© 2012; 2007 Connecting: Solo Travel Network & Julie Thompson. Information
Note: This article is reproduced here for inspirational value alone and will not normally be updated.
Therefore, all facts, figures, and author's opinions are subject to change as time goes on.

Timeout for Play in El Salvador – A Solo Travel Report

By Julie Thompson

Travel guidebooks describe El Salvador's beautiful beaches, dramatic scenery, and friendly people, which is no doubt true, Working children take timeout for play with volunteers at Angeles Descalzos,(Barefoot Children), El Salvadorbut El Salvador is also marred by poverty and suffering – the aftermath of a decade of civil war. Although hostilities formally ended in 1992, thousands have been left physically or emotionally scarred.

Child labor is prevalent as many young children need to work to survive. Education is expensive, and poverty-stricken families cannot afford to send their children to school. Children as young as eight risk injury working up to eight hours a day cutting sugarcane with huge machetes. Others labor in sweatshops making garments for "western" countries. Young girls risk physical and sexual abuse working in the domestic sector. Four and five-year-olds peddling goods and services jostle with street or marketplace traffic.

Communities in Need

Local, community-spirited individuals and groups come forward with ideas to help these children, but they in turn need assistance from outside sources. That's where the Global Volunteer Network (GVN) steps in. Based in Wellington, New Zealand, GVN is a private, non-government organization (NGO) that connects communities in need with international volunteers.

GVN has several programs in El Salvador, including teaching English to children who work in the marketplace or collect rubbish at landfills for recycling. There are also community maintenance programs needing workers, and a program that provides helpers at orphanages.

All are desperate for assistance, and my way of helping is to spread the word by interviewing and writing about the experiences of GVN volunteers who donate their time and skills on many projects worldwide.

Barefoot Angels

Lauren McElroy of Walla Walla Washington visited El Salvador to see firsthand how these people live. She volunteered for Angeles Descalzos (Barefoot Angels), a program that provides kids who work in the marketplace a chance to learn and play while giving them a break from their usual workday routine.

I interviewed Lauren after her five-week volunteering experience and began by asking her what had brought her to El Salvador.

"One of my friends had gone to El Salvador the year before, and she told me what an amazing experience she'd had," said Lauren.

"I was just getting back into Spanish, so I knew that I could actually be able to talk to the kids, and I felt like that would make more of a difference."

During morning and afternoon sessions Lauren taught some English, which is always useful for expanding educational and job opportunities, and she helped get the children involved in drama play so they could have some fun with creativity.

Thanks to the support of volunteers like Lauren, the Angeles Descalzos program, which receives very little government funding, is free for the marketplace children, and they can come whenever they have time.

Host Families

Staying with a local family gave Lauren a firsthand look at one family's struggle toward a better life in El Salvador. The dad had been injured during the civil war and two of four daughters are disabled.

"The whole story of my host family was so inspirational," said Lauren. "It was amazing to hear about his experiences fighting in the war, being injured then recovering and trying to get back into the workforce."

Thanks to the extra income provided by volunteers, Lauren's host family can afford to send two of their girls to school, and one has also recently been able to attend University.

While any language barriers were quickly overcome, Lauren said she found it more challenging to accept that things aren't going to change overnight. As she said, "You have to just let that be, and do what you can while you are there."

There is no doubt that volunteering can be a life-altering experience. Lauren said her face-to-face encounters and personal relationships with real people in real situations has given her an "incredibly different perspective" on poverty and child labor issues. Now, she sees more than "just some faceless kid trying to sell you something." She sees with "more understanding, compassion, and respect for their lives."

If You Go

>> JT

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