20th Trip and 10th Year Anniversary of Our Mission in El Salvador
by Marlen Kemmet
Clean running water, electricity, transportation, and telephone service are conveniences we take for granted on a daily, if not hourly basis. When we go camping, we consider it “roughing it” when we have to do without these basic amenities for a weekend. Consider what it would be like to live without these conveniences not for just a day or two, but to never have had them in the first place.
Many rural people in El Salvador have always lived that way. They wash their clothes on a rock or at the river or communal cement troughs along a roadside, they cook over an open fire, and a hot shower is a luxury they can only dream about. Cut with a machete (very few villagers have a chainsaw), firewood is often carried a considerable distance for daily cooking.
An idea takes a foothold
Following the lead of the Heartland Presbyterian Church in Clive, which was already working with a canton in central El Salvador, a committee of 25 St. Boniface parishioners was formed the fall of 1993 to determine what, if any, involvement St. Boniface wanted to have in this impoverished region. “The prerequisites were simple,” recalled Father Vince Rosonke, “if enough interest could be found within the parish, we would move ahead; if not, the idea would be dropped.” Fortunately a significant amount of enthusiasm was shown by the committee, 14 of whom traveled and met with a pastoral team in Berlin, El Salvador in June of 2004. The group flew into San Salvador, and then took a two-hour bus trip to their compound in Berlin, the base for this and following trips. A compound is basically a home or hostel where the volunteers stay and from which their activities are based.
After touring several cantons (a Spanish term for a small unincorporated village) near the city of Berlin, the village of El Recreo, a village of 88 households (which has now grown to 152) was selected and a five-year commitment was made. Unlike an Iowa town, often built outwardly from a central square or rail yard, most cantons in El Salvador are usually just a home or two deep and a mile or two long. El Recreo fits this description and is situated along a road that runs along a ridge top. When asked what the determining factor was for selecting this particular canton, Father Vince replied, “It was the only road we traveled that my back could take the ride to.” Only two-and-a-half miles as the crow flies from Berlin, the drive to El Recreo takes over a half hour along a winding and deeply rutted road comprised of dirt, cobblestone, and occasional concrete. To travel to El Recreo, team members stand in the back of a pickup truck holding a metal rack attached to the outer walls of the truck bed. “Although there were four or five cantons to choose from,” stated Father Vince, “El Recreo was chosen.”
Living in El Recreo
Subsistence living is the standard for residents of El Recreo. People grow the food they need to eat and hopefully create a bit of a surplus they can use to barter for other necessities as well as a portion to donate to the poor. Corn and red and black beans, often grown together, are the main crops and have been grown on the same hilly ground for decades. Seeds are planted one at a time with a stick and handpicked at the end of the growing season. Fields are extremely rocky and mechanization is not practical. Everything is done by hand.
There are very few employment opportunities in the area, with only a handful of people from El Recreo working outside the community. For items they cannot make themselves, the people rely on bartering their labor or produce.
Nancy Emerson, who was part of the September 2008 delegation, recalls “The things that made the biggest impression on me were how a modest amount of financial aid given to these people to help them encourages many good things and restores hope to their lives. Families live in homes with dirt floors and cobbled-together adobe walls. When I did the math I realized that an amount of money less than most of us have paid for one home would be able to buy the materials to provide a cinder block house with ‘real’ floors for the entire canton.”
A partnership is born
To empower the people of El Recreo to live a better life, St Boniface’s projects have included; building a church, funding for seed and fertilizer to local farmers, supplying homes with barrels for rain-water collection, buying land for a soccer field, providing funding and supplies for education, building and supplying a medical clinic, and helping to establish a museum of ancient artifacts found in local fields. In addition, the biyearly delegations distribute many smaller items such as blankets, flashlights, first aid kits, and food.
St. Boniface provided funds for the construction of a 1,200 sq. ft., block-walled, tin-roofed church, with construction starting in 2007. The previous church, an adobe structure, was badly damaged in an earthquake in the 1990’s and was no longer safe for use. Handcrafted wood benches, reclaimed from the previous church, serve as seating, and a handsome tiled floor embellish the structure which had its dedication ceremony in February, 2008. Luckily the church, called the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was able to tie into one of the rare electrical lines in El Recreo, even though the majority of homes do not have power. “The church was built by the village’s master craftsman,” recalled Father Vince. “When we asked him where the plan was, he simply pointed to his head.”
Unlike churches in America, most churches in El Salvador do not have assigned priests. Instead a traveling priest might visit a church every few months. But, religious services, or “celebrations” as they are referred to there, are held weekly with someone appointed by the pastor in Berlin.
Like Iowa, agriculture is king
Farms in the El Recreo area are measured by the manzana, equivalent to 1.68 acres. The average household farm is about half a manzana, and most land is rented, not owned, by the farmer. Not only is the tillable land per household less than an acre, but the soil is often volcanic rock on a hillside in which the same crop is grown year after year. From this a family hopes to grow enough food to sustain the people and animals in their household for the following year and sell enough to pay the land rent. A poor crop is often financially devastating.
In January of 2010, St. Boniface provided 220 bags of fertilizer which was two bags for each of the 100+ families in El Recreo, all of which would be spread by hand. Jerry Burger, a Waukee area farmer who has made several trips to the area stated, “We’re used to farming hundreds and hundreds of acres with tractors that nearly drive themselves. Here you see people working depleted soil with a stick. People in our country have no idea how important that small bit of ground is to each family. When we can provide fertilizer that doubles their output, that’s a huge benefit to those families.”
Wes Meier, an ISU mechanical-engineer graduate and Peace Corp volunteer in Central America commented, “Farmers are completely dependent on the weather. If there is a dry spell, crops are lost and people go hungry. Food security is a huge problem in this part of the world, especially since several crops in recent years have been severely limited or lost in El Salvador due to drought. Supplying fertilizer to the farmers not only provides for a better yield, but also insures that a family will have enough food to eat for the full year.” Families of El Recreo also feel it is their moral obligation to offer a share of their yearly crop to the poor regardless of the yield.
Providing education, water barrels, and a soccer field
Today, every El Recreo child that wishes to attend grade or high school can now do so with donations from St. Boniface parishioners. In 2014, there were 120 grade-school students and 28 high-school students who were able to attend school because of this funding. Prior to St. Boniface’s financial support there were only 20 children in grade school and three in high school. Father Vince noted, “Most of the kids now in high school are there due to funding created a few years back to get them into grade school. The age of a high-school student ranges from 15 to 21 years old. You could be 12 years old and in the third grade or 21 and be in high school. Since we are the only provider for education in this canton, if we don’t help the students financially, some kids simply would not be able to afford to go to school.” The grade school is in El Recreo, and the high school is a two-mile walk to another canton. The cost to send a child to grade school is only $40/year while that of a high school student is $100/year.
In April of 2005, eighty-eight 200-gallon water barrels were provided to households for the use of rainwater collection. Through a system of makeshift gutters, rainwater is collected from the roofs of homes and stored in the barrels. Water is then taken from the barrels and boiled for cooking and drinking or used to water their animals. In the dry season, when the barrels run dry, the barrels are filled with grain, sealed and stored to keep out rodents. Prior to the donation of these water barrels for each home, children spent their days walking back and forth from the nearby river to their homes carrying water in round containers with handles on each side. Since they were needed for this chore, these students were unable to attend school. With the placement of these barrels in each home, more children were available to attend classes.
A three-acre parcel of ground was purchased in 2006 for use as a soccer field and playground. In 2010, St. Boniface commissioned a male and female cement-block bathroom built next to the soccer field. In 2015, the delegation donated nearly 40 soccer balls to schools and individuals in the area. The El Recreo community now has teams of adult men, young men, and women who play teams from neighboring cantons.
Volunteers make the difference
Kamy Sullivan, who was on the core team, has made the mission trip 12 times, remarked, “A few years ago I went to a Hy-Vee manager and asked him if they would help us purchase first-aid kits for each family in our adopted village. They were great and contributed about $500 toward 110 kits. We took the kits to El Salvador in our second pieces of luggage. At El Recreo, we split up into four groups, each with an interpreter, and went to each house. We took turns presenting the first-aid kits to the family and explaining how to use what was inside—everything from Tylenol to Bacitracin ointment and ice packs that you break in half to get them cold. The people were so appreciative.”
In addition, Barb Arkwright, who is also on the core team, coordinates the visit’s itinerary and budget with Milagro and Andres on a day to day basis. “The main goal for delegations is to provide lessons in the history of oppression of the poor in El Salvador and their simple way of life,” stated Barb. “We schedule visits of interest on the life of Arch Bishop Romero and those whose lives were lost fighting for their freedom. We visit schools, Daycares and other places of interest such as coffee Fincas where many work long hours for little pay. Words and projects do not adequately describe how our hearts are changed by the beautiful people of El Salvador.”
“Our delegation also puts on a community meal for El Recreo each time we visit,” reported Jerry Burger, “We feed upward of 400 to 500 people each visit. We have heard it said that if it were not for that meal, some would not have eaten that day.” In addition, Jerry travels to El Salvador and funds numerous projects such as housing and medical assistance on his own.
Parishioners support the partnership
To transform this many projects into realities, 10 to 20 members of St. Boniface visit El Recreo every six months. To date, the church has sent 20 delegations. At the end of the initial five-year commitment to El Recreo, a survey was distributed to parishioners to determine the level of support for the ministry among parishioners. The survey showed that 96% of the respondents felt that reaching out in a relationship with a poor village in another country was either important or very important. As per concerns raised about individual traveler’s funding, each person pays their own way, which runs approximately $1,500/person. The yearly donations for El Salvador total about $20,000. And, as it is for all St. Boniface outreach projects, the money comes directly from free-will donations. The parish does not budget any tithing for the El Salvador mission.
Don and Rosemary Perschau had this to share on their trip to El Recreo, “The most important aspect of the entire project is the connection between the people there and our parish. This is the most difficult thing to explain to those who haven’t been there. We cannot understate the relationships that have developed. The quote that I heard from one of the people there was, “We have had people come before, but we never had anyone come back.” Now, after 20 visits, the relationship between St. Boniface and El Recreo remains strong.
Learn more at YouTube
See firsthand what the work and the relationship with St. Boniface parish means to the people of El Recreo. Visit the St. Boniface YouTube Channel and scroll down the the section titled El Salvador Mission Trips.