“Pared De La Verdad” – El Salvador Day 13/15

After our three groups finished our separate service sites, today we all debriefed as a whole group about our placements, what we learned, and what we learned about ourselves. My group presented first, and it detailed what my 10th blog post summarized. The second group went to work with women who faced/currently face injustice issues and their summary was very powerful and educational to the group. The final group briefed us on their experiences in an elementary school, the surrounding community, and how affiliated gang members fit into this social structure. Again, it was enlightening and provided a rich context of life for affiliated El Salvadorians.


With our final lunch at Hotel Oasis finished (because the beach would be our last overnight stay in the country) we had our last formal presentation by AMATE of the LGBTI community. Unlike the United States where LGBT”Q” (queer and/or questioning is used) the “I” stands for intersex, where both genitals are represented. In summary, the discussion was very enlightening because as a heterosexual male, I have much to learn about the struggle of this community. With every comment and statement made, I thought about how I could be more of an advocate and be inclusive for understanding the needs of this community, especially because I will be sure to encounter many students in my profession of Higher Education and Student Affairs who identify in this way. While many of my classmates were able to provide factual statements and comments, my contribution was mostly through questions, meaning I am not as informed as I should be, especially with my chose profession. In the future I will inquired and learn more about this topic to be as inclusive as possible–because I accept all individuals and believe like religion, politics, etc., differences should be embraced and all should be accepted, especially with love as the core factor in this case.


After out group reflection and final formal presentation, the entire group was able to visit Shicali, a ceramics store where the items are all handcrafted by a person with special needs or a disability. When I looked at these items I was reminded that everyone has talents and abilities no matter their outward appearance; the internal drive to positively contribute to society is all one needs to make their abilities known and I was glad this business conveyed that. Additionally, I have a brother with low to mild special needs, and I was reminded of him and how he also conveys this notion as he obtains his bachelors degree and follow his dreams. I was more than happy to buy from this business because it is concrete proof of the extraordinary abilities of persons with special needs, not to mention the proceeds would go directly back into the community.


The Wall of Truth was our next stop, a detailed, beautiful wall that told a powerful story of El Salvador. 10% of the wall was covered with visually crafted scenes that told a historic story, with the remaining 90% dedicated to those who were affected prior to the Peace Accord, which included some (not all) stacked names of missing/murdered El Salvadorians and those who were thankfully rescued and/or found.


The power of the truth has become strikingly influential for my study abroad experience. Many El Salvadorians tell testimonies, write literature, and share experiences all focused on the truth to reflect on it, explain the repercussions of actions, and debrief about how this experience affected themselves and others. This, little did I know, would be a huge life lesson I embraced personally on this study abroad experience.


I was able to grow both personally and professionally on this study abroad experience, and after a day of buying final souvenirs and having dinner with my great classmates, it became very apparent how important the truth is, especially when it effects others. Mistakes happen, and how you deal with them and learn from them matters most, in addition to accepting the attached consequences. I can wholeheartedly say that honesty is indeed the best policy, and thinking about actions before making decisions is one of the most powerful tools humans have at their disposals. Just like the Wall of Truth, honesty is best conveyed openly and in its entirety.


“Adorables Niños” El Salvador Day 11/15

H. Bart Merkel, Vice Provost of student affairs at Grand Valley State University says: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” Indeed, how you grow up has so much influence on your childhood, adolescent years, and young adult path. I was home schooled and had the fortunate opportunity to grow up free of mental/physical abuse, bullying, peer pressure and dictation. Exactly on the contrary: I grew up doing what I liked, which is drawing, playing video games, and helping others. My tattoos, hobbies, friendships, and profession echoes this testament.


For this study abroad experience there are three placement sites where my classmates and I could work for the next few days. The first is with current and ex gang affiliated youth, the second is with girls who have been victims and/or survivors of human trafficking, and the last site was working with kids 2-7 in a preschool program. I, of course, chose the most educationally focused placement. Ironically and iconically, I asked for wisdom via our celebrity guest Melissa Leo before she left us what was the best way for new college students to possibly realize what their place in life is and how to commit to a career path. Her response: “Ask your mother or father how you genuinely acted as a kid and how you developed naturally, and where might this lead.” This was powerful because in summary, how you acted as a kid is a natural representation of your true self. I kept this in mind as I reflected on my own constructive childhood and for the kids I would encounter today.


After dividing and getting to our placement sites, the school was a beautiful building surrounded by vegetation, bight soothing colors, and posters and paintings of Mons. Romero. We met two North American coordinators and they explained that this building started as an orphanage, gives scholarships to needy families, aims to provide holistic care, includes a health checkup which is “preventive focused” while other health clinics are “curing focused” with natural medicine a priority, detailed commitment that all children have access to a genuine counselor/physician, and equal access to education that will prep students for elementary school.


As soon as I entered a classroom on our tour, the kids gravitated to me and began jumping, talking in Spanish and grabbing me to follow them to different places around the room. My two classmates and I said our names in Spanish, and because my name is a common Spanish/Italian/Hispanic/Latino name it was easy for them to pronounce, albeit said in a slightly different way. I was placed with 5-year-olds and our first part of the day was recess.


Playing with the kids was truly a genuine moment of this study abroad experience when I interacted with innocence in the most absolute of context. El Salvador may have many ecological trials and political challenges, but these kids are able to have fun without the cares of murder, drugs, etc. Playing on the swing, climbing play ladders, sliding, high fives and playing with toys with them filled the bright, breezy afternoon and I had just as much fun as those adorable kids did.


Inside the kids were learning about careers (the irony of this day is just unimaginable) and the children learned how to pronounce and articulate careers such as firefighters, police officers, doctors, etc., and we drew and colored in what these careers were visually. I drew a police officer and colored it in as the kids kept showing me their drawings and I would give them their deserved affirmation. I ended my time with them by playing with blocks, puzzles, stuffed animals, and other toys before leaving. I hoped to myself that these innocent kids could grow up free of violence, sexual abuse and other injustices we heard about during our orientation here. I want to know each and every one of them can go to college if they want and can pursue the careers they have a genuine interest in and drive for.


Our last stop was to a few home visits, where the two coordinators would visit the homes of the parents and chat about their academic performances and behavior–both praises and concerns. We took the city bus to the first stop and it reminded me of home because I took one so frequently there. Interestingly, it was only 20 cents per ride. We got off and met a young women with an adorable 2-year-old son and we walked to their home to chat about casual, random conversational topics. We played with toys at their house and I let him draw on my 3DS and watch the intro to Tales of The Abyss, one of my favorite RPG games. The second visit was similar, though there were two older teenage boys with the youngest an excellent anime artist and the oldest owning close to 30 swimming medals! I congratulated them both and hoped that like the kids I met today at the preschool, they could make a living out of what truly makes them happy.