10 Things I Learned In El Salvador
Ok, now I officially feel for all of the dear friends I ask to boil their entire lives down into ten things they have learned. I just returned my trip with Unbound to El Salvador, and I could barely narrow a week down to ten! Ha, seriously though, I have so many things that I want to share with you. And so many things that are still swirling around in my head and my heart that will probably take time to process, as tends to happen with these kind of trips.
But for those just tuning in, the short of the story is that I was invited to go to El Salvador with an organization called Unbound. I’m going to explain more about them in another post that I have begun writing. But in short, they are a non-profit that works primarily to help match sponsors with children and elderly people in 22 countries around the world who are living in poverty. And I’m a big fan of the thoughtful, sustainable, and progressive ways they go about doing that.
I have mentioned on here before that I’m also a big fan of Central America (and Spanish!). I actually grew up in a high school where the majority of students spoke Spanish, spent some extended time living and studying in Costa Rica, took a handful of volunteer trips to Mexico and Guatemala, and basically was planning for a career working with non-profs and Spanish-speakers either here in the States or abroad. Life obviously took some different turns, which have been great. But I still really think a lot about transitioning into more of this kind of work, so I was really excited about the idea of a collaboration between this sort of organization and the blogging that I also love.
That said, I have to admit that I was more than a little iffy about doing a short-term trip, as I have some fairly strong opinions (and a lot of experience) with short-term trips and “voluntourism”. Don’t worry, I won’t totally hop on my soap box here, but I do think it’s an issue that’s worth discussion. Because while intentions on the travelers’ end are usually pure and good and awesome, the effects of their trips on the people and local economies they visit not always so. Things that they assume might be a “help” can actually be a hindrance. And while I love to travel and meet new people and see organizations’ work on the ground, I also am very aware that these trips require a lot of time and money, and I think a lot about whether that time and money could be better invested to help organizations in more effective ways.
BUT…this trip was awesome. We didn’t build houses. We didn’t give out food. We sure as heck didn’t try to convert people. We were simply invited into the homes of many everyday people, and we shared stories. And then we came home and talked each evening and morning with the Unbound staff about what they see happening with the overall story of the country and social justice. It was simple, and it was good.
A huge part of that was due to the people. I loved my fellow bloggers who attended. I completely fell in love with the beautiful people of El Salvador. And I basically had my socks knocked off by Unbound as a whole, and the compassionate and smart approaches they are taking to help empower and equip the people of El Salvador. Guys, they are the real deal. And for someone who is very cautious about throwing my endorsement behind an organization that works with such vulnerable people, I can confidently say that they now have my complete respect and support. I learned a ton from them.
But to spare you a ton, how about we start with just ten… :)
1. People in El Salvador don’t just say “bienvenidos”, they mean it.
From the moment we stepped off the plane, we were greeted with the word bienvenidos, which means “welcome”. We heard this at least a hundred more times over the week, from staff members at the center, to random people on the streets, to the people whose homes we visited, even the nice guy at customs on my way home who eagerly wanted to know what I thought of the country. Everyone was very sincere in their desire to make us feel welcome.
But beyond just saying it, I couldn’t help but notice again and again that they really seemed to mean it.
Sometimes this was expressed with hugs and kisses. Sometimes it was in offering the best chair on the porch, or a glass of homemade horchata. But mostly it was expressed in their eyes and in their smiles and in a hundred little conversations where everyone would check in to be sure that we were comfortable and enjoying their country. You could just feel that they were really happy to have people come visit, and we were equally happy in return to get to visit and get to know them.
Contrasted with our “Pinterest-y” world back home where good hospitality is often equated with the perfect tablescape or party favors or gourmet meal for your guests, these people reminded us that the heart behind hospitality really is what matters most.
2. There’s nothing like getting to share stories in person.
A few years ago when I spent time in Africa, my friend who runs the orphanage where we were working claimed that one of the absolute most important things you can do for someone living in poverty is to simply sit down with them face-to-face and listen to their stories.
On this trip, I realized again that this is true.
There is something so important, something holy, in telling each other our stories.
Unbound clearly gets this, because they made visiting with people the focus of our trip. So instead of working on a building project together, or meeting exclusively with the staff, we literally spent our days meeting and sitting with the local people in their homes, listening to their stories and asking questions and talking for hours. Some of the people we met with were outgoing and chatty, others were more shy and reserved. But everyone had a story to tell. And they told them with great vulnerability and courage. And it was obvious — sometimes the weight of it brought tears to my eyes — that they felt so honored to be heard.
I will say, it was a lot take in. Especially hearing person after person after person humbly explain how hard they were having to work to survive. And how much pain and loss many had already had to endure in their young lives. And yet to hear person after person sincerely express how grateful they were for the specific lives they had been given. It was a lot.
But that’s the thing about stories. They can be interpreted from many angles, but the most important perspective is from the person living them. So it felt like an extra special gift to sit next to them and listen.
3. Some things are more black and white about poverty than I want to believe.
I really struggle to accept this truth sometimes.
To be sure, I am very aware I have been raised with a very “American Dream-ish” point of view, conditioned from early on to believe that anything is possible with a lot of hard work and determination. I’m also very aware that I’m generally a pretty strong optimist and a believer in hope and change.
But when it comes to poverty in developing countries, the hard truth is that sometimes no amount of strength, perseverance, intelligence, or sheer willpower will be enough to help an individual get what they need. And actually, it can be unfair and naive and even cruel to expect that from them. Because poverty is just hard. And the reason it continues to exist — even in the 21st century — is because the systems and corruption that keep people in poverty are often deeply complex and exhausting. And the people within those systems want us to know that their options are often very black and white.
For example, I was told by student after student (and teary parent after parent) that they simply would NOT be in school were it not for sponsorship through Unbound. It was a fact. It wasn’t an issue of maybe they could make it work financially, or maybe they could request a scholarship, or maybe they could find money elsewhere. No, they wanted me to know that it was crystal clear. These sweet kids would either be working, roaming the streets, or home raising babies if they did not have a sponsor.
The same went for mothers wanting to start a new business. So many of the women I met were entrepreneurial kindred spirits with dreams of starting small businesses to help provide for their families. The willpower and talent were there, but room in their survival budgets for the initial capital expenses like an oven or street cart was not. In fact, not even close. And they would be laughed out of a bank if they walked in to apply for a loan. But thanks to a microfinance program that was begun by Unbound to mothers support mothers, they were given the boost they needed to start. As one woman said, “what all of the women in our community once thought was impossible is now possible.”
I have to say though, the intention behind any support that Unbound offers is empowerment. They do not give handouts to kids to get them in school; they support the parents and let them be the ones to give to their children, and partner with them to help encourage the kids in school. They do not just provide microfinance loans to women; they started a dollar-for-dollar matching savings program with women, and then once it earned enough, they pulled out and now those programs are being totally run and supported by those same women on their own. They don’t give hand-outs; they do sustainability, and they’re in it for the long haul.
Anyway, I could write an essay on this. Of course, the realities of poverty are not all black and white. There’s a ton of gray, and thankfully there are tons of places where willpower can prevail and people can rise above the limitations of their situation. But before we ever dare to criticize people or programs, let us all remember that solutions are not always that simple.
4. Being poor is not only difficult, it’s expensive.
Note: I am very aware that the word “poor” is taboo in the States. But in El Salvador, the word was used very matter-of-factly by the people I met and is how they identified themselves. And beyond that, they wanted people in the States to know that their conditions were very poor.
One other complicated thing about poverty in El Salvador (and around the world) is the cost of living. As our leader Henri explained, “Being poor is not just difficult, it’s expensive.”
This is the case in the United States as well, where there are all sorts of costs that are unfairly raised for those living in poverty or isolated from resources. But it was interesting to understand in the context of El Salvadorian culture.
An example? Utilities. Those wealthy enough to live in a nicer home in El Salvador pay about $3-10/month for their water bill, and have gas lines installed to heat their stoves for cooking. But the poor who are living in homes without water or gas lines? They have to spend 3 hours/day — during which time they would totally rather be working and earning money — to go cut down firewood and haul it back home. And then since they do not have water lines, they have to go fill heavy water barrels (see the green one above) and carry them home which cost $1.25 each. And a family of 4 averages 24 barrels/month. So do the math. They have to spend multiple hours of work a day, plus an additional $30/month to access the water that others access in the comfort of their homes from a tap. Poverty is expensive.
Another example? Cell phone companies. While pay-day loans or credit card companies may be some of the greatest predators in the United States, cell phone companies are the ones doing downright cruel things in Central America. They bait-and-switch and deceive families into believing they are getting “free” phones, which are never so. Then they slam them with ridiculous rates and hidden fees and marketing tactics that specifically target the few quarters and dimes they may have in their pockets. But while people might be quick to criticize people in poverty for even wanting a cell phone, remember those mothers who are out gathering firewood and working during the day away from their kids? What loving mother wouldn’t want her kids to have a cell phone in case of emergencies while she’s gone?? Poverty is expensive.
There are many more examples that get me really fired up. But bottom line, finances are not a level playing field. And when companies are preying on people who already are struggling to just survive, it is unjust.
5. I will never like bugs.
On a lighter topic, I would like to address the insect kingdom for a moment.
I’m a big fan of creation and this big beautiful earth we have been given…but I am not a big fan of you. Especially you cucarachas who tried to sneak into my shower. And you mosquitos who delighted in feasting on my blood. And you flies who decided to compete over every single piece of delicious food I ate in El Salvador.
You bug me.
But I have to confess — there was a slight battle won on this trip. At about midnight on the evening before I left, one of the Unbound staff members (who will remain anonymous, but whose name rhymes with Chictoria) ran into the hallway and started screaming for help. Apparently the guard on campus had turned out the hallway lights in our wing. And consequently, the few thousand flying ants who had randomly descended upon our building that night came crawling en masse through the inch of space under our bedroom doors where light was streaming through. It was Planet of the Ants. So when she emerged from the shower and saw the ant stampede all over her floor, she freaked out, and ran outside to wake me up for help. I also freaked out when I saw my entire floor covered by ants. And then pretty soon all of us (ahem, grown women) were out in the hallways shrieking and turning lights on and off and trying to get them to stop.
Pretty sure we woke everyone in the country up. But the nice little guard returned and humbly offered some insect spray, and we emerged the champions. (The photo above was a glimpse of “the morning after.”) Any sucker who dared to climb literally under my covers was not going to win.
Sorry I’m not sorry. :)
6. Education is crucial.
People know this. I’ve known it for years. But sometimes I forget.
Education is everything to people living in poverty in El Salvador.
It is the hope of every parent for every child. It is what helps kids avoid being left alone to play on the streets or being sent to work in a factory or being pulled into a gang. It is something the kids take very seriously, and the parents sacrifice everything – and I mean everything – to make happen.
Education is also expensive. It can range dramatically in quality with public and private schools. And it is often not nearby, with some students literally having to travel hours a day (usually alone and sometimes through dangerous areas) just to attend middle or high school. But one thing’s for sure; everyone there absolutely believes that education is the hope of the future for El Salvador.
So Unbound is doing everything they can to come alongside parents and kids who want to attend school. Many of the parents of sponsored kids were not fortunate to attend school themselves, and many were never taught to read or write. But even if they can’t help the kids with homework, we heard parent after parent talk about how they work extra hard to be sure that their kids do their homework. And the mother’s groups work hard to identify and support kids who are struggling. And it’s basically a given that the older kids in school volunteer time to help the younger ones.
So while it was cool to hear kid after kid tell you about what they hoped to be when they grew older, it was even more inspiring to see how the community has come together to invest in what they all hope their country will be like when it grows older.
7. Sometimes change is slow, and sometimes it is amazingly fast.
I tend to assume that most economic improvements for developing countries are going to take generations to actually happen. And often, that is true. In El Salvador, it has taken decades for educational opportunities to develop. And things like rampant gang violence, political corruption and economic systems are going to take probably many decades more to work through.
But on the flip side, there are some success stories that are happening surprisingly quickly. For example, Unbound initiated what they call “Mother’s Groups” 5 years ago that focus on bringing moms of sponsored kids together to meet regularly and discuss things like parenting, education, health, recreation and finances (especially learning how to save). From those groups, Unbound helped launch co-ops where moms were invited to invest $1/month (which Unbound then matched) into a pool to help give microfinance loans to one another to start small businesses. But then the co-ops were so successful that Unbound was able to pull out completely and let the groups continue independently on their own. All of this within just five short years — AMAZING! Even more, every mom I spoke with who was part of a Mother’s Group said that their lives had been no less than completely changed due to those groups. And that businesses were starting, they were learning how to be better parents, they were saving for the first time in their lives, and more than anything – they were feeling empowered and independent and, as one mom said, “free”.
Also fast? How quickly sponsorship translates into support. I signed up to sponsor Josefa as my elderly “sponsored friend” just a few weeks before we left on the trip. And her social worker said that she will begin receiving her benefits this month, which made Josefa (and me) tear up when she found out. There are tons of other kids and elderly people on waiting lists. But know that if you sponsor someone, those funds to help support them and their education will begin working right away.
8. Mothers are changing the world.
Speaking of moms, I’ve gotta give some mega props to the mothers I met in El Salvador.
For sure, we met some amazing men and fathers there, and heard from the son of a hard-working single dad as well. But 85% of the parents with Unbound are single moms. And even Josefa, the 90-year-old woman I am sponsoring, is a single mom to grown up kids (and even great-great grandkids) living on her own for 28 years after being widowed. The sad truth is that there just are not that many active dads still in the picture with the communities living in poverty.
But there are moms. And those strong, intelligent, humble, hilarious, kind, faithful, and passionate women are changing the world.
Moms are also the ones who know best what their children need. So instead of having a one-size-fits-all model for giving support to children, Unbound partners with moms to help decide specifically what their kids need. And then they let the moms be the ones to actually give it, which I believe is really, really important.
But moms also are the ones who have the most accurate pulse on the needs of their community, and perhaps have some of the greatest influence on their community. So Unbound has (I think very smartly!) been very intentional these past few years especially about partnering with these women. And helping them come together to dream and strategize goals for their community, and empower and equip them to help make those dreams and goals become reality.
The result of Unbound’s faith in mothers had radically changed the lives of many of the women I met, and they couldn’t express their gratitude for these programs enough. I couldn’t express gratitude and admiration for them enough. This world is turning into a better place, thanks to them.
9. El Salvadorian beans are magical.
Ok, let’s talk food! I have had so many people ask me about the food in El Salvador. And I have to say, we ate way better than I was expecting while we were there! I think I just imagined that we’d have some traditional rice and beans and plantains for each meal. But the cook who works at Unbound was a super talented, and were able to enjoy everything from local fare to lasagna to salads to omelettes to soups to desserts and more. Such a treat!!
And yes, one of those meals included El Salvador’s most famous dish — pupusas. (See this photo — they are basically a sandwich of thick homemade corn tortillas stuffed with pork or cheese or a number of fillings.) They were great. But my favorite?
Oh my gosh, I was obsessed with the beans, which was a good thing because they were served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. :) I kept trying to get the cook to give me her secrets. But all I know is that El Salvadorian beans are made with red kidney beans, and then pureed with onion and garlic…and magic. I love how every country has their own take on beans, and El Salvador’s may actually be my new favorite. Seriously, they were so flavorful. I’m going to do my research and hopefully make some to share on the blog soon!
10. $30 a month goes a LONG way.
Finally, I really want to talk for a second about sponsorship with Unbound, because everyone keeps asking how they can get involved. I’m going to write a whole other post on the organization as a whole, so that you can learn a little bit more about why I like them specifically, and how they also compare and contrast with other sponsorship programs (kind of like World Vision or Compassion).
But in a nutshell…
The main way that people get involved with Unbound is by signing up to sponsor a kid of an aging friend. (I had never heard of an organization also supporting elderly people, whom I love, so I was thrilled to get to sponsor 90-year-old Josefa.) There are over 266,000 people around the world who are sponsors, serving more than 300,000 kids and elderly people in 22 countries all around the world.
And let me tell you, this organization specifically is legit. Unbound received an A+ rating from Charity Watch, they keep their overhead low so that 93% of the money donated (that’s high) goes directly to the field, and every single person I’ve met who works there is super dedicated and passionate about this work. The organization is also supported in part by the Catholic church, but I’d like to stress that they are not an evangelical organization out trying to convert the people they work with. Their mission is to serve people all over the world, no matter what their religion, and they are supported all over the world by sponsors, no matter what their religion. (I’m not Catholic, and I love them.) Catholicism is simply the faith foundation which motivates them to love and serve.
So anyway, how it works is that you donate $30 a month, and in return Unbound provides your child, youth or aging friend with:
- essential benefits such as food, clothing, home repairs and health care
- educational needs such as supplies, uniforms, tuition, and other school fees
- recreational activities and Christmas and birthday celebrations
- literacy training and livelihood programs for parents
I saw all four of these in action. And I was especially impressed with how the social workers knew the families and their needs so well, and worked with them to decide what mix of support might be best for their families each month.
Another important thing? I didn’t realize that many well-known organizations use what they call “representational sponsorship”, where you are given a person’s name but really your money is going into a big pot to just serve a community in general. But Unbound has “direct sponsorship”. So if I sponsor Josefa, she is the one who specifically receives the support. Every single one of the sponsored kids and adults we met knew their sponsor’s name, and regularly writes them letters and gets soooooo excited when they receive a letter from their sponsor in return. (Don’t worry about language barriers. In El Salvador alone, the translators translate over 120,000 letters a year.) So if you sponsor someone, you can totally get to know them via letters and updates. And if you feel like traveling to their country at some point in your life, Unbound plans regular trips to countries so that you can (hopefully) make that happen.
So yeah. I was a little worried about sounding like a commercial for Unbound with this trip, but I don’t even care. I would be absolutely thrilled if any of you would consider joining in with this organization and the work they’re doing in the world. I know that $30 is a chunk, but already it has become one of the most meaningful ways I spend each month. And I believe it is actually making a really cool difference in the world. So if you’re interested, click here (the blue button) and make it happen! :)
Stay tuned next for a post about some really cool people I met…
Disclaimer: I went on this trip as a blogger with Unbound. My travel costs were sponsored, but I was not compensated to write and all opinions are 100% my own as always. I am just completely excited to share with you about this cool organization and the work they’re doing.