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U.S. Students Work for Salvadoran Students

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Moved by what she saw firsthand in El Salvador, Katie Murphy encouraged students in the planning and implementation of a service project that would raise funds for a poor school in rural El Salvador. The experience is discussed, along with lingering questions over the fund-raising project.

Katie Murphy visited El Salvador in the summer of 1999 as part of the Frontiers of Justice project, a learning opportunity for Catholic high school teachers cosponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the National Catholic Educational Association's Secondary Division. Her experiences there led to much reflection and to a service project that engaged her own students in helping students at a poor parish school in rural El Salvador.

The children at the school--Jose Angel Lopez Elementary School--were beautiful, with bright eyes and contagious smiles. But they worked from crude benches rather than desks. The teacher had only one learning aid--the blackboard. They had no textbooks and no library. By the time I left, the children's eyes haunted me. I realized that the lack of resources was cheating them of an education, and that ignorance would imprison them in a perpetual state of poverty. This school was typical of many in the mountainous regions of El Salvador.

I was struck by how just a little money could brighten the future of the students of that school. We get so wrapped up in raising money for homecoming or whatever; yet with so little we could make a big difference for these Salvadoran children. We ourselves are an economically challenged high school in Washington, D.C., but we knew we had so much more than the poor Salvadoran schools.

So this fall we did a fund-raiser for what has become our sister school. We auctioned pictures drawn by the students of the Salvadoran school, and we collected donations. The funds went to buy textbooks and other necessities for the school.

We also looked for a way to raise a good sum of money in a short time. Students from the Christian Service Club and social-justice class volunteered to spend a Saturday together working for wages at King's Dominion, an amusement park about two hours away in Virginia. Like a number of amusement parks and stadiums across the country, King's Dominion has a fund-raising mechanism for schools and church groups. Volunteers work an eight-hour shift at a game booth or concession stand, are paid the regular hourly rate, and donate the wages to a cause of their group's choice. At King's Dominion, the charity is given an extra fifteen dollars for each volunteer, and the volunteers receive free tickets to return to the park. In our case, we had twenty-five volunteers who raised $1,500 in one day. Two-thirds of that went to buy necessities for the Salvadoran school; one-third was donated to a homeless feeding program in Washington, D.C., which our students run after school.

We framed the day with prayer--praying before we left for the park, viewing photos of the Salvadoran school children just before entering the park, and praying as we returned home in the van. So the students were very conscious of what their day of work was about.

It was a successful project, in many ways. But I have to admit to some mixed feelings about it. I wonder if in some ways we were buying into the American materialism represented by the amusement park. Were we setting before our students a model of glamour and money that opposes the Gospel message? As a Catholic educator, I had to ask: Did this activity leave my students with the presence of Christ or a thirst for materialism? Was El Salvador lost in the glitter of the fast rides? To be honest, the excitement of the park seemed to override the initial charitable intent.
So I wonder, What was the real effect of the project on my students? Nevertheless, the bottom line is that people need money, and our Salvadoran friends were able to benefit from the money we made that day. But the "soul questions" remain, and I'm still ambivalent. It raises issues about how all that we do, even for good, is part of a wider picture that we must also critique from the perspective of Gospel values.

Katie Murphy teaches social-justice religion courses at Archbishop Carroll High School, Washington, D.C., and she coordinates the school's Christian service program.


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Published April 1, 2000.