By Melissa and Peter Altman:
After eight months, we can honestly say that El Salvador has begun to feel like home. We have spent the bulk of these eight months settling in, learning Spanish, and starting our project. We’ve all become much more comfortable in Spanish, although our children Eli and Evey have left their parents in the dust! Both of them are functionally bilingual at this point. Everyone said that the kids would pick it up fast, but it has been amazing to see how quickly they have been able to become completely comfortable in a language that they couldn’t speak at all in December.
We have started our ministry in a small rural village called La India which is outside the town of Cojutepeque. There are very few cars on the unpaved streets of La India, but the roads are well used by chickens, goats, cows, and dogs. The homes are modest, many lack running water and electricity and yet the doors are always open to visitors; we have been humbled by the hospitality that people have shown us. Last Saturday, the local people were excited to introduce us to Sopa de Pata, a local favorite whose name translates to “soup of the foot” since the primary ingredients are cow feet and stomach. The broth was delicious, but downing the big pieces of stomach was challenging for all of us (although Pete enjoyed making jokes about having a belly full of belly for the rest of the day). Afterwards, we reflected on how the soup illustrates the typical resourcefulness of poor Salvadorans: if you can’t afford steaks and chops, then learn how to make something delicious out of feet and stomach!
The resourcefulness reflected in the soup is also reflected in the pastoral center that the community recently built in the center of the village. Despite having few resources, the community raised money to buy the materials and then built the center themselves so that they would have a place to gather and pray. We are humbled that we have been invited to use this space to offer educational enrichment, personal development, and recreational opportunities for the under served children and youth of the community. Ours is the only game in town, so if the children are not with us, they are on the streets. The pastor of the parish has shared that our presence in the village as a family is an important sign of hope for the people.
Recently, we have been offering a workshop in painting for the children of the village. Last week, while we were distributing supplies to the children, we noticed an 11 year-old boy timidly standing outside the center. We introduced ourselves and invited him to participate. Geraldo shared that he was nervous because he had never painted before. We assured him that we would help him learn, so he came in and joined the circle of children working on the floor. When the class was over, Geraldo proudly approached us to show us his completed painting. It turns out that he has a gift for painting. Like so many children in El Salvador, Geraldo has never had the opportunity to explore and develop his unique gifts and talents. Our mission is to provide opportunities for him and the other children of La India to develop their gifts and build their self-esteem. The hope is that offering this support will keep them out of the local gangs and help them be productive members of their community.
The children of La India face the same challenges that have driven so many young people from El Salvador to the doorstep of the U.S. They are challenged by extreme poverty, a broken educational system, the absence of parents, few future prospects, and the violent gangs that often begin to recruit children as young as eight years- old. While we can’t begin to address these complex and daunting societal problems, we know that the programs and opportunities we are offering the children in this small village are a step in the right direction. It has been shown that young people who are engaged in their community are much less likely to try to emigrate to the U.S. or join the gangs.
We consider ourselves blessed to have the opportunity to serve the people of La India and we are grateful for all of the encouragement and support from our friends, family and donors.
Melissa and Peter