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SSW Students Deliver Water System to Help Pupils in El Salvador

Traveling in El Salvador from Jan. 2-13, a group of students led by two members of the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Social Work (SSW) gained insights from residents whose stories embody Salvadorans' resilience in the face of adversity as a result of a long civil war.

The 12 students are enrolled in an elective course, International Social Work (SOWK 705), started in 2010 and offered by the School twice since then. In preparation for the intensive 11-day trip, students attended four classes in fall 2013 taught by Ali-Sha Alleman, MSW, assistant director of the SSW Social Work Community Outreach Service, and by Amy Cohen-Callow, PhD, MSSW, clinical assistant professor, who together oversaw the itinerary in the Central American nation.

Coursework continues during the spring 2014 semester with presentations from experts on topics such as empowerment and community organizing, work with immigrants, undocumented residents, international social work, and the links with the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area.

Participating students, who completed journals and collectively took more than 1,000 photographs, are Jamie Frost, Colleen Gormanly, Marjorie Hatch, Shawnisha Hester, Michele Levy, Svetlana McLaughlin, Adriana Rodriguez, Jenny Rosen, Alicia Secada-Lovio, Meredith Slater, Cecily Staples, and Kim Woodard.

The course is designed to familiarize students with social work as it relates to human rights, social services, community development, and activism in El Salvador and to give context to work with immigrant populations of Salvadorans in the United States. Further, it is offered in keeping with the University's 2011-2016 Strategic Plan to develop local and global initiatives that address critical issues.

After arriving in the capital, San Salvador, the SSW group met with organizations and individuals who serve that country's most disadvantaged residents and with people involved in a generation-long rebuilding process following the Salvadoran civil war (1979--1992).

"Past students of this course felt strongly that we should give something back to this country which is so graciously hosting us," explains Cohen-Callow, one of the two instructors. During a previous class, Katie Januario, SSW '12, raised funds and brought a community water system that filters five gallons of water a minute helping an entire community access clean water. "We decided to continue the tradition and incorporate it into the [2014] course," says Cohen-Callow.

In multiple fundraising efforts last fall, including one held at Restaurante Santa Ana, a Salvadoran restaurant in Baltimore, the students raised $1,520 toward the cost of two water purification systems. The equipment was installed during the trip at an elementary school in a poor, gang-afflicted area in San Salvador. The entire country is challenged to acquire potable water, given that toxic waste from mining and other factors have tainted all but 3 percent of the nation's water, according to the instructors.

Maria Cecilia Romero, the principal of the elementary school in the Parish of Maria Madre del Los Pobres, expressed her appreciation to the students and to those in Baltimore who contributed. She is pictured, above, with students McLaughlin, left, and Secada-Lovio, center.

The SSW group also met with community activists seeking to curtail pollution from mining and hiked on forested hillsides where combatants once fought and refugees were in hiding. Students and faculty spoke with members of the Monsenor Romero Community in Tonacatepeque who have been struggling over land rights since 2008 and continue to press for the right to electricity and running water.

The group engaged with a host organization, Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), a nonprofit that employs an artisan-based strategy. "Women, ex-combatants, returned refugees, single mothers, and marginalized communities -- these are the Salvadoran artists with whom CIS works. These artisans have formed workshops and cooperatives founded on the principles of fair wages, communal ownership, humane working conditions, and democratic participation," CIS states.

In a visit to Comasagua, students and faculty members literally got hands-on experience at a women's cooperative. Each person created a fabric square using the deep blue dye of indigo, or anil, which is a traditional crop in El Salvador. Students learned how CIS provided seed money and administrative training to help the women make and sell goods. The group also met with other residents of this poverty-stricken community, which despite all odds, has a flourishing micro-business and has sent several students to a university in Sal Salvador.

The group visited the government-owned Isla Tasajera, a small island where a women-run micro-enterprise makes and sells purses.

The SSW itinerary was devised from a social service perspective to provide examples of the diversity and richness of Salvadoran history, culture, geography, social systems, and political and economic structures.

"As social workers we are called to expand our worldview as often as we can," says Gormanly, who is a foundation-year student at the School. "The International Social Work class to El Salvador enabled us to experience history and U.S. foreign policy effects from a different perspective, a perspective we would rarely hear about in the United States. We saw communities working together to create opportunities for themselves and their children, despite their lack of resources. Most importantly, we learned that by hearing others' experiences and sharing our stories with each other, both sides feel reinvigorated and gain strength to continue the struggle for justice and opportunity."

Posting Date: 02/07/2014
Contact Name: Patricia Fanning
Contact Phone: 410-706-7946
Contact Email: pfanning@umaryland.edu