SHU Students Prep for 18th Annual Service Trip to El Salvador

News Story: March 1, 2010
The 2009 El Salvador Delegation

El Salvador, literally the “Republic of the Savior,” is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America. A group from Sacred Heart University will travel to this nation for the eighteenth time on a cross-cultural mission experience, bringing with them the hope that their presence will be helpful to the local people.

Students who go to El Salvador will see a third-world country firsthand and meet the people who live there. Even though their stay is very short, the trip is an opportunity for the students to provide service such as clearing land for homes and helping to build a road.

Scheduled from March 5-13, enthusiasm for this trip has been evident from the time it was first announced in the fall of 2009. Forty-one students applied to be a part of the El Salvador 2010 Delegation and ultimately, fifteen students were accepted. The application process includes personal interviews where students are asked about their background, what they think the country will be like, and, most importantly, why they want to go.

This year’s delegation is composed of thirteen undergraduates; two graduate students; Father Gerald Ryle, director of Campus Ministry and University chaplain; and three faculty members: Dr. Pilar Munday, Associate Professor in Foreign Languages and Cultures; Dr. Maria Lizano-DiMare,  Assistant Professor in Education; and Dr. Terry Neu, Assistant Professor in Education, Griswold campus. Father Ryle and Dr. Munday will be going to El Salvador for the first time. Dr. Lizano-DiMare will be making her fourth trip, and Dr. Neu will be making his 12th trip to what he calls his “home away from home.”

A student who has been on this trip and wishes to go again can apply; however, only two veterans are accepted with the expectation that they will share their perspectives with the students who are making the trip for the first time. One veteran who will be part of the 2010 delegation, junior Amanda Francini, recalled the 2009 trip and how it affected her, “I learned how to listen. I have never felt so alive as I did that week.” 
On Wednesday, February 24, the University’s Human Journey Colloquia Series presented a colloquium entitled “El Salvador: A Mission of Solidarity” during which delegates and advisors from previous trips shared their experiences with the rest of the Sacred Heart community. 

Sam Dowd spoke of his experiences on last year's service trip to El Salvador during the colloquium.

Junior Sam Dowd, a delegate from the 2008 and 2009 trips, spoke of the importance that SHU’s service brings to the people of El Salvador. “These people we meet may never leave their village, not to mention their country. They rely on us to come back to the United States and tell their stories. We are charged with the responsibility of not letting their words die. The stories of poverty, hunger, homelessness, are so important to understanding the world around us, and shaping us as students and human beings. Even though we are there to help physically with the manual labor, an even greater need comes in this form of storytelling.”

Stories such as Sam Dowd’s were shared by the delegates, bringing a deeper understanding of the trials of the El Salvadoran people to the campus community, reaffirming the importance of service learning to the University’s Mission.

Father Jerry is looking forward to a special feature of this year’s trip; the Stations of the Cross from the old chapel at SHU will be taken on this trip and given to the church in the small village of Tierra Blanca, Usulután, where the delegation will be working.

Preceding each El Salvador trip is a preparation period which involves learning about this new culture, the country’s history, and the hardships and challenges the local people face every day. The group listens to practical advice, and engages in fundraising. Preparation meetings began in late October. These meetings continue until the time of departure draws near.

Agenda items include: socializing and interacting to “jell” as a group and develop supportive relationships; learning about the country and its people in an effort to diminish the possibility of “culture shock”; becoming familiar with the history of the country, including the civil war, which has left many of El Salvador’s people with very negative feelings about the U.S.; and the life of Bishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980 and is a saint to the people of his country. At some meetings, the focus on important health and safety issues includes all the prospective travelers receiving the preventive shots necessary for anyone traveling abroad.

Veteran El Salvador advisor Dr. Terry Neu shared stories from past trips.

Fundraising is also an important part of the group’s preparation. As the members of the group live and work among the Salvadorans, the funds they bring will enable them to identify needs that they may be able to take care of. The delegation will meet to present and discuss the needs, and then a vote will be taken to determine which ones will be funded. The El Salvador 2009 delegation raised $12,000; each year’s delegation hopes to bring in more than was raised the previous year. Those preparing for the 2010 trip are now hard at work trying to raise as much as possible.

When SHU began going to El Salvador in 1992, twelve faculty members and staff went on the first trip. Ralph Corrigan, a former SHU professor, now retired, and credited with playing a large part in these service trips, wrote a book about his experience: Answering the Call: The Story of Community Service and Volunteerism at Sacred Heart University. Over time, the desire to help in El Salvador expanded to include service in the local community around the university, and today a wide variety of opportunities to do just that are coordinated by the Office of Volunteer Programs on campus.