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A group of nineteen St. Paul's students, three faculty supervisors (Mr. Franz, Mr. Stadnyk, & Mr. Watson), an alumni (Mr. Charles Sherbo '69), and our fearless leader, Mr. Dennis Kuzenko, have set out on the school's inaugural International service trip. We have had a number of life altering experiences during our first week. The following is a day-by-day account of our first week (or so) in El Salvado. Photos can also be viewed in the Photos section of the SPHS Community portion of the school's website.
Saturday, July 3rd
The day of departure has arrived! We met at the Winnipeg airport between 3:30 and 4:00 AM in order to take our 5:15 flight to Toronto. Many family members came to see us off. Just before boarding we took our group photo. We had a good flight to Toronto and at the Toronto airport, everything went smoothly. We changed terminals from 1 to 3 and were treated very well by the TACA staff that dealt with us as a group. We even had time to have a breakfast snack before boarding the flight for El Salvador.
We arrived to the expected hot temperatures. We had a small bus waiting for as and a truck to carry some of our baggage. Some of the suitcases had to be placed inside the bus, so the ride was more “intimate” than it will usually be. About a month ago, tropical storm Agatha passed through El Salvador and destroyed many bridges. This meant we could not go directly from the airport to Puerto La Libertad, a ride that might have taken about 20 minutes. Instead we took the highway to San Salvador, and at the outskirts of the city, turned onto a road that took us to Puerto La Libertad. This ride took over an hour.
At Puerto La Libertad Jacobo, Guillermo, Hlima, Carmen, and Abraham, members of the directorate of Loma Linda, greeted us. Mr. Watson paid for the building materials to replace the floor of the church using funds raised for the project by the St. Paul’s High School community. By Monday, we should have a materials list for the building to go around the corn mill.
We then rode to the junction between the road to Loma Linda and the highway. There members of the community met us. They held up several hand-written signs of welcome, and some of the children held small hand made Canadian flags. They must have waited there for quite a while, as we were late in arriving. We walked part of the way to the village just so we would see it from a height. The road to the village is in terrible shape. At the moment it looks like the truck that is delivering the building supplies will deliver it part way along the road to the church, and we will have to carry it the rest of the way. Thee were many pictures taken with the children and us. This brings so much happiness to both them and does us good too.
We then made our way to Casa Oasis where Carolina had a wonderful evening meal waiting for us. After the meal, we all made it to our rooms and completed the evening with a verbal reflection of the day.
Sunday, July 4th
We had breakfast in the beautiful dining area that opens onto a garden. After that we boarded our bus and began our day with Miguel and Roberto.
We visited the Wall of Memories at Cuscutlan Park. It is here that are recorded over 30 thousand names of civilians who were killed during the civil war from 1980 to 1992. At one end of the wall is a rendition of Salvadorean history in art. Roberto talks to us about the meaning of what we see and Miguel will sometimes add his own comments.
We then went to Mass at the lower level of the cathedral where Romero rests in a sarcophagus donated by the Italian church. There were many faithful there. We visited the upper level as well where another Mass was taking place. The two Masses are not the same in spirit. The Mass at the lower level speaks more to bringing about justice in the context of the history of El Salvador today. On the steps of the cathedral Roberto spoke to us about the violence directed towards the people outside the cathedral on the day of Romero’s funeral, events that he witnessed with his own eyes. We walked about neighbouring city blocks where the poor set up small shops where they can to try to make enough money to survive.
We went out for lunch and then on to the beautiful botanical gardens. They are found in the mouth of a crater from a volcano. But most of the area is dedicated to seat shops. These are buildings where people, mainly women, work at very low wage to produce items that are then shipped outside the country for a very large profit to the company. We cannot enter such shops.
It is the birthday of Drew Mulhall tomorrow so we celebrated it by going out for ice cream at a shopping centre about a 20-minute walk away from Casa Oasis. I have daughters and I know they like to shop, but I was somewhat surprised to see that guys also like to shop. In a near by clothing store, they took great interest in articles for sale. One brave young man purchased blazingly bright green shorts! You can see them in the photo.
We had some time before our evening meal, so some of the guys had a street soccer math amongst themselves. We had a wonderful supper. Afterwards we had our verbal and written reflections.
Tomorrow, we are all looking forward to begin our work in Loma Linda.
Monday, July 5th
Our first stop after leaving Casa Oasis and San Salvador was the market found in Puerto La Libertad. This will be a regular stop for us. Our group of students is composed of 4 teams. Two of the teams accompanied Roberto on the walk through the market. The students helped carry various foods we purchased for the day. The market is a place full of people and activity. Also today, Mr. Sherbo, on behalf of the St. Paul’s community, paid for the materials to construct the building for the corn mill, another milestone.
On the road to the village we turned to a side road leading to the church. The sand and crushed rock has been left near the intersection of the two roads since the muddy conditions make it impossible for a large truck to bring the materials to the church. This means that most of this material needs to be carried in sacs. There were a few sacs available so we began the process of carrying material by hand to the church about a kilometre away. This is hard work especially considering the hot humid conditions. But we could not do a great deal since there were not enough of the sacs for everyone. Jacobo made a mad dash to the port to purchase more sacs and tools. Now we will have them for tomorrow. The students walked into the village itself and saw the conditions that the people there live in. Several commented on the house they visited, actually one built by a St. Alphonsus team. Although it is one of the “better houses” the cooking conditions are still quite rudimentary.
The women of the micro-loan committee have put together a kitchen near the community house, also built by one of the previous missions. They made lunch for us with food cooked over an open wood fire. It was delicious. After lunch, the students had a quick game of soccer on the community soccer field.
We had a meeting with the directorate and the pastoral committee. There were many expressions of gratitude for our efforts to support the repairing the floor of the church. This is another “dream come true” for the community and so essential for their spiritual life.
After the meeting we walked up to the church for a special Mass. The church was overflowing with people. We were welcomed, and again we heard of the gratitude for our support in repairing the floor. The church is a place of worship for 4 communities, one of which is Loma Linda. Tomorrow, there will be people from these communities divided in teams to work with us in transporting the materials.
In the reflections tonight, this is what one of the students wrote.
“Despite the small and under-developed shelters people live in, I was amazed to see the high degree of happiness among all of the citizens. It demonstrated that I should never complain about what I have in my life, and I should be grateful for everything I have.”
Tuesday, July 6th
Today we worked hard. On our walk down the mountain into the village, we turned onto the side road leading to the village and immediately began our work of carrying sacs of sand to the church. It rained heavily last night, so conditions were hot and muggy again. In places the road is muddy and slippery, and in other places, we had to carefully make our way over branches laid across the road to cover very rough patches. The St. Paul’s team was really quite amazing. Before lunch, most of the guys made 3 trips. That’s carrying a sac of sand for more than a kilometre, walking back, and doing it again. Notice in one of the photos the women carrying large plastic pans of sand on their heads and walking barefoot.
The team really earned a river break. The team members enjoyed the cool water, and as always, the children love it when they can share their natural water slide with friends from Canada.
We had a great lunch prepared by women from the micro-loan committee and after lunch we had a meeting with that same committee. They have now included youth members including a 13-year old girl who has her own enterprise, and also goes to school. She is in Grade 7. The women put in an incredible amount of work for a small profit. The women now have 4 foot pedal driven sewing machines including two purchased by the January mission. Also in that same mission, the women received material and other sewing supplies. They say that they are doing their best but need more advanced training in how to sew. Previous team members will remember Carman who helped teach them, but now she cannot take them any further. Lorena, who some of you know from her work with the health committee, is also teaching what she knows about sewing. But the women really need more advanced training. One of the youth mentioned that she would really like more training in cosmetology. One of our team members from the January trip, Jozef, may be able to address some of these issues. He is considering establishing a trade school. On Saturday, we will have another meeting with this committee and they will show us more of what they have done.
Members of the January team will also be wondering about the security bars on the two windows of the community house. They have been installed and look great.
After all of this, the St. Paul’s team made one more sand bag trip to the church and back before heading out for the day. The heavy truck that is delivering the building supplies needed more weight to make it up the muddy road, so all of us got on the flat bed, and we had a ride to our van.
Late this afternoon, Mr. Sherbo, Mr. Watson, and I met with the president of CRIPDES to discuss an issue we are having with the corn mill. Miguel and Roberto were there with us. The mill is still stuck in customs despite all of our efforts in Winnipeg to send the mill here and avoid the beaurocracy. We are working on it. More phone calls will be made tomorrow.
Tonight after reflection, we arranged all of the medication that has been donated for Loma Linda. Tomorrow we meet with the health committee.
This is what one of the students wrote in the reflection tonight.
“I got a chance to bond with a boy, Engel. I put him on my shoulders with my hat. He lowered it over my eyes and chattered away in Spanish. I felt more in touch with him and the people of the community at that point than ever before. I also got a chance to stop and look at the view of the valley and ranges with Drew today. We stared at the sight for several minutes and remarked on the beauty of the place. It was strange to think that a place so beautiful could be filled with such hardships, but the people here are the happiest individuals I have ever seen. They see God in their lives every day, and their faith must be the underlying force that gets them through.”
Wednesday, July 7
This morning, as we were about to walk into the village, Jacobo, the president of the village directorate, suggested that we change our work plans. He said that with the rains last night, the road to the church was a mud bath, but that we could do something else. It is a common practice in this country to place rocks in with concrete during construction. There are many rocks along the banks of the river, so the St. Paul’s team set up a line from the edge of the river to the site where the corn mill building is to be constructed. After a short water break, the team moved to another part of the river to gather more rocks. This location was farther from the building site so the rocks were placed in an opening from which they could later be taken to the site.
After another delicious lunch, we had our meeting with the health committee. Lorena, the coordinator of the health committee, spoke to us giving us an update of the events since the last mission in January. As she has done before, she gave us a detailed list of the medications donated last time, how many were distributed, and how much is left. She talked to us about the health care provided by the health committee, the families visited, the number of children who are malnourished, and so on. Lorena and other members of the committee expressed their gratitude for our continuing efforts to support their work. She said that we are not really looked upon as Canadians, but as Salvadorean brothers and sisters. She also answered several questions posed by the St. Paul’s students. Mr. Franz made a presentation of $100 on behalf of St. Paul's for the upkeep of the clinic and any other use the committee requires. Lorena hugged the stuffing out of him. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the suitcases of medicines. What a blessing!
After the meeting, we put into motion our well-oiled machine and formed a long line from the location where the rocks had been deposited earlier to the building site. This time it was the children who joined us in our work. They are very strong for their size and so eager to help. This was another way to work in community with the people of Loma Linda and with each other.
In January, Jozef donated materials to help repair a portion of the road. One of the pictures includes that section of road. This is really the best part of the road. However, with the heavy rains, other parts of the road are in bad shape. Nevertheless, a four-wheel drive truck can make it into the village.
Here is a part of a reflection from one of the students.
“The health committee meeting was special as people in the committee do so much to help people in the village, with minimal equipment, using Tylenol to help with pain from fractures. One child brought me some flowers, and I was just too happy. I want to go back tomorrow to live the Loma Linda experience all over again.”
Thursday, July 8
When we arrived at Loma Linda, conditions were much better for carrying materials to the church. It was good to work again with the community. A few of the children invented their own way to carry materials. The team worked very hard but not long enough it seemed before we had to go for an earlier lunch. At the village we saw a large truck delivering various materials for the corn mill structure.
We left the community right after lunch for two meetings in San Salvador. As we arrived at the CRIPDES office, we saw the crate containing the mill. It has arrived! What a joy to see it.
The first meeting was with 3 members of the national board of CRIPDES. They told us of the various kinds of work they do in the country. The second meeting was with Pro Busqueda, the organization set up by Father Jon Cortina, a Jesuit priest, to look for children who had disappeared during the war years. The students asked some very good questions.
Here is part of a reflection from one of the students.
“Today was a rough day for me since I’ve been sleep deprived. Last night my stomach was causing me problems and I woke up at 12:30 because I had the chills. This knocked 1 hour and ½ off my sleeping time and I felt drowsy in the morning. Although, there’s something about working in Loma Linda that really energizes me. You’d think that carrying bags of cement would be tough, but I feel alive especially if I’m with my brothers and sisters of Loma Linda.”
Friday, July 9
Yesterday two of our team members were not feeling their best, but today everyone was all together gain firing on all high octane (C8H18) cylinders The road to the church has sections that were just too muddy so we walked down the mountain to the village to do our work. We began by moving the cinder blocks that will be used in constructing the structure around the mill. Then we did our rock detail again. First we moved the pile we had from yesterday to the site of the mill, and then we moved more rocks from the river to the bank above. We had a few young men from the community helping move those rocks. One in particular put us to shame when he presented us with a boulder to move through the line, and which we abandoned when we could not get it up the bank. He teased us by following that up with a potato sized rock.
At lunch, a beautiful little girl proudly showed us her school notebook. It was neatly written and had several “excellent” stamps in it. She is in Grade 2. Then she scampered off to school with her backpack. Notably, she didn’t have to worry about crossing the river during this rainy season, since there is now a bridge across the river.
As we were about to leave the community, a four-wheel drive vehicle delivered the crate containing the mill. Now it is in the village!
This afternoon we attended a meeting with CORDES, the technical arm CRIPDES. The presenter, Nelson, is in charge of CORDES for this region and he talked to us about the projects that CORDES has in the region. We see again the dedication of people who work for CRIPDES and CORDES with few financial rewards.
We returned to San Salvador and visited La Divina Church. This was the church where Bishop Romero was assassinated. That wonderful elderly nun who has spoken to our delegations before gave us a talk. We then visited the humble house where Romero lived. The visit to the church and the house moved several people on our team.
Tonight we arranged all of our sports equipment. We are meeting with the youth committee tomorrow.
This is part of a reflection from one of our students.
“The meeting at Bishop Romero’s church and house was quite reflective: a man who gave it his all, to learn about his history and how he was such a selfless man. I didn’t think it was possible, because I thought only God could be that caring. Instead he defeated death and evil and he died for his people. To think that a human can do such things surprised me, and moved me to try being a better man, a true man for others”
Saturday, July 10
Several people commented that this was the best day yet.
On our walk into the village today, we took a path that led to a street where we have not walked on before. There we were invited to visit the “home” of a young woman with a paraplegic child. It was a shack with a thick black plastic stretched around sticks to form the walls, and a couple of corrugated metal tins for a roof. She has three other children who live with their grandmother because the mother cannot take care of them and the other child at the same time. She took time to speak to us. She has a hard road ahead of her and for many of us, we don’t know how she has the strength to go on.
Our first meeting was with the crafts committee. The women showed us various embroidered cloths and purses they have made. They then gave us a fashion show. They wore the clothes that they themselves made. The dresses, skirts, and blouses were beautiful. They talked about their trepidation at cutting material for the first time. The January team donated all of the cloth and other sewing supplies. Look at the photo of the woman in her beautiful dress. Each of the women who displayed an item spoke about it and how they felt about doing it. It was inspiring. Hilma did say that two of the sewing machines needed to be repaired. Also, all of the women mentioned Lorena and thanked her for her instructions. This is the same Lorena who is coordinator of the health committee. Lorena again looked directly at the video camera and expressed her gratitude to us and to the members of the January team.
We then met with the youth committee. Hilma spoke about her work with the women's baseball team. Abraham spoke about his coaching of the children’s teams. Hector gave us a report about the young men’s soccer team and their plans. In all three cases, the reports contained a detailed, to the cent, outline of their expenditures and monies received. They talked about their successes, their challenges, and their hopes for the future. Yes, now they can think of a future. There were many youth present including some from the neighbouring village of La Vega. Jacobo talked about how important sports are to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In a country that is challenged by gangs and drugs, Loma Linda does not have the issues. Alexander Izydorczyk presented two soccer balls. These are the types of balls being used presently in the world cup. One was presented to the Hector of the Loma Linda team, and other to Abraham who besides coaching the children, is also from the neighbouring village of La Vega. Mr. Watson and a few students opened the suitcases containing all the sports equipment from Sports Manitoba and donations made by parents from St. Paul’s. Mr. Stadnyk donated $100 to each of the three groups. All of these gifts were received with wide eyes and broad smiles.
Then the St. Paul’s students played a soccer game with the team from Loma Linda. It was a hard fought match with the pendulum swinging first one way and then that. The action was furious. Players had to go around pesky rocks that stuck out of the ground on the playing field. A chicken was nearly trampled over and a horse was struck by a soccer ball. Leaves were knocked off trees as the ball whizzed by the top of the goal posts. The high fence along the river bank could not stop an errant ball as it nearly landed in the river. The score did not matter. It was a good game. It left a few gasping for air.
We had a good lunch and then we went to work. We moved a pile of rocks, got more from the river, moved a pile of sand, and also a pile of crushed rock. As we formed a line, a second line composed of children carrying sand in small plastic pans weaved through our line. We worked together. It felt good. At one point it started to rain so most of the students stood under the roof of the community house and spoke to the sometimes reticent teens. Language was not really a barrier. They communicated and connected well.
The adult supervisors and a few students continued to work in the rain determined to move that last pile of crushed rock. Then it was done. The supervisors got together for a photo. We were dirty but we were well, more than well.
After supper, we had our reflections and then we went through a process to determine which of us would purchase items from the crafts committee. It was wonderful entertainment. The students and supervisors ended up purchasing the items. Friends and family back home, a few of you will receive authentic crafts from Loma Linda.
This is a reflection from one of our students.
“Words can’t really describe this day. If perfection was attainable, today would have been the essence of perfection. The two moments that stood out for me were the presentation of the world cup ball and the two drawings I received from Johanna. The ball presentation was special because the smile that appeared on Hector’s face was incredible. This seemingly hostile Salvadorean teenager breaks into the biggest grin, all the while pulling Alex in for a hug… just incredible. Receiving the two pictures was also special for me. It feels like I write about Johanna or Jacob every night, but there is never a reason not to. Johanna is an incredible human being in every way. I feel as though she is my little sister, and I have only known her for one short week. Her ability to make me smile with her little acts of kindness is essentially unmatched by any person I know, even those individuals I have know for a decade.”
Sunday, July 12
Because it is Sunday and we were going to Mass, we read the three readings today at Casa Oasis before going to Mass. The third one was from Luke 10:25-37. Part of it was the parable of the good Samaritan and answering the question “Who is my neighbour?” How appropriate it was for us on this mission who not only have some understanding of what ought to be done, but also take the further step of putting that understanding into action.
We went to Mass at St. Francis of Assissi Church in the Mejicanos area of San Salvador. It is an area of the city that is not well off. Several of our students commented on how welcome they were made to feel at that Mass. The singing was inspiring. All the people sang, and not just because they had to but they put their heart and soul into it.
We returned briefly to Casa Oasis to change our clothes and then we went to El Boqueron Park and the San Salvador Volcano. As the vehicle laboured upwards, we noted the coffee trees and also the change in ecosystems (due to a change in abiotic factors). If you have never climbed a volcano before and looked down into a crater 558 meters deep and 1.0 km in diameter, then you are certain to be impressed. (Remember that the circumference is pid.) We also had a spectacular view of the city of San Salvador. We did not walk into the crater.
We had lunch at a food court in a shopping centre. While it was nice to have a choice of food, but several students commented on the contrast between the shallow consumerism in such a place compared to fullness of spirit in Loma Linda. If only you could hear these young men speak of experiences like this and what meaning they have, you would be impressed.
We returned to Casa Oasis and watched the second half and conclusion of the world cup game. Roberto and Miguel joined us and it was good to share this with them.
We then went to the crafts market. Again I saw evidence of the eager shopping behaviour of the students. They were told that bargaining was OK, and did they ever bargain!
We returned to Casa Oasis for a wonderful barbecue supper put together by Carolina and the Casa Oasis staff. They really went all out to make a special meal for us.
This was one student’s reflection today.
“Today we went to Mass, the volcano, the mall, and the craft market. During reflection I was feeling, to be blunt, awful. I couldn’t figure out why. As soon as Daniel said it, I realized why. Back home, I have a job at a grocery store. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to go in there and watch people reject food because it has a bruise on it, or spend $300 on food when that could send a child to school here. When I look at the people around me at home, myself included, through the eyes I have now, I see how narrow sighted and superficial we are. People don’t care that a child in a village no one has ever heard of is starving. Quite frankly, everybody is worried about who has the nicest clothing, or who drives the nicest car, again, myself included. I just can’t see how I could ever think that way before. My family has been all over the world and for me to come here and see the reality of a life lived in poverty, it’s almost enough to bring me to tears. I don’t think I’ll ever see the world the same way. I’ll definitely want to help people more and more throughout the rest of my life. It just blows me away how influential this trip has been and I’ll never forget it.”