Making a difference in El Salvador

Driving through San Salvador to the Rodriguez’s house in their rental van gave the Castleton State College students their first taste of El Salvadorian culture. The first group of Project El Salvador students finally arrived on Feb. 22 after flight complications forced them to stay in New York City for two extra days.Upon arriving, the group went to a small cafeteria within a local supermarket to dine on many typical El Salvadorian dishes like platanos and empanadas. The cheapest and most common food of the small Central American country, pupusa, was not available that night, but would be the staple dinner for the rest of the week.

Project El Salvador was formed at Castleton with the goal of assisting a small school, Caserio de Izcanal, and to have students to learn as much as possible about a different culture.

Tuesday morning, everyone got up early, dressed in their matching Castleton tee shirts, and went to the school for the first time.

Parents and teachers greeted them with fresh coconut water and a few dance performances. After the local students performed, some parents asked the Castleton group to dance as well. After some hesitation, everyone got up and asked some of the children to teach them to dance. Soon, everyone was dancing and laughing.

Around midday, professors Ana Alexander, Chris Boettcher and Sanjukta Ghosh headed to the hardware store to buy the supplies needed to begin fixing up the school. The rest of the students went back to the house to relax on the beach a bit.

That night, they discussed their first impressions of the day, and many people were overwhelmed by their feelings.

“I’m trying to take this all in and I’m like, whoa!” Alexandra Gomez said. “The experience with the kids was life changing. Especially when the first girl grabbed my hand, that’s when I felt accepted.”

Juan Rodriguez elaborated on what Gomez said.

“When they touch you, that’s when they make that personal connection,” he said.

The group also discussed aspects of the day that were less than enjoyable. Hardly anyone had any negative comments, except for Krystie Vargas — about the bathroom. It was a little outhouse with two holes cut into a cement basin. But, Ghosh jokingly looked on the bright side, saying how eco-friendly it was.

Wednesday morning, Kim Turner, leader and creator of the Project, brought the group to a little marketplace in San Salvador to buy souvenirs, and then to a small water park created from a natural spring called Los Chorros.

That afternoon the group returned to the school and began cleaning. Half the group began outside, moving rocks near the wall, and the other half began cleaning the first classroom.

They were hoping to teach the kids and the teachers about how important cleaning and organization is. Most of them had no idea how eager the children would be to help out. At any given time there were close to 10 kids, if not more, helping them out.

They organized bookshelves, washed toys and books, swept, mopped, and dusted everything, including the ceiling.

The children of the school, ages ranging from about 4 to 14, were all so happy and appreciative. And even with more than 90 students, there were no noticeable cliques, no popular kids, no outcasts. Everyone played with everyone.

When they played soccer, there were no real teams, no real competition, they just played to have fun. Alejandra Caballero was frequently seen playing soccer with the kids, as well as teaching them to play new sports such as softball.

Friday, the last day at the school, the group decided to do an art project with all of the students. They were asked to draw what makes them most happy in life. Most of the kids drew their houses or the school, but a couple went out on a limb with more abstract ideas. An art show will be held later on in the semester to present their work to the Castleton community and raise more money for the Project.

At the end of the day, lots of hugs were given, many good-byes were said, and tears were choked back. Even in four short days, many deep connections were made between the students of Izcanal and Castleton.

Saturday everyone got up before dawn to drive north to Ahuachapán to go zip lining. For the vast majority of the group, it was the first time they’d done anything like it. It was an exhilarating end to an amazing week.

After the zip line, they met up with a non-government organization with similar ideals as the Project. The two groups discussed theories, ideas, problems, and solutions. The organization, called Siglo 23 (23rd Century), formed a couple years ago and has therefore had more experience and had great advice for Project El Salvador to bring back and share with the Castleton community.

On Sunday at the airport, while waiting in Costa Rica for their connecting flight, the group had one last meeting on how they felt the week went.

Except for the occasional lack of communication throughout the week, there were no negative comments from anyone. All expectations were surpassed by far.

“I knew we were going to be effected, but I had no idea that we would grow, change, and learn as much as we did,” said Jessica Duncan. “I’m seeing things in a new light.

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