New Ministry for the Dillards: Part 2 – Saving El Salvador from Gangs

Driving through Central America. Image by Suzanne Titkemeyer
Driving through Central America. Image by Suzanne Titkemeyer

by Mel cross posted from her blog When Cows and Kids Collide

I’ll admit it: SOS Ministries scares me.

I’ve read through Carissa’s blog post about her trip and I’ve read through all of SOS’s online mission trip information.  SOS Ministries is playing a dangerous game that is likely to hurt the local populations they allege to serve and the volunteers they bring on the trips.

Let’s start with the potential dangers to volunteers. If you sign up for a short-term mission trip through SOS, you will be sent to El Salvador like the Duggars were.    The website has a PDF file for applications.

The application has

  • One page of basic personal information
  • One page of writing about your credentials as a Christian
  • One page where you write your testimony
  • One page describing how to write a testimony….
  • A health release for minors
  • A medical release for adults
  • Emergency contact information.
I’m going to hazard a guess that the real driving force to determine who goes on the trips is the ability of the person to raise the cash involved.  A two-week trip would cost $950 not including airfare or incidentals.  I’ve never flown to El Salvador, but some basic research showed that it would cost me around $600 for a round-trip economy class seat from Michigan.  I could knock the cost down slightly by driving to Chicago, but I would end up paying the difference in gas.  That’s $1550 per person so far.

They have a mission trip handbook posted as well.  I’ve read something like this before when I traveled with a youth group for a mission trip.  What worries me is that our mission trip was to Beaver Island, Michigan to help a small, elderly congregation of a Christian denomination with various projects at the church and in the community that they couldn’t physically do.  In other words, grunt work well suited for high schoolers in a location where the worst illness you could get is giardia – and only if you drank water right from a stream and had bad luck.

My health concerns:

  • SOS Ministry recommend tetanus and Hepatitis A shots.  The CDC recommends those plus Hepatitis B if there is any chance of accidental injury and typhoid if you are staying in homes.  The ministry doesn’t require any proof of the recommended vaccinations or even proof of being up-to-date on the standard MMR, DTAP,  chickenpox or polio.   In other words, you could end up getting very sick from this trip from preventable diseases carried by other volunteers.
  • SOS Ministry mentions bringing bug spray.   Malaria is not currently an issue in El Salvador, but dengue fever is endemic and currently experiencing a spike.  If the travelers are not careful, they could end up very ill.
  • SOS Ministry recommends bringing diarrheal medication but “no special medicines” are required.  The CDC, on the other hand, recommends talking with a doctor about carrying antibiotics to treat traveler’s diarrhea.  A prudent traveler would also think about oral rehydration therapy powders since even healthy adults can get bad dehydration quickly during a bout of bacterial diarrhea.
My cost concerns:  
  • Passports are $110 dollars for people over 16 years old and $80 for people under 16 years old.
  • The cost of traveler’s vaccines from the Health Department in my area is
    • Consult for an individual is $55.00 or $75.00 for a family of two or more people.
    • A DTaP shot is $58 dollars.
    • A Hep A shot is $56 dollars.  A Hep B shot is $62 dollars.  You can get both in a single vaccine for $86 dollars.
    • Typhoid is $66 dollars for the oral vaccine or $78 dollars for an injection.
    • Total additional costs: $0 (if they got the Hep A/Hep B series, are up to date on Tetanus, and don’t know about typhoid) – $277 (needs one of all the vaccines).
  • Cost of treated bed mosquito netting if you don’t like the idea of getting dengue: $30.00.
  • Cost of prescription for Ciprofloxacin 500mg for 3 days between $4-10.00
  • Cost of having a cell phone in El Salvador: $40.00 with no data for 100 minutes.  Going over 100 minutes is 0.25 cents a minute instead of $1.79.
  • An unknown amount of cash needed for “love offerings” and “emergency needs that frequently come up during mission trips”.  I have no idea what that means, but I would want at least $200 in cash and some form of credit if I was an adult traveling there.  (Side note: If I were running a trip, I’d add an additional $50-100 per person to put aside for emergencies/gifts to staff and tell the volunteers to bring no more than $50.00.  I don’t want my volunteers to become marks.)
  • Each traveler is supposed to bring one-half a suitcase of their personal belongings and 1.5 suitcases full of “ministry” materials that they purchase out of pocket.  This includes medicine/hygiene items, Bibles, shoes, clothing for give-aways, and toys for children.  Ignoring my feelings about four of these categories (next post, Mel…breathe…..breathe……) , that’s a whole lot of items to purchase.  Conservatively, I’d guess I would need $200 of used clothing to fill a duffel bag or $400 of Dollar General medications for my low and high estimates.
  • Grand Total: $1840  to $2,591 with the low end being an experienced traveler with up-to-date vaccinations and the high end being a first-trip adult.
My safety concerns:
  • The State Department has had a travel warning up for El Salvador since at least  2014.  Between 2010-2014, thirty-four US citizens have been murdered in El Salvador.  (In a semi-comforting note, the State Department points out that US citizens aren’t being targeted per se; El Salvador is simply extremely dangerous. Yay? )
  • I would strongly urge anyone traveling to El Salvador to register their trip with the State Department.   El Salvador could easily become unstable at any point; if it does, the US government needs to know where you are to get you out.  If the USA doesn’t know you are in the country, they can’t get you out as quickly.
  • SOS Ministries says they have health staff in El Salvador.  What exactly does that mean?  Do the leaders of the trip have complete traveler’s kit or should I be sourcing Epi-Pens and suture kits with my doctor?
  • How dangerous are the gangs in the area?  Carrisa’s blog has conflicting reports.  The gangs want to end the cycle of violence and are willing to stay out of a community center so the kids can have somewhere to go.  That’s a good sign and means that the local area is probably pretty stable.  On the flip side, her second blog post makes it sound like they were under government protection and wild pre-teens would have slaughtered them all if the local gang leaders hadn’t protected them.  (Yes, often young gang members want to show that they are hard enough by hurting or killing someone.  They usually target OTHER young gang members – not unarmed tourists doing daft skits.) IMHO, Mike – the leader of the ministry – was overstating the danger since the locals look very relaxed and are letting their children roam freely.  On the other hand, if Mike is horrible at reading local conditions he might be leading the volunteers into genuinely dangerous areas.

What could $2000 do?

  • Pay for two sheep, four goats, one heifer,two llamas & one community animal health worker through Heifer International.
  • Fund $24,000 worth of school supplies (thanks to corporate donations) through World Vision

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Read everything by Mel!

Mel is a science teacher who works with at-risk teens and lives on a dairy farm with her husband. She’s a wise fount of knowledge about things involving living with a farmer and farming. She blogs at When Cows and Kids Collide

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