Eileen traveled to El Salvador in August 2007 to visit former Annandale High School principal Don Clausen and his wife Pat. Don and Pat, a nurse practitioner, served as lay missioners in El Salvador, with the Franciscan Mission Service, in the rural town of Chiltiupán, about one and one half hours from San Salvador, for three years. Eileen traveled with Liz Segall, another former PTSA president from Annandale High. Don and Pat chronicled their experiences at www.DonPat.com and they asked Eileen and Liz to write a guest blog after their visit.
GUEST BLOG – September 2007
The following are the reflections of Eileen Kugler and Liz Segall who visited Chiltiupan, El Salvador, in August.
In late August, we had the wonderful opportunity of visiting Don and Pat in Chiltiupán. We both felt we did not want to miss the opportunity to learn more about El Salvador from the unique perspectives of Don and Pat and to see their work up-close and personal. We truly appreciated how Don and Pat graciously shared their interpreting skills, their meals and their home with us.
Our first impression was the great natural beauty of the area. Since Chiltiupán is situated on the ridge of a mountain, the views were absolutely beautiful, especially during the rainy season in late summer when we were there. During thunderstorms the noise of the rain on the corrugated steel roofs sounded like we were under a waterfall. The proximity of lightening is startling when you are literally in the clouds.
We quickly learned to enjoy the slower pace of rural life. Evenings were spent in quiet conversations, reading, or chatting about the books we had read (We all seemed to have the same reading list!) The nighttime sounds were an interesting adventure for us city folks. Who knew that roosters crow anytime they want – even at 1:30 a.m.? The dogs were particularly noisy one night – and then we realized that the moon had been full. Thus one rural legend is confirmed.
We were lucky enough to be in Chiltiupán during the annual festival celebrating the corn harvest. A procession in the street led to a service of Thanksgiving at the church. Then the festivities began. The town’s farmers and families donated more than 3,000 ears of corn, which were turned into tamales, corn fritters, and a sweet, hot drink (atol) made with corn, milk, sugar and vanilla. Corn on the cob was served on sticks with ketchup, mayo, and/or mustard. Entertainment ranged from traditional dances performed by locals of all ages to town elders performing on a large marimba.
Throughout the festival, and the entire week, we could see how Pat and Don have become such special members of the community. We were honored to be their guests. We’d glance over and see Don talking to one of the students he had taught, a recipient of one of the scholarships he had helped raise. And Pat would be dancing with the children one moment and providing support and medical advice to a grandmother the next.
One of the highlights of our week was the chance to meet the health promoters who work in Chiltiupán and the surrounding areas. We were struck with the diversity of the group, including young single women, mothers carrying babies, and men of varying ages. They were all volunteers – some with 10 or 11 children at home — who took time out of their busy lives to help improve the health of their neighbors. Gloria, their leader, was the essence of an effective community advocate. We were thrilled to see some of the medical supplies we brought with us from the U.S. distributed to these hard-working volunteers for use in their communities.
Sustaining their work
During our time there, Pat and Don were busy trying to build the infrastructure that will help make their work sustaining. The impact of their work was very clear. The computer lab that Don created is now one of the student’s favorite activities. They crowd around the computers to gain access to new information and insights that were closed to them a year or two ago, including a screen saver that is a Google Earth view of Chiltiupán. Don has been working to make sure all the computers are working smoothly and the server is operating. He’ll be using some of the recent contributions to purchase good quality printers for the lab.
Pat’s work at the clinic is truly life-saving. The government health-care system is extremely difficult to navigate for the residents of this rural village, and many services require an expensive and time-consuming trip to the port or San Salvador, sometimes more than once. Not only does Pat work with the doctor and see patients on her own as a nurse practitioner, she is also using all of her skills as a social worker to support each individual and help them navigate the turbulent system. It appeared to us that Pat knew the health issues of every resident and their extended family in the entire region, and had played a part in trying to improve each of their lives.
While we were there, the clinic hired a new nurse, an enthusiastic local resident, and was restructuing to take advantage of the different skills and abilities of the ongoing staff. An advisory committee of local residents was meeting to help build more support for the clinic. We were pleased to have a small role in helping develop a system to keep tabs on the clinic’s pharmaceutical inventory. These management improvements are a critical foundation for gaining additional outside funding sources for the clinic in the future.
El Salvador and the U.S.
Of course a visit to El Salvador at this time had to raise issues of immigration to the United States. Northern Virginia, particularly Herndon and Prince William County, are making international news with their crackdown on undocumented immigrants. We were struck by Pat’s insight about growing up in the Appalachian region of Kentucky and having the option to move to other parts of the United States where the economy was better. Where can you move for better opportunities if you were born in El Salvador? There are more jobs in the cities, but still not enough. We met the Clausens’ wonderful friends Rubidia and Felix and their daughter who had just earned a degree as a chemical engineer. She and her classmates are struggling for jobs, with her friends all going to the same interviews for the sparse positions.
The impact of the funds sent by Americans to their relatives in El Salvador was evident everywhere. Sometimes it enabled the family literally to survive, sometimes it meant a roof over a kitchen, sometimes some new clothes with American business logos. One searing memory was a visit Pat brought us along on, to the home of an 80+ woman living alone since her daughter died of cervical cancer (whom Pat had written about earlier). Although other relatives attempted to help the woman, she preferred being on her own. Pat brought her some warm atol from the corn festival and checked on how well she was taking her medication. But the conversation took a downturn when the woman reported that her grandson who had been sending her money from the U.S. was recently deported. His wife was from Honduras, so she wasn’t sure where they were now living. His financial support had been a critical piece of her ability to live alone.
The trip was eye-opening in so many ways, as travel always is. We’ll remember the friendly people and their joy in day-to-day life, the beauty of the Salvadoran mountains and flora, the heroes of the civil war and commitment of so many volunteers to rebuild their country today. And we’ll remember the lasting impact two individuals can have when they are committed to improving the lives of others.
Eileen Kugler and Liz Segall