Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another graduation

Sometimes, a child does not have the opportunity to graduate from high school. Sometimes, a child does not have the chance to attend high school. Sometimes, a child's life takes a different path.

Mirian lives in a small home made of adobe. She helped to build it with her own hands. She lives there with her family. The kitchen is old-school, with a hard-packed earthen fire surface under the front porch area, where the bean pot bubbles all day long and the comal is ready for cooking tortillas. The smokey house is dark inside, with beds across the room, and a hammock from which the family watches a tiny TV. Mirian has had a hard life. She suffered tragic loss during the war. One of her sons died when he fell from a mango tree while picking mangoes.

One time, Mirian gave me a piece of white cloth on which she had stitched a bouquet of flowers with brightly colored yarn and the words, "hecho por Mirian" across the bottom. She's thoughtful that way, always inviting and sharing. She works hard, along with her man and her kids in their milpa - the small garden plot where they grow corn and beans and radishes. That milpa is their life, the source of food and income for the family.

Mirian cannot read. Neither can her man. Nor can her older children.

Ana is the youngest child. She was just starting school when we met her. Quiet and eager to laugh, Ana did well in school and eventually entered the scholarship program. She studied hard, and loved to try to learn English. "Como se llama?" she asked me once, holding up her new pet. "Puppy," I said. Puppy...puppy...we repeated back and forth. From then on the little dog has been known as "Puppy."

One day I was walking through the community, filming the pathways and the activities of a weekday morning. Ana wanted to come along - a little "mothering" instinct showing as she guided me around the "mean dogs." She told me all about her work on the farm, and showed me the horse her family uses to ride out to the milpa. Then, back at her house, she pulled out the tools, one by one, showing me the homemade blades and wooden handles. I said that I had always wanted to hold a cuma, and she was enthusiastic about explaining how it is like a sickle but different and how her pappy had made it.

Shortly after that visit, Ana dropped out of school. She wrote a letter about it, and was clearly sad. Her sponsors were sad. I was sad. But, in a way, I also feel like the scholarship program has been successful for Ana. She can read. She can write a good letter. She can write a story and express her feelings. She can read a contract and do math so as not to be cheated. Ana did not have the chance to attend high school, and we continue to look for ways for Ana to participate in agricultural and sewing education.

Ana will not have a high school graduation ceremony or a party. She will not be able to get a job in a shop or an office. She will probably never be able to enter the formal economy to obtain health care benefits for her family. Her life has taken a different path. Her education has provided her with the wisdom of the earth with the wisdom of the book, the wisdom of the cuma with the wisdom of the pen. She will be able to read stories to her children, and, perhaps, to write them too. Happy graduation, Ana.

Monday, August 30, 2010


How do we judge the success of a scholarship program?

I think for those of us who are all about education, we might easily say that any education which young people receive will not be wasted. I believe this.

Yet, we have dreams for our children, don't we? We want our kids to do well in school, to love learning, to read well, to graduate from high school, to go to college, to be able to provide for themselves and their families, to be valuable assets to their communities.

November is graduation month in El Salvador, and last November, we were invited to two high school graduation celebrations for two of the youth in the scholarship program. The ceremonies were at different schools and on the same day.

The first ceremony had limited seating. My husband and I were given two precious invitations, which meant that the graduate's brother and sister could not come. The family felt that it was a great honor to have international guests at the ceremony, and we were very humbled by this generous invitation. The ceremony began with the graduates being ushered in - boys in dark suits and girls in mostly black dresses and too-high heels. There was a color guard, drums, the singing of the national anthem. And then, because the school is run by an Assembly of God church, there were lively praise songs, with a contemporary band and a very charismatic and talented singing pastor. It was great to see the students enjoying this time of praise, with words projected on screen and hands held high. Some of the parents and grandparents were clearly a little out of their element, but I loved it! The school showcased some of the student musical talent with a performance by their traditional folk band. Cameras were technically not allowed, so parents and international guests alike did the best they could to sneak a few clicks of the camera in when they could.

After the ceremony we gathered for photos with the family and hugs all around. The graduate has begun his studies at the university, and continues to receive support through the scholarship program as well as through work/study and scholarship efforts which he earned through hard work.

After a quick lunch with the family we were on to the next ceremony. This one was at a Catholic high school, and included the procession, the national anthem, some words from the administration, but no praise songs. The boys were in dark suits and the girls in black graduation robes. In the school's wide open courtyard there was plenty of space for parents to run up and down with cameras and families to clap with glee when their graduates walked across the stage. The ceremony was much shorter than the morning, but included a very touching moment when students gave honor to a beloved teacher. At the end, a big load of balloons bearing the school colors was released into the air, and friends gathered for photos and hugs.

The graduation party for the second ceremony was held at the Intercontinental hotel. This is a swanky location, and very costly for the families. Most of the families could not really afford this, but the mom that we were with said that somehow families save or borrow or get the money from other family members in order to attend. She did not like it because the pressure on the kids to attend was very strong. Whether or not the location and cost were appropriate, the party was extremely fun for the graduates and their families. The dinner was great and the dance afterward was very fun. With a DJ and a fun mix of North American dance classics like YMCA and Salvadoran salsa, parents and kids danced late into the night.

The second high school graduate has begun his university studies and continues to receive support through the scholarship program. He has worked hard to earn additional scholarships in order to attend his "dream school" so that he will graduate with a business degree which will be well respected.

Graduations - in one day of grand ceremony we experienced the joy which two young men shared with their families and with us as they proudly completed their high school studies. Graduation from high school is definitely one measure of success for a scholarship program. Doors are open to these two young men, and to the 16 others in our sister church program who are attending university, which would have been closed without those high school diplomas. And just as we wish for our own children the prospect of continued joy in learning and the promise of good employment, so we wish these things for our scholarship children.

To be continued...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Learning, Growing and Building Community

"Our community is about education. As a church and as a community, we want everyone to know that we are about education. We can hang a banner on the church saying, 'Welcome to Los Heroes, where we are about education."

Every few years we get together to do strategic planning. We figure out where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. It's been four years since our pastor in El Salvador identified our sister community's focus on education. I should say, "intentional" focus, because over our 12 years together as sister churches, education has been central to who we are and what we do together. In the past four years, there has been a "program."

In the US, we were ready for a scholarship program early on. In El Salvador, the community was not ready. After 8 years of growing and learning together, we started a scholarship program together. And during the past 4 years, the program has helped children and youth to stay in school, has helped families and the community to grow stronger in their relationships with one another, and has helped families in our US church to build relationships with families in El Salvador.

The thing about a program is that there are rules. One of the rules for the scholarship program in Los Heroes is that parents need to be involved. Some children do not have parents who are willing to be involved, so grandparents and neighbors have stepped up on behalf of children. The adults meet twice each month, sharing Bible study and discussing parenting strategies. After about a year, the women came up with a proposal of their own. In addition to the general parent meetings, the women wanted to set up a family commission - a team of women who would serve as leaders in different neighborhoods in the community. They divided the community into 5 sectors, each sector has a leader, and meetings take place in homes. The women share Bible study, talk about problems in the home or with their children, take turns assisting with worship, and plan fun events, and recently, one group invited some of us over for lunch.

It's easy and good and important to hear the stories of scholarship students safely going to school in their uniforms and carrying backpacks and learning to read. But beyond the photo ops to which we are drawn, there are hundreds of other stories about learning and growing and building community -- stories of women working together to bring change to their neighborhoods and to their families and in themselves.

This is our community, and we are about education.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wear it til it Breaks

I have a rule.

If someone in El Salvador gives me a bracelet, I wear it until it breaks. Well, I actually do more than just wear it. I think about the one who gave me the bracelet whenever it catches my eye, and I try to pray for the giver at least once during each day. And when a bracelet finally breaks, I feel really sad for a bit.

Right now, I am wearing three bracelets.

One has a pattern of 4 orange beads which alternate with 2 dull white beads which used to be pink. The beads are strung on sturdy fish line and the clasp is a little silver screw-together type. It was a gift from Maria - a little expression of thanks after she and her daughters gave me a tour of her home. It was a warm and wonderful visit, with the girls showing me their bed and their treasures. It was a difficult visit as Maria pulled aside the old bed spring gate, ducked under a neighbor's electric line, and showed me the holes in the roof where the wind-caught tin was bent. I couldn't help being reminded of an old fort that I had constructed as a kid, with an old bed spring wall and scraps of wood. I could not imagine living in Maria's home. Three years later, the family still lives in the little house, the girls are studying as part of a scholarship program that our church helps to facilitate, and the bracelet reminds me to pray for mom and daughters.

The second bracelet on my wrist is from Tanzania. We are so blessed by our relationships in El Salvador that our congregation has continued to reach across borders and is building a sister church relationship in Tanzania. We are all connected to one another as global brothers and sisters, and so my bracelet rule was expanded when I purchased some traditional Masai jewelry from a women's cooperative. As Lutherans, the Masai women we met have embraced Christian beliefs and also keep some tribal customs, such as multiple wives for one husband. They have been ostracized by the greater tribe for abandoning their ancient religion, and so are limited in their ability to support themselves. By selling jewelry, the women can share their artistic gifts and earn money to support their families.

The third bracelet that I am wearing is made of knotted yarn. It was made and given to me by a woman in Managua, Nicaragua. She is a member of the women's ministry group at her church, and sat next to me as we shared chicken salad on white bread sandwiches. She just wanted to be my friend, and so she gifted me with the little aqua, white and orange braided bracelet which she had in her apron pocket. I have only worn this one for a few weeks ... it replaced another which I had worn for more than 3 years and which I had to cut off.

The bracelet which was cut was made by a group of teenage boys. It was an intricate weave of red and white string. Even though it was faded and dingy, it was special because it came from the boys "over by the school" - boys who spend their free time kicking around a soccer ball or flying kites or getting into a bit of trouble. One day, when I was walking alone near the soccer field, the boys stopped playing to see what I was up to. I asked for a photo because they were so guapo, and they posed for many. At the end of the chat and photo shoot, one of the boys pulled the bracelet off of his own wrist and tied it onto mine. He told me they had learned to make these in youth group. I rarely see these boys, and pray every day that they are in school and out of gangs. A few weeks ago, I got some poison-ivy nasty thing on my arm and had to cut the bracelet off. It surprised me a little to feel so sad about ending my time with that bracelet. I prayed extra hard for the boys and quickly grabbed another bracelet from my treasure box - the yarn from Nicaragua, which I'll wear until it breaks.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Arco Iris en Cristo

This is my favorite banner.

My favorite because back in 1999 & 2000, our traveling Sunday School road show went from class to class, Sunday after Sunday, sharing a lesson about our new sister church relationship in El Salvador. Each child in Sunday School made a little self-portrait made of felt, the littlest ones with red clothes up through the middle school kids in the violet clothes, and all those little kids were sewed onto the banner.

My favorite because we left empty spaces in the arc, slices of space waiting to be filled. We packed it into a suitcase. A secret surprise for later.

My favorite because we were graciously welcomed into the school in our sister church community to share a Bible-school type lesson with the children, and during that lesson, each child made a little self-portrait made of felt, the littlest ones with red clothes up through the sixth graders in violet.

My favorite because that hot night in El Salvador, we opened the suitcase and under the light of candles and one dim bulb, in a very hot little home with a tin roof, a small circle of women pulled needles loaded with sturdy thread through the thick, glued felt kids to sew them onto the banner. Sitting together under a hot felt blanket in the heat and humidity, with mosquitoes and cockroaches buzzing the air around us, we women pulled and pulled that thread with pliers and strong hands. We sewed and laughed together, trying to understand one another despite the language barrier. Working into the wee hours of the morning, we joined together the arcs of that rainbow and the bonds of friendship grew between us.

My favorite because the next day at school, we unfurled that banner to the amazement of the children.

My favorite because every now and then the banner would appear during our visits with our sister church, but mostly, it lived inside a suitcase for safe-keeping. A secret surprise for later.

My favorite because after 11 years together, and after the building of a new church, the banner suddenly emerged from its hiding place to surprise us. Now, it hangs over the entrance door to the church, and it is beautiful!! The children represented on the banner have grown into teens and young adults, and some are no longer with us. But the women who sewed are bound together for life.

My favorite because this banner represents a rainbow of stories and memories, especially for Greasy and Grubby and Julia.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Off the Beaten Path: San Jorge

Oh, I remember this! -- a wide black dirt road with concrete steps as off-ramps...

As we drove down the "road" to the church in San Jorge, a few of us had our memories jogged by this unusual thoroughfare. San Jorge is one of the towns in El Salvador which uses a huge dry river bed as a main road into and out of this part of town. The wide sand-gravel pathway is perfect for a pick-up or a group of women with plastic containers on their heads...when there is no water flowing. Yet when the water comes, it comes flowing down from the hills in a rush, and all those who live and work and attend school along the route are trapped until the rush is gone. For some, that might mean an extra three hours or maybe an overnight at the church. There is an early warning system near the church, which can blast out a warning if a storm is coming or the rush of water looms. It did make me wonder if there would be wisdom in having a rowboat nearby.

On this day, our visit to San Jorge ended with perhaps the best pupusas that we have ever had. The revueltas were fried crispy and the plain queso ones were thick and bubbly. Que rica!!!!!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Off the Beaten Path: Puerto Parada

We were in Usulutan for the night and the pastor led us out to the church in Puerto Parada in the morning. The paved road became dirt and the dirt became mud and the mud became puddles and the puddles became the river. And all along the way, families were living in the water.

The river broke through the levy in June after tropical storm Agatha rained down, and the puddle lakes and streams left behind are stagnant breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease. Released from its confines, the river now runs through three communities which remain evacuated, displacing more than 700 families. Some families refused to leave or, having no place to go, are surviving by scavenging what they can from the mud-covered corn and cane fields and by fishing with small nets.

We couldn't make it to the community on this route, so we turned around and took the other road in. We stopped at the church and heard a little bit more about the history and current life in the community, and then walked down to a shrimp-farming project which is run by the community. The shrimp harvest will begin in a week. Fortunately, the shrimp are abundant (they were not affected by the flood because "they LIKE the water"). This sign of hope brings smiles and animation to the faces of the people who live here.

As we walked our way out of the community, we greeting moms making tortillas, grandmas picking over small bowls of beans, and lots of children. It was midday, so we were greeted by the young children who were coming home from school, and the older children who were on their way with projects and homework in hand. About 50% of the children in this community do not attend school, because their families rely on them to gather life from the sea which gives life to their families.

There were so many sad stories, and so many beautiful smiles. As we walked in the oppressive heat and humidity, it was hard to imagine living in this place with the mud, the mosquitoes, the ever-present danger of flooding, the lack of sanitation and the unsafe drinking water. How spoiled we are to hop into our air-conditioned vehicle and be able to drive out, beyond the water, to our dry and clean home where we can wash our feet and walk beyond the mud.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Looking for answers...


The story began with a mud slide in November 2009 which brought boulders and mud and a wall of water into the community of Guadalupe near San Vicente.

Sort of.

The story really began generations ago, when families settled on the fertile hillsides and valley below the volcano. Grandparents, parents, and children, who despite the history of landslides, are rooted in this piece of earth which sustains them with corn and beans. This is home.

The government is unwilling to invest in rebuilding homes or reconstructing the bridge which is the evacuation route for the families who still live here. From a risk-management perspective this makes some sense. Yet the plan for relocating families raises additional questions. Is the lowland relocation site, which is prone to flooding, just as risky? Will the families have access to land to grow their crops? Will they receive dignified housing?

Those who lost everything are currently living in temporary wooden homes, on a wet patch of land that the local government was able to borrow. These one room homes are tiny and the families share 2 kitchens, 4 latrines and 3 pilas for doing laundry. There is a big tank for drinking water and one for washing clothes and people. A young mother said that her biggest concern about living here is the children. "They don't have a place to play and their condition is very delicate. They are sick. We worry about them being sick."

In February, one stalk of corn grew inside of a half-buried bedroom. To the families in the community, this was a sign of resurrection. They are people of the corn, and as long as they can grow their food they have hope.

Should they move? Should they stay?

This is a question which people ponder throughout the world, from El Salvador to Haiti to Pakistan to the US. In the meantime, wooden shelters, tents and FEMA trailers are home to families who search for signs of resurrection and hope and governments and caring people search for just solutions.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Off the Beaten Path: Beyond Art in La Palma

One of my favorite Salvadoran towns is La Palma. Famous for its history as a place of peace and a place of art, it's also a great place to hang out, to go for a walk, to enjoy the cool evenings and to grab a good meal.

The last time that I was in La Palma happened to be on the celebration of the patron saint day to honor the Sweet Name of Maria, which meant lots of fun and sweets in the streets. I took a walk and took a few photos, stopping for a little while in the park to write in my journal. While I was seated on a comfy park bench, a kid on a skateboard flew right over my head! What a surprise!

The treats are mostly made from cane syrup. It was fun to see all the different varieties, and to taste a few too.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Visit to Benjamin Bloom

When children are sick, very sick or have had an accident, they can receive care at Benjamin Bloom Children's Hospital in San Salvador. Almost every family I know in El Salvador has had some interaction with Benjamin Bloom as patients or as families of patients.

Of course there are statistics...built in 1944; 382 beds, always full; 800-900 out-patient visits per day; most services are free. There is a 1-2 month waiting period for non-emergency procedures. The number one cause of death is asthma. After the 1986 earthquake part of the building collapsed. Some machines have not worked since then. Aid from Germany helped to replace imaging equipment and pumps, but now they need spare parts and the instructions are in German and the parts are not available in El Salvador. The Salvadoran government does not have funds for spare parts anyway. A well-outfitted PICU with a good record of care for preemies. There is one cubicle for heart surgery which happens on Mondays and Fridays, so there is a 1 1/2 year wait for heart procedures. Surgical teams come from the US periodically to help, allowing patients to receive treatment more quickly. Last year there was a successful Siamese twin separation. They had 500 burn cases due to fireworks in the past year. All of this was shared by our guide, an inspired young man with a personal story of being a patient at Bloom, of surviving childhood leukemia - a miracle in his eyes, and of being called to serve sick children as an administrator at the hospital.

These statistics are in my notes. There are other images pressed into my memory.

We entered the hospital near the emergency department. There were two rows of gurneys which held critically ill children, many of them babies, who had been brought in with respiratory distress. Hovered over some of the children were teams of moms, dads, grandmas, aunties, nurses - these are the breathing teams, taking turns squeezing the respiratory bags in regular rhythms, 24-7 to keep the little ones alive.

One little boy in ICU sat in his bed calling "mama, mama" over and over. The beds here were lined up in a row, with no space for parents, and behind a glass window.

In the burn unit (a new unit is under construction), three little ones, covered in bandages, were in beds beside one another. They were playing "scrub the floor" at home in their kitchen and were using alcohol. A candle tipped and the floor went up in flames.

Another little one was burned when the bean pot tipped. And there were several children playing happily around a little round table, their hands bandaged from accidents with fireworks and matches.

The doctors and nurses were wonderfully kind, patient, loving and devoted to the children. They work well with what they have, and, according to most sources, Bloom has good quality care in comparison to the other facilities available in Central America. Children's hospitals can be very sad places, no matter where they are located and no matter what kind of equipment they have. They can also be places of play and laughter, because kids are pretty resilient and because those who are called to heal children are pretty special.