Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Each child was asked to think of one thing they were grateful for during their time at Centro Hogar. As they stood proudly on stage holding their diplomas, they each spoke into the microphone, for all to hear, their gratitudes. This is the list of things they came up with (all by themselves!):
Claudia: I am grateful for my grandma.
Brenda: I am grateful for the trees.
Michael: I am grateful for my Señorita (the teacher).
Marco: I am grateful for learning about Monseñor Romero.
Juan Carlos: I am grateful for the food.
Daniela: I am grateful for the help of my mom and dad.
Rocio: I am grateful for my mom.
Marilyn: I am grateful for the storybooks.
Antonio: I am grateful for Programa Velasco.
German: I am grateful for a clean environment.
Ernesto: I am grateful for the playground.
Douglas: I am grateful for my friends.
Krissia: I am grateful for all the lessons.
I will miss you, prepa!
Friday, November 25, 2011
I am grateful for:
watermelon, orange and banana smoothies after a great bike ride up and down the hills of this city
kids who scream my name (SENORITA OLIIIVIIAAA) as I walk by their classroom
the view of the volcano (during the day) and the stars (at night) from my roof
friends who drop by at any hour for a cup of coffee
delicious coffee from ANADES's organic farm and vanilla soymilk from the soy project in San Ramon
leaving work at 5:00 sharp, when all the moms and dads wave hello and goodbye
flowers blooming in November
the bark of my neighbors dog, welcoming me home
hugs from Abner, a really special kid
one cent limes
the tears from that mother two days ago
the noise and life in the centro, downtown
systems of support
What are you grateful for?
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
The Sun is shining once again over El Salvador after October’s devastating rains. The land is beginning to dry, and people have returned to their communities to begin the clean-up effort. President Mauricio Funes reported this week that the storm caused about $840 million worth of damages, the most highly affected sector being the agricultural sector at $300 worth of losses (link)
In San Ramon, where Centro Hogar is located, there was extreme risk of landslide. In 1986, an enormous landslide completely demolished the area. There was only one home left standing. This year, however, Civil Protection and the Police were on high alert in the area. Families who lived in unstable homes or in areas of the volcano that were at risk of landslide, according to the experts, were evacuated to San Salvador’s main shelter. Several Programa Velasco families and one teacher from Centro Hogar spent the week in the shelter. Thanks to the generosity of donations from the Salvadoran people, the government, and local and international NGOs, the thousands of people at this shelter were well taken-care of. They ate three meals a day, received donations of clothing, shoes, and hygiene products, and slept on dry mattresses. Two little girls in Programa Velasco glowed when they told me how much fun they had playing with new friends they met at the shelter. Thankfully, San Ramon was for the most part unaffected by the rains, and the people were able to return to their homes safely.
In the Bajo Lempa, the low-lying farming area near the Lempa River, the communities were completely flooded, destroying most crops. Because most people have lived through floods before – something more and more common due to climate change – they have learned how to protect the personal possessions from damage; one teacher from the pre-school in Amando Lopez described how the people hang their mattresses from the roof with heavy rope and place clothes and other possessions up high, out of the water’s reach.
There were heavy floods in the three communities where our partner organization ANADES has pre-schools, Amando Lopez, Presidio Liberado, and La Canoa. Thankfully, the three schools are structurally very sound and did not receive any devastating damage during the rains. One school even served as a shelter for dozens of families as they waited to be rescued by boat. After the waters subsided, the communities got together in a joint clean-up effort to make the schools safe and ready to receive children again!
Thanks to your solidarity and generous donations, ANADES was able to make several trips out to the Bajo Lempa during and after the rains. We brought food, clothing and mattresses to the shelters, and have sent several medical brigades to the communities. The ANADES doctor, natural medicine expert, medical students, and a handful of volunteers have spent three days in various communities doing medical checkups and providing patients with free medicine, when we had what was needed. Many of the children and even many adults were very underweight, some severely malnourished. ANADES was able to give some food to each family that came through, and to the children with the most serious malnourishment, we gave a bag of powdered nutritional supplement.
Now that the rains have subsided, the situation may look like it has gone back to normal, but the loss of the crops in the area means that the majority of families have lost their main source of income for the year. In an already poor region where the people stretch each dollar they earn to provide for their families, the coming weeks, months, and years will be that much more difficult. ANADES and Programa Velasco are seeking to reinvest in the future of these communities – both by supporting immediate needs like food, clean water, medicine, cleaning supplies and hygiene products and long-term needs like reinforcing the levee (which broke during the floods) and the replanting of the crops, so that the people can begin to generate income again. We also believe that education is the most powerful tool of empowerment that can be offered, and we would like to expand our scholarship program next year to the rural communities in the Bajo Lempa and in Morazan, where the economic situation is extremely difficult, now more than ever.
Please join us in support of this work – make a one-time donation to purchase immediate needs like food and medicine; Become a Compañero/a to support long-term projects in San Ramon and in the rural communities, or Sponsor a Child for the 2012 school year. Learn more at Support Us.
In gratitude and hope,
Programa Velasco, In-Country Director
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
I have gotten pretty accustomed to living in El Salvador that most things that once seemed shocking to me now seem quite normal. Having water only a few hours during the day? Normal. Eating tortillas with every meal? Normal. Seeing kids beg for money on the streets? Heart-breaking, but not shocking. But I will never, never get used to the machismo, the culture of sexism and objectification of women. I see it every day, multiple times a day, and I hope I never get used to it.
On my walk to work this morning, for example, I received catcalls on five different occasions, sometimes by entire groups of men. They vary from the somewhat polite “que le vaya bien, mi amor preciosa” (I am NOT your precious love) to the lewd “mmm que rica mamacita” to the gross kissy noises that make me want to punch someone in the face. I’m fascinated by the culture of street harassment. The men know that almost every woman will simply ignore them and keep walking by. But whether these men know it or not, it’s not about getting women to talk to them. It’s about power. It’s about demonstrating that women’s bodies are objects to be gawked at, not respected as they walk by.
This weekend, the social worker Veronica and I led a workshop with the parents on gender equality. There were seven men present, and sixty-two women.
It was a beautiful conversation about the roles of women, what kinds of things women and men can do, how women are objectified in this social, political, and economic spheres of society, and what kinds of things women are doing to take opportunities for ourselves when they are not handed to us. I was just so honored and proud of all the mothers I have grown to love speaking up. After the workshop, so many women came up to me to tell me they had learned new things and thought it was such an interesting, worthwhile meeting.
In the end, though, it was mostly a conversation about gender equality with women whose partners will continue to treat them with the same sexist attitude and expectations as always. One mother came up to me and thanked me for the workshop. “It was so interesting! Que bonito!” she said with a huge smile. “I only wish my husband were here. He is… well… he is a little bit machista.”
We closed the meeting with a short video called Despierta, Raimundo, Despierta, (Wake Up, Raimundo, Wake Up) in which a husband is portrayed as the submissive, oppressed partner who is verbally and emotionally accosted by his wife, the bread-winner, because that is just how society is. He cooks, he irons his wife’s clothes every morning. He takes care of the children, he cleans, and he watches his wife spend all the money she earns at the bar getting drunk with her friends, only to come home and beat her husband when he asks how they are going to feed their children.
The parents laughed through the whole video – it was hilarious to see the reality that they see every day in their own homes inverted, the women the one with the power to treat her husband and she saw fit. At the end of the video, Raimundo wakes up to find that it was only a dream. His submissive, loving wife makes his coffee and irons his clothes for work, and he is relieved to know that everything will continue as it always had.
The parents enjoyed cake and coffee, stayed around to chat a little while, then went home. They’ve been working all week, most of them in minimum wage jobs or in the informal sector, earning less than $200 a month, which will barely cover the basic cost of living. Saturday is their day to go to the market, clean the house, wash the family’s clothes, and get ready for another week of doing it all over again.
Monday, May 30, 2011
This article was recently published in the May issue of Bridges, the VMM newsletter. If you did not receive the May edition via email and would like one, let me know and I can make sure you get one. Learn more about VMM (and see past newsletters) at www.vmmusa.org.
One morning as I accompanied the preparatoria class (6-7 year old children preparing to enter first grade), I sat down at one table to help the kids use finger paint to stamp images of their own hands on the poster we were creating.
“Who can tell me what a ‘right’ is?,” I ask, for the activity this morning had to do with the rights of the child.
“I know!” shouted Marco, a bright, energetic little six-year-old. “It means you have one on this side,” he said as he signaled to his right hand, “and one on this side,” as he signaled to his left.
“Of course!” I assured him, “But I was thinking of a different type of right. The kind of right I am thinking of is something that you deserve, something you deserve simply because you are a human being!”
As we went deeper into the topic, their teacher Senorita Reina encouraged them to think about what their own rights are. The children came up with lots of different answers, everything from a house and food and a bed to sleep in, to parents to bring them to school, notebooks to draw in, good health and medicine when they are sick, and even love, respect, and freedom.
Children are smarter than we think. I am constantly surprised by the things they say and the way they truly express themselves. They are loving, and somehow know how to love easily, unconditionally, and without restraint, a quality that I think most adults have lost somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, in El Salvador and around the world there are many children whose rights are continually violated – they have little access to education, health care, adequate nutrition and clean drinking water; they are abused, beaten, and spoken to as if they were less than human.
In El Salvador, the average level of education is through 6th grade. The economic structures that have waged war against the poor have created a poverty of opportunity for those on the margins of society. There are extremely high levels of unemployment, and for the majority of families, life is a daily struggle to make ends meet. Often, children leave school in order to help their family find a way to survive, by working or staying at home to cook, clean, and care for younger siblings. There is even less importance placed on early-childhood education. It is a quite common sight to see young children and even toddlers and infants accompanying their mothers as they work – selling produce in the market, at juice stands on the street, or riding around with their taxi driver fathers all day.
Here at Centro Hogar, the preschool where I work on the outskirts of San Salvador, we believe that all children deserve a place of their own to learn, make friends, and grow and develop in health and safe environment. We are run by ANADES (New Dawn Association of El Salvador), an NGO that was born during the war in the spirit of the martyrs of El Salvador with a special desire to care for children whose parents disappeared during the war. Here, the teachers educate in a creative, stimulating way, allowing the children to learn through questioning and through play – the way children learn best. They enjoy coming here because they have fun, but they also learn how to think for themselves about their own identity and the world around them. We encourage creativity through daily artistic and hands-on activities in the classroom, weekly assemblies where the children perform dances or tell stories, and foster the growth of their own imaginations.
In addition to the education they receive here, the children deserve integral care, proper nutrition, a safe home, love, good health, and freedom from violence and fear. Over the years, we have learned that in order to care for children in this kind of integral way, it takes much more than just a good teacher or two in the classroom. Here at Centro Hogar, the children receive a nutritious breakfast, lunch, and snack every day; many children here would not have access to such a nutritious diet at home. At least twice a year, they have medical check-ups at ANADES’s natural medicine clinic, and are treated for parasites and amoebas which are commonly found in San Salvador’s drinking water. Programa Velasco, the scholarship and empowerment program I coordinate, connected 36 of Centro Hogar’s poorest families with child sponsors who provide scholarships so they can stay enrolled in school this year.
No matter how much time and energy we may put into reinforcing all of the rights that these children deserve from Monday to Friday while they are here with us, the truth is that families are integral to a child’s growth and development in love and safety. Unfortunately, many poor families carry heavy burdens and have few spaces to share their frustrations, relieve their stress, or think about their own spiritual or emotional well-being. And when parents have no support, it is difficult to support their children in the way they deserve.
At Centro Hogar, we accompany families – we want to be a support for them in the way they need so that they may better care for their children. Once a month we hold meetings with all the parents where we discuss themes that may range from discipline methods without the use of violence to gender equality to self-care. The social worker and I also accompany many families through home visits and regular meetings with the families who need the most support, especially the families of those children who demonstrate violence and aggression at school.
For me, working with these children and families here in San Ramon is such a joy. After a long day of office work or some tough home visits, I will walk into the playground area and the kids know exactly how to give me the joy and life I need. Or, while feeling let down or disillusioned, I will run into a friend, the mother of a child here, and I will remember the connections I have made and the way I am being sewn into the fabric of this community. I think it takes a whole community to raise a child, and I am so grateful to be part of this community. I am growing into my vocation and each day learning how to better be an advocate for children, and a support for their families, teachers, and care-givers.
Monday, May 16, 2011
This morning, I started my Monday off right. I brought my beautiful guitar to Centro Hogar, recently painted by an artist friend. Every Monday morning, the kids put on the weekly assembly, where one of the classes gets to put on some kind of folkloric dance, or a play, or something else special and creative. This week, one of my coworkers suggested I participate, because the kids aren't exposed to live music very often, and it just so happens that I play guitar.
So I spent Sunday learning "Sombrero Azul," a song about the beauty and strength of the Salvadoran people, and this morning in the assembly I told the babies, listen, I have a cold, so if you know this song you can help me sing okay? Everyone can sing - did you know?
Everyone can sing. Even me, even me who hates my singing voice, and even when I'm too shy or too quiet to even be heard, everyone can sing! Even when I hate my voice, and even when I have a cold and sound like I've just smoked a pack of cigarettes. The beautiful thing about trying to teach self-confidence to kids is that we adults have to believe it too.
So, Señorita Lucy held the microphone for me and we all sang, and I played my little guitar, and it was just a beautiful moment.
Dear El Salvador, thanks for always leading me towards liberation and away from fear.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Thursday, April 7, 2011
El Salvador’s Current National Reality
El Salvador is a country of extremes. In this small country, extravagant wealth exists alongside abject poverty. There is incredible natural beauty and incredible destruction of the country’s natural resources; great faith and hope, but also great despair and disillusionment.
The economic situation is difficult for the majority. While El Salvador has embraced the international market, signed a free trade agreement with the United States, and even adopted the US dollar as the national currency in 2001; the poor have seen few benefits. Exports and international investment have not sparked real economic growth, especially for the poor. The minimum wage is about $200 per month, but the cost of living is so high that many who work full time still struggle to make ends meet – and the situation is that much more difficult when supporting a family. Unemployment is so high that people are grateful for any job that can be found, and often bear long work hours, difficult working conditions, and exploitation. Even the minimum wage is sometimes not respected, as the government does not oversee the treatment of workers in many businesses.
In a recent article for the National Catholic Reporter, Dean Brackley, Jesuit professor at the University of Central America, writes, “The U.N. Development Program recently reported that only one in five economically active Salvadorans has a decent, stable job. Even before the recent crises –a great spike in fuel and grain prices, followed by the fallout from the financial crisis--, things were getting worse in Central America. For example, while chronic malnutrition declined from 13 percent to 10 percent from 1990 to 2003 in Latin America and the Caribbean overall, it increased in Central America from 17 to 20 percent.”
Salvadorans do what they can to respond to this reality. When stable employment cannot be found, they turn to the informal sector, which may mean selling bread around one’s neighborhood every day to washing windows of passing cars to selling hand-made jewelry or clothing. This work may provide a small income, but the reality is that life for the poor is a daily struggle to survive.
One manner of responding to this situation of poverty and disenfranchisement is to take power by any means possible – and many Salvadorans have resorted to violence and crime as a manner of taking control over their own lives and the lives of others. With an average of 11 violent deaths per day, El Salvador has become the one of most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the 10 most violent countries in the world.
While some of this crime is a result of random violence and delinquency, much of it is highly organized. El Salvador is a war zone between the two main gangs – La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang. There are somewhere between 10,000 to 39,000 gang members in El Salvador, and they gain control over the population through fear tactics, extortion, and intimidation. Gangs charge “rent” on many sectors of the formal commercial sector - from street vendors to private homes to local business to the bus routes. They maintain their power through fear of violence, which they will not hesitate to use.
For example, in June 2010 two buses in Mejicanos, on the outskirts of San Salvador, were attacked by gang members. During the first incident, gang members intercepted the bus, doused it with gasoline, set fire to it and closed the doors so no one could escape. When passengers tried to flee by climbing out of the windows, they were shot. Eleven people died on the scene, seven were badly hurt, six of whom later died. Roughly ten minutes later, other gang members attacked another bus on the same route, killing the driver, a passenger and a 11-year-old girl. Many claim that these attacks were acts of revenge on the bus company because they were unwilling to pay "rent" to the 18 Street gang because they were already paying rent to MS 13. Most acts of violence exist between rival gangs. However, there has been a recent change in the culture of violence were as now, just like in these bus incidents, the civilians are being targeted in an attempt to instill fear in the population. President Mauricio Funes calls these particular events pure terrorism. In early January 2011, three family members who belong to the 18 Street gang were sentenced to 12 years and 6 months in prison for the terrorist attack on the burning bus which took the lives of 17 people.
Voices on the Border, a grassroots organization in El Salvador, wrote in the blog the following about the level of violence recently: “in the first 36 days of 2010, there were 440 murders reported in El Salvador. The victims range from political activists, presumably killed for their opinions and public pronouncements, to bus drivers, robbed and murdered by groups locally called delincuentes. If this pattern of violence continues consistently, the country could expect to experience near 5,000 homicides this year. In comparison, New York City, whose population size is similar to El Salvador’s, reports only 412 homicides for the entirety of 2009.”
The motives for this kind of violence is hard to know, but the results are clear: the Salvadoran population lives in increasing fear and insecurity, with violence reaching levels that were not seen even during El Salvador’s civil war. Given, this insecurity and poverty of opportunity, many people flee.
A few years ago the U.S. embassy estimated that an average of 740 Salvadorans were abandoning their country every day, mostly bound for the U.S. Today's estimates run between 400 and 500 a day. If all were leaving for good, El Salvador, with a population of six million, would lose one percent of its population every five months and half the population in twenty years.
This phenomenon is not so much about what the US has to offer as it is about what El Salvador does not have to offer. According to Dean Brackley, these migrants flee because of a lack of economic opportunities. There are simply not enough jobs to support the people, and not enough resources put into the education system and social services to care for the population. El Salvador, simply put, would not function without remittances, the money sent to Salvadorans from family and friends who live in the US.
More than 2.5 million Salvadorans live in the United States - more than a third of the population of El Salvador itself. The country’s principle export is, in fact, the Salvadoran people; El Salvador's principal import are remittances from Salvadorans in the U.S., estimated at $2.5 billion annually, 17.1% of the GDP. The reality revolves around the fact that the Salvadoran economy simply would not function without the flow of people from South to North and the flow of money back again.
The result of such migration on a society is huge. Families are torn apart, while one or two parents leave in search of a way to care for their children, leaving them to be raised by others. Sometimes, people leave and never come back – they leave behind the life they had in El Salvador and find a new beginning in El Norte. Those who stay are often put under even more stress, raising grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. The emotional and economic stress is often overwhelming.
Programa Velasco’s Response
Programa Velasco seeks to respond to the reality here in the way that we can – by taking small steps, planting seeds that will one day grow. We cannot combat the violence and fear in which people live, but we can create safe spaces for children to learn, laugh and grow, and spaces for parents to start to let go of the fear and stress they live with in the daily struggle to stay afloat. We cannot change the economic structures that keep the poor impoverished, but we can offer small opportunities for women to invest in their small businesses here, to gain technical and leadership skills to keep moving forward. Child sponsors and other donors offer their friendship, support, and solidarity, and together we all seek to move forward and create pockets of hope in the midst of this harsh reality.
To learn more about how you can support Programa Velasco, check out http://www.programavelasco.org
Monday, March 28, 2011
"MONSENOR ROMEEEEROOO!!!" cries a chorus of children.
"And who is Monseñor Romero?" she asks the crowd at Monday's morning assembly.
One by one the braver kids run up to the microphone, excited to be able to talk (or scream) into it for a moment.
"HE WAS A PROPHET!!"
"...hee.. he... um... they killed him because he told the truth!"
"he walked with the poor!"
"he was a man who liked to visit the communities!!"
"...they shot him with a bullet in his heart..."
"And where does Monseñor Romero live now? In our..."
In public schools in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero's story is quite silenced. The schools here do not actually teach about El Salvador's recent history - because it's still too current, still too relevant to the national reality. And that's no coincidence. Those who have been in power have intentionally silenced that story, but in small ways the people keep it alive. Like at Centro Hogar. We are not a public school, so we pretty much do what we want. This entire week in celebration of the 31st anniversary of his assassination on March 24th, each morning a different class section did their own artistic interpretation of his story. In the classrooms all week, the teachers taught about who he was, how he spoke for the poor, and why he died. And how he stills lives. (In our...? Hearts!!)
Materno II, the kids from about 2 and and half to three and a half years, put on a little play. Now, keep in mind, these are LITTLE kids, most of whom can barely speak audibly. But even three-year-olds can understand what it means to share with the poor, to bring clothes and medicine and food to poor people, to tell the truth.
Edrian Ely, one of my favorites (don't tell the others) does not speak. He has a physical disability that has delayed his speech development, but he is an extremely bright, loving, energetic little boy. He was Romero in Materno II's play on Wednesday morning. He carried a giant basket about as big as him around the stage, filled with clothes and toy food and medicine. He went to the communities. And as Señorita Lucy narrated ("Monseñor Romero loved to visit the communities... he loved to share the word of God... and he always listened to what the poor told him...), Ely acted out her words, visiting the groups of kids on the stage, giving them what he carried in his basket, sitting on the floor and flipping through a Bible.
And what was the word of God that Romero preached, according to Materno II?
We should always share what we have, even if we only have a little, and we should always tell the truth, even when we are scared.
It's really that simple. Thanks, babies. Thanks, Romero.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
This past week, I joined the other members of the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM) for our annual retreat. There are volunteers serving in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, and this retreat is the only time of the year when we are all together. We come together to share stories and just be community for one another. I am lucky to be a part of this beautiful community, surrounded by a lot of wisdom and compassion.
The retreat was at the top of a mountain overlooking Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, which is actually the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. The lake is enormous, and surrounded by ancient volcanoes and little towns and villages. I wish I could share with you the deep peace that comes with being in that place. There is some kind of ancient wisdom there but I just couldn't wrap my head around it. The stars feel really close. And there is something about being in BIG nature - nature that makes you feel small and humble - that is so good for my soul. It reminds that all my problems and worries and really nothing at all.
I want to share stories from my life, but it is hard. Some things are really heavy. There is a lot of suffering in the world. And some of it touches me. The thing that brings me hope in the midst of the harsh reality, though, is beauty. There is so much beauty.
More later. For now, I am reflecting on the VMM Spirit and Lifestyle. Read it. I connect with this mission on a deep level, but I just don't have the words to say any more right now.