A Gift to My Hosts

I made these two videos of my time here as a gift to the teachers and students of Centro Escolar Margarita Duran, as well as the other friends and people I’ve met.

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Posada Santa Maria

This past week while there have been no classes, I have been helping out at the Posada Santa Maria, a program to provide meals to people who don’t have the resources to feed themselves here in Santa Tecla. The program and the dynamics are really quite amazing. Rather than trying to feed everyone all at once with a huge room full of tables, they dedicated about a third of the dining area to being an open air courtyard containing a tropical garden that some of the volunteers help to maintain. It is by far the nicest “soup kitchen” I’ve ever seen. Typically, there are two to three seatings over the course of ninety minutes to make sure that everyone is fed.

They’ve chosen not to serve the food cafeteria style; each volunteer is assigned to be the “servidor” for a single table of six. Once people are seated, the servidor goes up and gets the food from the kitchen where other volunteers put it on plates. The servidor serves it, says grace for the table, gets the drinks for the table (often a choice of coffee, water or fresh juice) and then takes care of cleaning the table.

I thought the hard part would be figuring out how to say grace in Spanish, but I don’t think God needs a lot of fancy words, just thanks. Getting the drink orders right has been more challenging. Serving people there has certainly improved my Spanish and some of them like to practice what English they know.

The really nice aspect is that by staying with the table, I get to know some of the people. Some regularly make a point of greeting me. Prior to starting here, I’d heard stories that some of our students eat there and wondered if it would be awkward. It is one of those things that if you don’t treat it as awkward, it is not awkward. The past couple of days, students have come over to say “hola” and chat. They still call me “teacher” and “profe” there, which makes some of the others wonder.

I was really concerned when I learnt that there would be no classes this week, but this has worked out quite well.

The images here are from my iPhone. They show me in my “servidor” vest and some photos of the room. Some of the people we serve are a bit shy and I chose not to make images of them.

The People That You Meet

Cafetalon 1

Just about every time I go to El Cafetalon to exercise, I run into someone I know either there or in transit to or from the park. At first, it surprised me, because this seldom happens back home. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. In the US, I am part of a spread out commuter culture. Here, people live and work in the same city. Also, they don’t all get in their cars to go places. Many walk or take the bus. Being out on the street provides a way of seeing a friend that does not happen in one’s car. It reminds me of the neighborhood in which my grandmother lived in Boston while I was growing up. It is definitely one of the more appealing aspects of being here.

The idea of exercising in view of a volcano still thrills me.

Palacio de Santa Tecla

This is my favorite building in Santa Tecla. It is referred to as the Palacio de Santa Tecla, though the official title is Palacio Municipal de Bellas Artes.

It is estimated that it was built as a home in 1911 for the Castaneda family. Between 1924 and 1927, the property became part of the municipality in order to pay a debt the family owed to the city. It was considered a jewel, with 17 rooms, imposing columns and the central courtyard highlighting the eclectic colonial style.

Over the years, this building deteriorated by inclement weather and natural disasters. The January 2001 earthquake caused more damage. However, the city joined efforts with the Government of Andalusia Spain to restore and preserve the original architectural details. Today, it serves as an artistic venue for children, youth and adults. You can see in the photo above the local regimental band playing at the monthly concert.

Source for text: https://sites.google.com/site/historiadesantatecla/una-sorpresa

Meet Marina

Marina 2
This is Marina on the right with her friend Chabelita on the left.

If Joaquin has been my Obi Wan-Kenobi, then Marina has been my life coach and support person outside of the school and excursions. I have been staying in her home for the past six-plus weeks and I have repeatedly thanked Joaquin for placing me here.

Marina was the person who showed me how to wash the previous day’s clothing in the sink out in the back of the house. She taught me how to clean fresh vegetables and other things so that I won’t become ill. She explained to me the economics of eating cheaply locally. I can have lunch for $5 at a nearby Mexican place, or I can eat at the comedors around town for about $2.50.

She has cooked me so many meals. She can whip-up a meal of eggs, frijoles, queso and pan in five minutes or less. She makes wonderful lemonade and Jamaica tea. This was not in the plan by the way. She just does it. I try to reciprocate by buying groceries that I know she depletes on my behalf and keeping us supplied with “pan dulce” (pastries and cookies and such from the bakery).

She has told me so many times when areas or things are dangerous. Many afternoons as storm clouds built in the sky, she brought in my laundry so that it would not be soaked.

This week, when the schools closed down and I was looking for other ways to serve, she connected me with her parish center for feeding the homeless and served with me my first morning to help me with the process.
We do all of this in Spanish. She does not speak English. She started off very slow and careful and has been speeding up. It is a challenge, but we’ve passed evenings together and laughed and joked as I try to keep up.

I will be eternally grateful to Marina for all she has done and how pleasant she has made this trip.

Meet Joaquin Batres

Joaquin 2
I want to introduce you to the man who you’ve all heard mentioned but not met, Joaquin Batres. He is my mentor here in El Salvador. He sent me the information I needed to come here, answered all of my questions, and arranged my housing. We co-teach several classes a week and spent off-time together. When I arrived, he told me how to stay safe and has helped me with difficult situations like problems getting access to cash here. So who is this Salvadoran Obi-Wan Kenobi?

Joaquin manages the Central American sector of Travel to Teach, the program through which I volunteered. He also founded TeachingYou.org, an organization to empower well-rounded young students in the public schools in El Salvador. They inspire and educate them to address life adversities through the learning of languages, skills and values. They also present opportunities to overcome economic disadvantages and be self-sufficient*. I’ve been the sole volunteer these two months and have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Joaquin. He is very serious about the mission of his program but has a very funny and light side also.

Like other 40 year olds in El Salvador, Joaquin grew-up during a bloody civil war and lived through the devastating earthquake of 2001. After the assassination of Cardinal Romero, his family and he were on their way to join the estimated quarter of a million people to be in and around the cathedral for the funeral. They were just a few blocks away from the cathedral when gunfire broke out there killing many. Fortunately, they had not reached the site of the funeral when the shooting began.

Joaquin went on to become a lawyer. He practiced for a few years but was spending his professional life looking at all of the bad things happening in his community. Joaquin is someone who wants to focus on the good in life. He left that profession and began working organizing tours. He is proud of the way he did this and the level of professionalism he bought to it. From the stories he’s told me, it was both fun and challenging. He went back to school for another five years for a degree in this field.

Eventually, he began to manage the volunteer experience for a succession of service organizations, including Travel-To-Teach. At first he managed just the program in Santa Tecla, and now he coordinates all of Latin America. He is very proud of the program here in Santa Tecla. In many other programs, you are simply a helper in the classroom reading stories or playing games with the children. Some other programs are designed so you teach in the morning and surf in the afternoon. Teaching You provides the experience of being a real teaching. I received curriculum topics three months in advance and a profile of my classes. It was expected that I would come prepared with lesson plans.

In 2012, Joaquin started a summer school program, through Teaching You. (The summer here is in December and January.) Summer school was designed to help girls with good academics and the right attitude to get ahead academically and be able to further their education and lives. Teaching You provides an incentive to the parents of the summer school students by covering some of the annual educational costs. This helps the parents to want to further their daughters’ education. It also supports a program to help such students get into better schools through scholarships. These students also get Joaquin’s personal touch. Repeatedly, I’ve seen him dash off to get supplies for one of these girls for a special project for a class using either Teaching You funds or his own.

I am expected to be on-call to the school Monday to Friday during class hours. I teach a total of eighteen classes over a four day week. Joaquin teaches about twenty-four classes a week, including co-teaching twelve with me. He started being a presence in the classroom three years ago when there was a shortage of volunteers in the program. In addition, he spends time working to find volunteers, managing the Central American program and working on a website to promote Teaching You. He has also given generously of his time to me taking me on excursions ranging from a few hours to a fourteen hour trip to La Palma.

After working with him for five weeks, I can say that Joaquin is a guy who knows how to get things done in a place where it can be difficult to get things done. He cares deeply about his country and the children in the program. They go hand-in-hand because Joaquin takes a long view. He knows these children are the future of his country.

The top photo is Joaquin with one of our students at a recent function.

*Adapted from http://www.teachingyou.org/about.html