, and mass confusion.

So we finally make it up to the coffee cooperative, and honestly, just sitting around the massive quantities of industrial bagged coffee made me sick; I mean coffee is great, but wow, I finally understood what Anna meant when she said you will smell like coffee and sweat.  We spoke with Salomon and he showed us the process of how they make their coffee, which is nothing short of incredible.  They separate out the coffee beans by hand so that it is more pure than anywhere else you could buy from in America!

I’ll be frank, I wasn’t able to finish the hike that we went on to our little piece of “Territorio de Colorado”, but I made it as far as the beginning of the territory and was able to plant a coffee tree.  What an honor for me, to be supporting and helping this community in any way I can, even if it is as small as planting a coffee tree.  When we came back from our lunch with Salomon we returned to the warehouse and cooperative administrative office where we met the president of the cooperative, a woman who was more vibrant than I’m sure I am in one whole year. Her name was Alicia and she explained how important what we are doing here is; she explained that our lives in America and El Salvador and even the world are dependent on each other.

We departed from the cooperative and made our way back down the mountain into the city where we visited the tomb of Mons. Oscar A. Romero.  I’ve always been fascinated by the way people build cathedrals in large cities; they seem to become more grand everywhere I go.  However, La Metropolitana tops everything that I’ve seen in my life so far.  So detailed and extravagant I could hardly believe that where I was at was a real place.  The market was the same, exactly how I guess you would picture it, or how you have seen it in movies: color, life, people, and bartering whispers between those who can’t speak the same language.  Everywhere in the market you hear, “bienvenidos, pasen adelante,” which is code for “come in, I’m going to sell you something.” I was the epitome of their dreams though, maybe.  I was willing to buy, and why wouldn’t I? It was all so beautiful that I was lucky to have left that place with only 3 bags in hand!

One thing I have noticed about the way the Salvadorans act towards each other is it’s like a family.  I’ve known Anna Maria, our driver, and our families for barely a week and we act like we have known each other our whole lives.  I call the youngest boy in my host family “mi sobrino”, or “my nephew”. I barely am able to act that close with my neighbors in my dormitory.  I want to be more like this family though.   Much like the city, they are a living unit of people; a family that would put their lives on the line for me, and what’s more, I would for them.

Without this feeling that I have with my family here in El Espino, I wouldn’t be able to have the hope to come back to America and continue on with my life.  How can I continue on the same life after what I’ve seen here? Here, this is the first time I’ve thought about not acting for my future.  How could I go back to such a frivolous act when I see more important and pressing matters here?  Who am I to have chosen a career like that without needing to mind hearing about repercussions?

I want to go back to America with the hope that the people in El Espino have.  I want to be able to be open to everyone around me, and most importantly, I want to build relationships with people like the ones that I have with my family here.  I want to uphold the values of trust and love that emanate from this community, and show the people back home that I can make a difference in people’s lives, no matter how big or how small. The work that is done to support this community is priceless in ways that money could never begin to replace; a bond of brotherhood that is only matched by the hospitality of the residents and students that we live with.

Tomorrow we continue our journey, but I understand now that I will always be here no matter what the situation is in my spirit, in my mind, and in my heart.

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Day Two Reflection by BJ Long: Kindling Passion

This morning was a little rough getting up. Just a little stiff from the first day. But when I woke up, I woke up to a very hot and delicious warm banana smoothie. It was amazing. Today we spent a lot of the day at the school. I loved every bit of it. When the bus was backing up into the school all the bichitos (the small children) were shouting happily, “It’s the Gringos!” with big smiles. They were so excited to see us and I would understand why later. In the first five minutes, we were welcomed into their school community with a few words from the principal and all the kids greeted us.

Let me backtrack really quickly. Before the trip we were told we were bringing some books and school supplies and had spent a whole day sorting books and school supplies to pack away. Then when we made it to the school, we saw exactly what each and every student got as we passed out each supply individually. That alone left a punch with me when I passed all the supplies out. Then after a few rounds of passing out pencils in the hot humid air, I took a moment to rest with some water and Gatorade. This was a moment when the little kiddos decided, “Hey let’s ask the gringo some English words.” And they asked me, “Como se dice…” (or “how do you say…”) and made a whole list of words. Just a few I remember were zapatos, los dedos, and hola. Or they were just asking for random words. And I told them how to say shoes, fingers, and hello. And most other words that I knew both the Spanish and English to. Evelyn, our translator, luckily came over at this time and was able to help translate some of the words I didn’t know. My time to shine!

Anna volun-told me I was creating the English activity for the first year high school students. Evelyn and I were very nervous for this as we didn’t know what the students knew. She asked them a few quick questions and then we quickly thought on our feet and we came up with a great couple of activities to do with the students. We first played that favorite childhood game of telephone. The first few times were met with very funny responses. The first we tried I used the sentence, “The tree is green,” and when all was said and done, the students twisted it to something along the lines of, “It’s something English.” Evelyn was flustered at the mistakes and asked them for the meaning of my sentence “The tree is green” and they all responded with, “El árbol es verde,” which the students then understood and tried on the next few rounds. After that game we learned that they were very good with colors so we played a new game where the students would take turns shouting out colors and each color they would say they were able to take a giant leap.

We had lunch in the nice air-conditioned computer room where we were lucky to have one of the oldest students that our group sponsors and have her talk to us about her story and what she wanted to do after her education ended. Then we were greeted by the afternoon classes, and it was quite a repeat of the first half of the day, but with more sweat, more drinking water, and quite a few kids sitting on my lap asking me how to say more words in English.

Finally, it was time to play soccer. And anyone who knows me well knows I am horrible at soccer, so I chose to not partake. Instead, I was cheering on my friends as they were danced around by the amazing skills of the kids. I had a group of little girls come up to my bench, sit down, and start talking to me in very fast Spanish. They then looked at me, laughed, and we had a nice conversation where I practiced my abysmal Spanish, which they giggled at while they also practiced what little English they knew and we both laughed.

Sadly, we had to go as it was getting dark and it was time to turn in and go back to our families and go to sleep. On the way back to the families we stopped by the church just so we could see our sister parish from Grand Junction. (That way Hunter could be happy with us.) Finally, we were returned to our families.

Might I say dinner was delicious. My family cooked dinner with Andrea, Grace, and Natalia’s family and we had some delicious tamales, and I cried. That food was delicious, and just well made, and just, UGH—the flavor can’t begin to be described as it is just fantastic.

After dinner we played cards – both the card game “Spot It” and Crazy Eights, which everyone had a good laugh at. Poor Grace was made fun of for a while, though, because of the night before and her run-in with a very scary goose who stopped her walk to the shower. It was quite a traumatizing event, which everyone would continue to get a good laugh at.

Finally, it was time to go to sleep. I walked with Evelyn back to our house and got packed for the next day and was going to bed. I saw a teddy bear in the bed next to me and I asked the brother whose room I was sleeping in, and how do you say that. And so my Spanish word of the day, which I really remember and that stuck with me, is oso, or bear.

I am writing this journal at 7:30 pm on 3/15, a day after having done all this. I am writing about a community which our leader, Anna Stout, takes care of as if they are children. This has an effect on me, more so than I can put into words sometimes. She takes more care of her children in El Salvador than most parents I see taking care of their only spoiled brat back in America. This woman has found her true love in taking care of all of those students her group sponsors, and this has moved me. It challenges me to question what exactly I am doing. It challenges me, and all that I have been raised with. I am writing right meow, (inside joke with me and Anna of running cat puns) and I am watching her talking to one of her best friends from El Salvador and how much passion and love and attention she gives each individual. I cannot stress enough exactly how much Anna cares about her community. She calls them her hijos, or children. When we visited the families and we could hear their stories, we visited a boy who just months before had lost his mother. Anna stayed back with him as our group got ready to move to the next family, but we heard some sobbing from the house and saw Anna hugging both the boy and his grandmother as they all cried together. The reason was, when Anna came back to the group, she told us that he did lose his mother, and that she called him exactly what I said, or her son. And that the grandmother responded with, “That’s all he wants is a mother.” And that alone broke him, and in turn seeing her son cry made Anna cry. I hope and dream I find something I am that passionate about. Anna has really kindled a fire in me I hope won’t go away and I hope to find something that will fuel it.

I’m writing about my reflections of the day and what I felt. On top of that, I am also writing about exactly what I am feeling and how much emotion is felt throughout the trip in and out of the community. That is exactly what I am feeling: love and hope. This community is beautiful and I am enjoying the trip very much. As a group I love every bit and am very glad we are such a small delegation because we are able to stay so close, and have many inside jokes. Including the running tally of all of Anna’s quotes that we are constantly turning into hash-tags. #AnnaQuotes #AnnahatesKids #OkAnnaLiedaboutHatingKids #AnnalovesElSalvador #AnnaisgonnabeatBJ #BJisdundo #losgorditos #Findyourpassion #Youdon’tneedschool #Meh #LoadupGringos

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Service through humility

Participants, scholarship students, and their families meet for the first time

Participants, scholarship students, and their families meet for the first time

The fourth annual Mesa Catholic/Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad/Foundation for Cultural Exchange Alternative Spring Break trip to El Salvador is officially underway. Five students and two trip leaders are embarking on the journey with messages of solidarity, support, and friendship on this alternative brand of service trip.

Service through humility

The ASB trip is not your traditional service trip or mission trip. Rather, we practice “service through humility” and our mission is to build relationships, not schools or roads. We will spend time laughing together, asking questions, exchanging aspects of our cultures, teaching English and learning Spanish, sharing meals, and living together. Though we bring suitcases with school supplies and books for what will eventually be a community library, we do not come specifically to give or to fix anything. We come to learn and love.

This kind of trip would be completely ungratifying for the first-world traveler who wants Instagram photos fixing roads with “the natives” and to be able to come home and tell their friends about all the good they did for “the poor people” because we simply don’t do that. We believe that coming here without a service project shifts the focus from what we bring to what we stand to receive. It is a change in global power dynamics, placing the developing community in the position of givers and the missionaries as recipients. Looking at development and assistance this way requires a paradigm shift, but it works. And it benefits both groups in profound ways.

Our travelers are taught to unlearn –albeit temporarily — one of our strongest cultural values: independence. The opposite of independence is, obviously, dependence, and that manifests itself in many ways on this trip. One is the total lack of control they have over things like the itinerary, mobility, and food selections. Another is the complete unfamiliarity of day-to-day things like the language, bathing, and cultural norms, which they are dependent on somebody’s explanation or assistance to navigate. But the most important is in the shift from giver to receiver and allowing themselves to be served by others.

Learning to receive humbly

At first it may sound ridiculous, and even selfish, to say we are coming down here to be served. And I get it. But bear with me on this. If someone were to give you a gift, hand selected just for you and beautifully wrapped, you would never respond by handing it back unopened, or opening it and then hurriedly handing them an equal gift in return. But that is what you are doing when someone attempts to do something kind for you and you either refuse their help or you immediately hop up to help them. If that act of service is the only gift that person can afford to offer you, you should accept it graciously, because when you allow yourself to be served and you return the favor with genuine gratitude and humility, you are graciously accepting their hand-selected and beautifully-wrapped gift.

There are many examples of when we do this. Someone offers to carry your heavy bag and you wave them away saying, “I’m fine, I’ve got it.” Someone prepares you a meal and you jump up to clear the dishes and wave dismissively when they urge you to please sit and relax. Someone compliments you and you dismiss it, or worse, respond by putting yourself down. Sound familiar? Instead, learning to respond with a sincere “thank you” said from the heart allows the gift-giving to be completed. And though it may feel completely uncomfortable at first, it doesn’t make you selfish, or lazy, or self-centered. It makes you humble.

What does this have to do with service trips? It’s about changing the power dynamics of international aid and the traditional way of thinking about how to help the developing world. And it has everything to do with who is doing the giving.

The power dynamics of service

Service is a critical piece of power dynamics. The relationship between giver and receiver, between server and the served, is traditionally a relationship of inferiority-superiority. When this plays out between two similarly-perceived power positions, like close friends or coworkers of the same rank, the power doesn’t shift much. But when it takes place between two unequally situated members of society, for example, from rich to poor, it can affect the dignity of the inferior participant by leaving him/her in debt to the superior. Likewise, when a person lacks the financial or material resources to give tangible gifts, they often find themselves in the inferior recipient position, especially in the case of people living in poverty who receive some kind of financial or other assistance. So when a group of Americans shows up to give things and to fix things, they will always be in a position of superiority. That kind of paternalism has dominated the most well-meaning aid efforts in the developing world for centuries and creates dependency and impotency in the communities it seeks to help because the communities grow accustomed to having things done for them. They are not encouraged to identify or solve their own problems or given the tools to find solutions. (Furthermore, the work that is done usually has temporary effects, which we will have to get into in another blog post.) But when that same group of Americans arrives with an earnest interest in getting to know the members of the community as people – people with skills, hopes, ideas, and their own lives – and to find our shared experiences as humans, amazing things happen. Those people feel valued, capable, and empowered to identify and solve the problems they face.


Don’t get me wrong; the lesson isn’t to just go down take, but to find the right way to give back. After the humbling experience of developing friendships and understanding with the members of the El Espino community, ASB participants return home and begin the traditional service part of the service trip: raising money to support the community in its efforts to solve its own problems. The money funds projects the community identifies, plans, and executes, thus providing employment for community members, engendering a sense of ownership of the projects, and empowering them to seek solutions to those problems. Those benefits could never be achieved in a week-long mission/service trip if we were simply coming to give and fix things.
We don’t get to take Instagram photos in front of the final product and we won’t have any stories about how much better people’s lives are because we did something, but we do get to leave with the knowledge that our solidarity mattered to this community because it shows them they are not alone in their efforts to build a better community. And we leave with invaluable lessons about resiliency, love, family, and faith.

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