Villanova students devote winter break to service in El Salvador

Tara Powers

You can’t attend Villanova without hearing about service break trips. Be it fall break or spring break, there are always University students traveling around the world to lend a hand to those in need. What you may not know, however, is that there are also Villanova students donating their time and energy to others when most of us are at home basking in the glow of a month-long winter break. 

This year, a group of 15 Villanova students traveled to San Salvador, El Salvador for a two-week mission service experience. The volunteers collaborated with Project FIAT (Faith in Action Together), a group associated with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to provide aid to the native Salvadorans. Their diverse duties included picking corn and coffee, playing with the children and digging trenches for water systems. 

There were three sites – all located in poor village towns – among which the volunteers divided their time. One of these was a construction site where the Salvadorans are building a library. 

“We twisted wire and dug ditches for plumbing so the people could eventually have a general place to read and borrow books,” junior Beth Awalt said. “Right now, the library is in the church, and they think that some people feel intimidated by that.” 

Villanova volunteers also pitched in at a local after-school program. Although school was not in session, the group met and interacted with children of all ages. 

The third worksite option was located in Las Granadillas, a cooperative village on the side of a mountain where volunteers helped pick crops, as well as create the ditch that would be part of the new water system. 

Despite the fact that not all of the group members spoke Spanish, communication and connection were not problems for the volunteers. 

“I never felt distant or like I wasn’t able to communicate,” Jimmy Kane said. “Through nonverbals – through smiles, through hugs, through gestures – I felt confident interacting with [the Salvadorans].” 

One of the benefits of any mission service experience is that participants are able to absorb the culture of the place in which they are serving while at the same time reaching out to others. In addition to their experiences with traditional Salvadoran foods -tortillas, tamales and homemade guacamole or bean dip – the Villanova group went on a mountain hike their first day in El Salvador and touched lava rock from one of the country’s many volcanoes. 

Another part of the trip was learning about the doctrine of liberation theology in El Salvador.  They visited the tomb of Oscar Romero, an archbishop in San Salvador who was martyred during the civil war in the ’80s and ’90s, as well as the Divine Providence Church where he was killed. The Salvadorans have also created a memorial for Rutilio Grande, one of the priests killed for speaking out on behalf of the poor during the civil war. 

“I’ve never been to a place where there is so much energy among the kids,” Kane said, citing the visit as a turning point for the group. “It was pure enjoyment to be with them, but they don’t get that all the time, and it leaves us wondering what they do when we’re not there.” 

Awalt agreed that it was hard to leave the children with whom they quickly became close. 

“I have never seen a place so devoid of love in my life,” Awalt said. “The kids – especially the babies – were so sad. I think we each latched onto a little child and just picked them up, hugged them and played with them for hours.” 

The lack of care available for so many of these children makes necessary places like the malnourishment center, where children in need of healthcare are brought to stay in a sanitary facility with air conditioning and a nursing staff. 

A major highlight for the group members was the opportunity to attend Mass in three different locations: a major cathedral; Our Lady of Guadalupe, a parish church and the village church in Las Delicias. During the Mass they attended in Las Delicias, three volunteers – Awalt, Kane and Erin Carr – were asked to be godparents to the Salvadoran children being baptized. 

“The students truly progressed over the two weeks,” Associate Director of Campus Ministry Nancy Lee – who also went on the trip said. “We spent the first week getting to know each other, immersing ourselves in the El Salvadoran culture and forming meaningful relations with the people. During the second week, our group explored and questioned the structural injustices that perpetuate poverty.” 

Both Awalt and Kane stressed the lasting impact of the interactions they had with the Salvadoran people. The genuine love and humility shown to the Villanova volunteers by the Salvadoran people, as well as the importance placed on the family unit, were lessons the entire group brought home with them. 

“The group we worked with was Project FIAT – Faith in Action Together – and that’s what we truly did through this experience, not only with the people in our group, but with all the people we were working with,” Kane said. 

“Deep seeds were planted on this experience and I hope that with the support of each other, each volunteer can continue to nurture the seeds of justice, faith and service,” Lee said.