Catholic students aid education of Salvadoran villagers

Kentfield, Calif., Nov 4, 2012 / 01:04 pm (CNA).- When Marin Catholic High School President Tim Navone and principal Chris Valdez were mulling how to exercise the school’s mission – “faith, knowledge, service” – abroad, internationally, their best and brightest idea and connection to another culture was just down the hall at the Kentfield school.

It was Mario Pacheco, the owner of the custodial company that has cleaned Marin Catholic for 16 years. He’s a beloved member of the school’s community who lifted himself out of poverty in the village of El Carmen, El Salvador, and today is its unofficial mayor, if 3,000 miles away in Marin County. If there’s a dispute in El Carmen, his cellphone rings.

Navone knew the story of El Carmen well. For years he has been giving Pacheco used clothing and other goods that he delivers during his visits home several times a year. It’s a place mired in poverty, but the people are rich in spirit and spirituality, and it would be in El Carmen that the Marin Catholic students would carry out the mission.

In the project’s first year, a group of Marin Catholic students, all of them fairly advanced in Spanish, raised money to pay for the high school tuition and other school expenses of two young girls, Jenny and Julissa. They attended grade school at El Carmen School and since January, thanks to the fundraising, have been enrolled at a Catholic high school, Colegio Santa Isabel, in the nearby city of Cojutepeque. It is an opportunity they very likely would not have otherwise had and, with a degree, it will put them on a course for a better life.

“These kids will be getting jobs in Cojutepeque and/or San Salvador, and some will go on to college and they will have, absolutely, a better life path for sure, as did Mario,” said Navone.

“When they saw that people were coming into the village to help them they were obviously excited,” Jack Burnham, a 15-year-old sophomore who was among the group from Marin Catholic that visited El Carmen for a week beginning in late July, said of the people in the village in central El Salvador. “But they were especially excited for Jenny and Julissa going to the Catholic school. They can make something out of their lives and they have a really good opportunity to better their lives and their families’ lives and help them get out of poverty,” he said.

There is no industry in El Carmen. There are two stretches of paved road, one to the house that Pacheco built and from there to the church. There are two flush toilets in El Carmen – both at Pacheco’s house. The other dwellings are of cinder blocks or mud and sticks. Most of the people, after the eighth grade at El Carmen School, go to work at a Chinese-owned textile factory 20 minutes away. They earn $6 a day. A few people raise goats and make cheese and a few others raise corn to barter.

Still, on the week-long visit that was designed to be relationship-building with Jenny and Julissa – with the service piece of the project being the fundraising that followed – Jack, Mary Elizabeth Ward and six other students found the two girls, in addition to being enormously appreciative now that they’re in high school, to have values in common with them.

“We listened to music with them a lot on the bus rides and they had a lot of the music we listen to,” said Mary Elizabeth, also a 15-year-old sophomore, who next summer will be teaching English at the grade school and high school during her visit. “They are so happy to be who they are. And to be there,” she said. They’re staying in touch via Facebook, in Spanish.

Next year, eight new Marin Catholic students will be partnered with four new El Carmen School students, who will go on to Colegio Santa Isabel.

In addition to covering the tuition of $450 per year per student at Colegio Santa Isabel, transportation and other expenses, the fundraising is also going to cover four flush toilets and a kitchen at El Carmen School.

Here’s the Catholic element to the project:

Jack said that this year’s Marin Catholic theme – there’s a new one each year – is “Love one another as I love you,” John 15:12. The El Carmen project, he said, “illustrates that you treat the people in El Carmen the same as everybody here even when they are so different from us.” He added, “It is to treat everybody equally and not be prejudiced. They might not have as much material stuff as we do but they have a lot. They are very spiritual and they seem to be happy no matter what happens to them.”

Mary Elizabeth said, “We showed our love for them and they showed their love for us.”

Also on the trip were students Billy Alten, Cristina Banuelos, Gianmarco Rossi, Lauren Sharps, Christopher Yates and Sheela Ziari, along with Navone, Valdez, Pacheco and Spanish teachers Adam Groshong and Patricia Wagner.

Posted with permission from Catholic San Francisco, official newspaper for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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