"I never ever thought someone would come to my house to visit my boy." Marina started crying before she could say anything else. It was a moment of sharing, of sitting together in the shade beside the excavations at San Andres on the last day of our visit together.
We were a mixed group of children, youth, moms and dads - five of us from the US and the other forty or so from our sister church community - representatives of the students and families who participate in the scholarship program. All of the students in the program have economic need, and the majority are older students who seek to overcome the culture of gangs which surrounds them by completing high school and earning technical or university degrees in the hopes of achieving sustainable employment.
For one young man, the dream of employment seemed impossible. He was born with a severe hearing impairment. The public schools in El Salvador are not equipped to assist children with special needs, and often, children with disabilities who outlive their parents face life in the streets. This was the fear which Marina had for her son. Although he attended the little community school and the other children include him well in their games and activities, he was not learning much. As sister churches, we worked together to find a way for Marina's son to study in a more meaningful way. The scholarship program team found a school in San Salvador which specializes in teaching children with auditory and speech problems. A family volunteered to give a scholarship, and three years ago, Marina's son started to go to his special school.
As we sat in the shade that sunny afternoon, we shared memories of the week we had just spent together visiting schools, visiting in student's homes, sharing meals together and spending some time being "tourists" together. This is how we ended up at the historic site, San Andres. Some of the parents and students and some of us shared beautiful words about what this week together meant and about the dreams for the future which the scholarship program helps to bring closer to reality. But Marina could only share a few words, "I never ever thought someone would come to my house to visit my boy."
The visit to Marina's house was super special. Her lot is at the bottom of the hill in our sister church community. Big trees shade the property. A few years ago, the home which she shared with her husband and 4 children was made of plastic and cardboard. Today, thanks to Marina's careful saving of little bits of money which her mother sends her from the US, she has a large home (by community standards) made of concrete block with a wide veranda. A small road runs along the front of the property, and she has planted a solid fence of sturdy plants as a security wall. A couple of times each day, small herds of cattle pass by on the road, and although he cannot hear them "moo," her son feels them coming and excitedly watches them go by. "He has a gift for working with animals," Marina said. "He spends time with the farmers and can milk a cow." "And he squirts the milk into his mouth right from the cow" his brother grimaced, "and that's disgusting."
Each day, the family gets up at 4 am so the Dad can take his boy to the special school. It is a 3-bus and 2 1/2 hour adventure. Mom leaves the house a couple of hours later so that she can be at the school at noon to pick up her son. Some days she goes early for her classes. Marina is learning to sign so that she can teach the other members of the family to communicate with their hands.
We sat on the shaded veranda, sharing stories and chatting with the kids. Marina and her sister had made a special treat for the occasion: tuti-fruti - watermelon, papaya, pineapple and strawberries cut up and drizzled with honey. When Marina brought out her dictionary of Salvadoran Sign Language, we quickly learned a few words so that we could communicate with our hands. The guest of honor quickly grabbed his mom's book, and went through the pages lickety-split, signing in rapid fashion to show us how much he knows. The adults were pretty careful to give good attention to all of the children - two of the other children in the family each receive partial scholarships to help with their studies and they were able to share their stories with us too.
Earlier in the week we had visited each of their schools. We had visited the local public schools during previous trips, but this was the first opportunity we had to learn about the school for hearing impaired children in San Salvador. Students are accepted based on medical evaluation, need and commitment to learning (on behalf of the students and the parents). Our little guy's day begins with small-group therapy. The children practice building their sign-vocabulary as well as vocalization and lip-reading. It was really impressive to see the attention which the children received and the very strict discipline required at the school. We were able to observe gym class and reading/writing time as well. Several of the students have cognitive and physical disabilities in addition hearing impairments. We noticed that Marina's son writes backwards. She said that he does not like to read. For students who are fifteen years of age or older and are not succeeding academically, the school offers technical workshops: a bakery, a sewing/tailoring workshop, and a carpentry shop. These are very good options for students who need a skill which will help them to be employable. Marina thinks that her son will probably be able to take advantage of these workshops.
When we were planning for this recent trip, our sister church pastor and I thought about the travelers - a father and thirteen-year-old sister of a teen with special needs, our pastor and her young son who has a few challenges. Our church in the US is very welcoming of families with special needs and has recently developed some new day-events for special needs children. We thought that the time was right for a focus on learning about special needs education in El Salvador, so we asked Marina about the possibility of spending time with her son and his school. Normally the school does not allow visitors, but we were allowed to learn and ask questions. There was a lot of common ground for our group, and a special warmth developed between the US dad and Marina's son. It didn't matter that one did not speak Spanish and one did not speak at all. What mattered was patience, reading a signing book together, sharing tuti-fruti, giving each other thumbs-up, hugging, and getting to know each other.