Crossing Borders

July 21, 1992|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Staff Writer

Home from El Salvador for less than a week, high school student Jessica Valle remembers vividly the stories told by village women who lost children and other family members to war in the Latin American nation.

"You can read stories and watch movies, but seeing the people and hearing them speak . . . it hits home harder," she said.

Jessica, 17, a senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School, was in a nine-member delegation of Notre Dame students, alumnae and instructors who traveled through impoverished villages of El Salvador from July 8 to 15.

Though two other delegations from Notre Dame have visited El Salvador in past years, that country's long-running civil war kept them from traveling through most of the countryside.

But a peace agreement between the government and rebel forces in effect since February gave this year's delegation from the Catholic girls' school in Towson a chance to visit children at Notre Dame's sister school in Ignacio Ellecuria, a community named for one of six Jesuit priests murdered in San Salvador in November 1989.

"When we got there, all of the kids gathered around and started clapping," said Amy Cosgrove, 18, a 1992 Notre Dame graduate. "They were just so excited to see us, it was overwhelming."

Sister Cathy Arata, a nun with the School Sisters of Notre Dame and a pastoral worker in Arcatao, acted as tour guide and interpreter for the group, few of whom spoke Spanish.

"But there are other ways to communicate besides words," said Mary Gunning, a 1975 Notre Dame graduate and director of the Head Start program at St. Jerome's School.

The Ellecuria school, with an enrollment of 150, is located in the middle of a cornfield and has a tin roof but no walls. The teachers are mostly 16- and 17-year-old girls, said Mary Bartel, a physical education teacher at Notre Dame.

"Each kid had a notebook and a pencil, and that seemed to be it," Ms. Bartel said. Children attend school until the third grade and then are sent to work.

Because the children in El Salvador have little play time -- most work in the fields in the morning or afternoon when they're not in school -- the delegation took balls, bats, gloves, arts and crafts and a parachute used for schoolyard games.

But it was somewhat of a surprise for the Americans to learn that the children already knew how to play baseball.

As it turns out, baseball is popular in El Salvador, as it is in most Central American countries.

"And they have a TV in that community," Ms. Bartel said. "They run it off a [generator attached to a] Volkswagen engine."

Ms. Bartel said one of the most gratifying experiences was seeing her own students handle themselves in the Third World country, even in situations -- such as bathing in public -- that were "less than comfortable."

Delegation members said they were also impressed with the strength of the community, whose families had often been destroyed by war.

Ms. Bartel described the community as "very unselfish," with people offering everything they had to visitors and to each other.

"There's a big difference between poverty here and there," agreed Ms. Gunning. "Here, you'll often see the breakdown of the family. But there, there's a real sense that they look out for each other. Even though they're materially poor, there's still that sense of hope."

"They had so little, but they had so much of what people here are lacking in," Jessica said.

The school is currently working on plans to send another delegation to El Salvador next summer.

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