We were going to El Salvador to stay in our sister church community for the first time, and we had some ideas.
1) Three of us as the healing team would work with the local health department to run a small clinic in the church for a few hours each day for 3 days.
2) Four of us as the teaching team would run a Vacation Bible School event during those same hours in the school.
The VBS plan was made jointly through email. We worked on the details - taking our home church's summer VBS theme, translating some basic lessons and songs into Spanish, developing some art projects, planning special treats and collecting a few surprises for the children. We packed our suitcases with the supplies we needed and off we went.
The school teachers were more than generous in opening up their classroom to us and giving us a couple of prime time hours to work with the kids. It didn't take us long to realize that our lesson plans were not clicking with the kids. Translating into Spanish our North-American-culturally-relevant VBS lessons with the theme "God's Plan for You" did not quite get us into a culturally relevant zone with the Salvadoran kids. The Bible speaks for itself, so at least the scripture verses were OK. Our art project went much more smoothly, so everyone got to take a little extra time creating their little "self-portraits" from felt.
Snack time was excellent. It was the first time for the most of the kids in our sister community to taste peanut butter...yes, we had packed peanut butter and jelly and crackers in our suitcases. It was a fine dining experience as the big kids waited on the little kids with little plates of saltines slathered with PB & J.
On day number two we ditched the translated thematic songs and focused on the stuff that was working. The kids made time capsules and talked a little bit about what their dreams for the future were. We pulled out our "limited-Spanish-Go-To" songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and "El es El Rey" which were a big hit. More PB & J. Good times.
On day number three, which began as another good day, we had planned a surprise. We ceremoniously unfurled the banner with all of the little felt people placed in the arco iris (if you didn't click on that art project link earlier, do it now). The kids were so surprised to see "themselves" amidst all the kids from the north in a beautiful rainbow. This was good a good gift for the community.
The next surprise was the distribution of a gift to each student. This event is now known as: "The Beanie Baby Disaster."
Our intentions were good. We had more than 100 animals and there were about 80 kids in the one-room school. We opened the suitcase and a near riot ensued. The teachers calmed the pandemonium, telling the kids to take their seats, while stuffing their own little peluches into their desk drawers and purses. We were able, with the help of the teachers, to give each child a new little friend to cuddle. And then school was let out for the day. We quickly shoved the suitcase under the desk, a few little animals still hidden away inside.
Then came the solicitations: "Give me one for my sister." "Give me one for my cousin." "My mommy would really like one, give me one for my mommy." The tones of voice were pleading. We stood firm, "No." Eventually everyone went home. I think we took the few extras to the pastor, so he could give them to children who were sick or in special need of a cuddly friend.
We learned some very valuable lessons from The Beanie Baby Disaster:
1. Surprises are best shared beforehand with the leaders to make sure they are a good idea.
2. Never open a suitcase full of stuff in the midst of a crowd.
3. Think before packing a suitcase full of stuff.
4. Seek to share gifts which build up community, rather than tear it down.
It has been eleven years since that first shared VBS. The rainbow banner still hangs in the church. The Beanie Babies are long gone.