From June 19-28, 2004 Sr. Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters and Board member, Dr. Robert Buckley, visited El Salvador.
During Sr. Joyce’s trip to El Salvador, she was able to witness first-hand how the country’s 12-year long civil war (1980-1992) and Hurricane Mitch (in October 1998) have continued to affect the land and its people. Throughout her visit, she saw how the Sisters were trying to help the Salvadorians cope with their past while planning for the future. This task is not easy for the Sisters, as more families are leaving behind their traditional way of life of farming in the country to find work in the city or in the United States. The Sisters want to bring normalcy and hope to the communities they serve. They also want to reinforce in today’s Salvadorians a sense of pride in their culture.
El Salvador is developing due to the growth of its textile industry but the majority of the country still encounters water shortages during the dry season—which can last up to six months. During the rainy season, homes and buildings can become demolished due to mudslides. Many of these structures are already unsafe due to earthquakes that have previously jolted the area (1986 and 2001). Unfortunately, few people can afford to rebuild or renovate their homes or businesses. It is common to see small homes made of adobe, mud or iron sheeting; they are usually without windows, ventilation or sanitation. There are also many partially standing churches and buildings as a result of the war.
Sr. Joyce and Dr. Buckley’s first site visit was to COAR in Zaragosa, about an hour drive from the capital, San Salvador. COAR is a home for nearly 100 children who have either been abandoned or in need of constant medical care. The center was originally established to provide shelter for orphans and displaced children during the civil war. Since then, it has grown to address the needs of malnourished and abused children. COAR’s goal is to reunite the children with their families once they are healthy. In addition to providing a safe shelter, COAR operates a kindergarten, primary school, high school and a clinic.
Next on their trip, Sr. Joyce and Dr. Buckley were able to see two projects down the road from each other. At the first project, they met with a Sister who opened a school and conducted women’s groups. Her ultimate goal is to find funding for a program that addresses the needs of youth living with disabilities. She told Sr. Joyce that many children and young adults are kept dependant on their families even though they do not know how to care for them. Sister wants to give disabled children training skills so they can become personally and financially independent.
Down the street, there was a treatment center for men with drug and alcohol addiction. In El Salvador, it is common to find men with addiction problems as a result of their experiences with the war and who are suffering from depression due to lack of employment and job skills. The center’s long-term, live-in facility has proven to be successful thanks to the 12-step program.
In the town Santa Tecla, Sr. Joyce and Dr. Buckley visited a home that catered to children who were either orphaned or abandoned by their mothers who could no longer care for them. Many children in El Salvador come from families where their fathers move abroad in order to find work. Once they are settled, they send money home to support their families. Unfortunately, many fathers completely abandon their families at home and start new families. This forces many mothers into difficult situations—especially because they are usually illiterate and uneducated. Since many women are limited, they must find work as housekeepers or sweatshop factory workers. Others resort to begging or prostitution.
At Baja Lempa, they were able to visit a cultural center that is in the process of being built. The center will be a place for education in religion, faith and culture. Currently, the Sisters are operating an emergency health project with the help of a local pastoral team. Villagers go to the center so they can receive a proper diagnosis for their ailments and get referrals for the government-run clinics in the area. The health center is different from the government facilities because they offer training in the production of herbal medicines. These medicines are used to safely treat common illnesses. Knowledge of these home remedies is helpful because there is a severe shortage of medicine in the country. The pastoral team also provides outreach into villages—stressing the importance of sanitation and hygiene. These concerns need to be addressed because of the problems created by overcrowded living conditions.
In Delgado, a slum area of San Salvador, Dr. Buckley and Sr. Joyce were able to meet with sisters that operate a clinic and school. Students at the school come from very poor families. During a tour of the school, Sr. Joyce noticed that their library was very small and contained only a few books. The majority of the library books were donated from Spain or Mexico—since the books do not reflect the Salvadorian children’s own culture, the students were not interested in reading them. Adjacent to the library was a cramped study room with no windows. During the rainy season, the study room floods regularly. The sisters hope to add windows to the room and combine it with the library. The school is perched on a hill, overlooking a deep ravine, so the sisters would like to have a security fence in place. When it rains, the school grounds become muddy and mud rushes down the hill—which can easily make children slip and slide into the ravine.
Sr. Joyce and Dr. Buckley had the opportunity to visit SEJUVO, a youth program that was previously funded by the Hilton Fund for Sisters. The program uses young adult teams to encourage gang members and at-risk youths to leave behind their dangerous lifestyles for safer occupations. SEJUVO also includes training in leadership, Christian values and community development. The program has made many achievements and is the only one of its kind in country—it is also present in Honduras and Nicaragua.
Later that day, they were able to visit a sister who is also a practicing doctor. She operates a clinic and oversees a team that educates people about HIV/AIDS and prevention methods. This center is unique because it is the only one in the country that provides AIDS education. The government has done little to acknowledge the threat of this growing epidemic.
In the lakeside town, Suchitoto, Sr. Joyce and Dr. Buckley visited a Capacitar mental health project. The center works with victims of war violence and is located in an area that was a stronghold for guerrillas, so it experienced severe warfare damage. Issues related to wartime atrocities have just begun to be addressed—nearly 10 years after the civil war has ended. Capacitar helps people deal with their negative experiences by teaching them self-healing techniques through bodywork (such as simple hand and foot or shoulder and back massage), aromatherapy, breathing exercises and music. Individual counseling is also available. There is even a self-help group for men that addresses the negative aspects of machismo attitude in Latin American culture.
Sr. Joyce had the opportunity to visit a mountain town across the lake from the Capacitar center to see how their methods were improving the lives of locals in the area. Many of the people living in the town resettled there because of the war. The Capacitar program has helped many villagers recover from the loss of their loved ones and their experiences as torture victims. Sr. Joyce met with women who had suffered years of back and leg pain and chronic sleeplessness, but are now relieved of their symptoms because of Capacitar physical therapy techniques. Capacitar’s trainers have also taught the villagers how to communicate with one another about their wartime experiences. By sharing their feelings, the villagers have become united and have formed a strong community—they have built a school, library, church and clinic.
Later that day, Sr. Joyce had the chance to meet with a family that had a five year old girl who was mentally and physically disabled. She is also blind and cannot speak. Through the Capacitar program, the girl’s mother has learned to massage her feet—helping her to sleep peacefully at night. The girl is also able to make sounds now.
El Salvador’s recent history is marked by tragic events. Many people are still trying to recover from their personal losses—along with the murder of Archbishop Romero and other martyrs. There is much sadness that continues to linger but Sr. Joyce noticed that today’s Salvadorians are taking courage from their martyrs’ integrity and spirit of self-sacrifice. Sr. Joyce believes that this new found energy will help the sisters in El Salvador continue in their passion for their mission.