The Happiness Project

“In some ways life is a happiness project. This project is full of paradoxes. For example, it may seem like it is about you, but it’s actually more about what you can do for other people. It turns out that bringing happiness to others increases your chances of being happy, while seeking happiness for yourself decreases those chances.” – The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity

I just recently had the opportunity to spend a week in El Salvador on my second mission trip to the country. Before my first trip to El Salvador I thought of it as a work project. I assumed we’d do nothing but build and work on labor-type projects. How mistaken I was. What we were really working on was a happiness project. Our mission was to share happiness and joy with the people there. We would be doing so not justg by serving them and building houses with them, but by being with them. The happiness we could share with them by talking with them, listening to them, eating with them, and playing with them would make more of a difference to them than simply digging trenches or mixing cement.

I, along with the rest of my group (Beth, Ann, Jim, Tony, Katie, Emily, Abby, Emily, Sam, Meagan, Allison, Bill, Anne, Joan, Jake, Ellen, Grace, Gloria, Rodrigo, Luis, David, Mason, Chrissy, Patti, and Andy) spent January 5-13, 2019, on a happiness project. And while I’d say were successful in our mission, the people of El Salvador were on a happiness project of their own.

Let me tell you about it.

Saturday, January 5

My alarm goes off at 3:00am. No need, though. I’m already awake, eagerly finishing my packing. It’s finally here! I’m finally going back! Those are the thoughts racing through my mind, giving me an uncanny amount of energy for as early as it was. After a year of waiting, I was so close to being back in El Salvador. I just wanted to skip through the flights and the waiting and just be there.

The only thing that got me through the waiting was the group I was going with. I was particularly excited about this group because over half of it was involved in the youth group. Fellow core members (Beth, Katie, and Tony) and teens (Mason, Luis, Sam, Meagan, Allison, Emily B, Emily H, Abby, Chrissy, Jake, Ellen, Grace, and Gloria) would all be joining me on this adventure. I was so excited to be able to share in the experience with each of them.

We all met up in the airport and it was evident right away that this was going to be a special trip. We were definitely that group in the airport that had waaaay too much energy that early in the morning. But we didn’t care. We just fed off each other’s excitement and enthusiasm. I just remember being in a state of pure anticipation – knowing generally what to expect since I had been the year before but also understanding that I was going to have a completely different experience.

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Way too happy for 5:00 in the morning

After a couple hours of waiting in the airport it was finally time to start boarding. For all the anticipation I had this was really the first true indicator that the trip was actually happening. Once I was on that plane there was no going back. That was perfectly fine by me.

After a brief stop in Houston we were now a mere few hours away. Memories from last year’s trip came flooding in. I thought of the sights I’d get to see again, the people I’d get to reconnect with, the work I’d get to do. Next thing I know, I’m looking out the window to the sight of a volcano. I was back.

We made it through customs as quickly as we could to pick up our luggage. That was more of an ordeal than you might imagine, as we each brought an extra suitcase filled with supplies we’d be donating. Between the 15 of us on the first flight we probably had close to 30 suitcases all together. We hauled every bit 0f our luggage outside to see this…

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The first thing we see outside the airport…palm trees!

We left the cold, barren winter of St. Louis for palm trees. It doesn’t get much better than that. The sight of those palm trees made everything feel so familiar. For only having been in the country of El Salvador for a collective total of 7 days I truly felt like I was back home.

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Waiting for our ride!

After about 15 to 20 minutes of waiting a bus pulls over in front of us to reveal the face of someone I couldn’t wait to see: Lynette. Lynette would be our guide for the week, the person responsible for our entire trip and the one who would teach us so much about this wonderful country. After meeting Lynette last year I’m convinced she should be a saint. The sacrifices she makes for the people of El Salvador and her dedication to them is truly remarkable and inspiring. I was excited for everyone in our group to meet her.

We loaded everything into the bus and began our hour long journey to the capital city of San Salvador where we’d be staying for the week. It was hilarious to see everyone’s reaction to the traffic. Needless to say, it’s not exactly like ours here in the states. Cars are zooming in and out of lanes, literally getting within inches of each other. People walk across the street without a care in the world. I don’t think I saw a single speed limit the entire time there. I remember last year being so taken aback by the traffic and being genuinely afraid. But by the end of the week I was totally comfortable and had no doubts that we’d be safe. Being back in that traffic just made me happy.

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Laughing about how terrifying the traffic is

As we were driving Lynette formally introduced herself and began pointing things out as we drove past them. She pointed out the trucks carrying sugarcane, the beautiful mountains, and the cows on the side of the road. She also pointed out the military officers carrying guns in the beds of pickup trucks, houses with tin roofs, and memorials to the recent civil war. While El Salvador is a truly beautiful country there were reasons they needed our help.

As we got closer to the city I began to see familiar landmarks that indicated we were close to our home for the week. We pulled up to a closed gate, the bus driver honked his horn, and a man walked down to let us in. An overwhelming sense of peace came over me as we pulled in and I got off the bus.

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Home sweet home

We unloaded our bags and stepped into the volunteer house. I took a look around and smiled. I don’t think that left smile left my face all week. I claimed my spot in the guys bunk room and walked around the house reminiscing about how this place sparked a change in my life just a year ago. We dumped all of the snacks we brought onto a table and made ourselves a quick lunch. We had a very important item on our agenda: Super Selectos.

Super Selectos is the primary grocery store chain in El Salvador. There’s really nothing special about Super Selectos but it holds a very special place in my heart because it’s where I discovered Quesitos (like Cheetos but better). Once everyone was settled in we got the gang together and ,along with two of our guides for the week (Hiromi and Carla), made the trek to the store around the corner. I made a beeline for the Quesitos and put three bags in my basket. It wasn’t until we got back to the house that I realized that I got the picantes (aka spicy) kind instead of the original. Oops.

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QUESITOS!

We got back to the house and started hitting the volleyball around as we waited for the second half of our group to arrive. That was one of those moments that may not have seemed like much of an occurrence but something that I think really helped set the tone for the week. While I knew a decent number of the people in the group there were people I hadn’t met or didn’t know very well. As we hit the ball around we joked and laughed and simply had fun with one another. On a trip like this it’s so important to have fun and be comfortable with one another. Being able to smile and laugh with each person makes it that much easier to be open with them and allow yourself to be vulnerable. As I noticed earlier in the airport, I could tell that this was a special group.

 

As we were playing we hear a honk outside the gate – the rest of the group was here! With our group now finally all together it was time for dinner.

Most nights the workers at the house cooked and prepared dinner for us. Dinner was always one of the my favorite times of the day because it was true community building time. It was an opportunity for each of us to get to know each other a little better, and what’s more, there were usually guests from El Salvador joining us for dinner each night, giving us a chance to talk with the people we were serving.

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Rice and beans. LOTS of rice and beans.

After dinner we finally had a chance to just rest and relax. At that point we had all been awake for nearly 13 hours and had a very busy, hectic day. Beyond that, we had an exhausting week ahead, meaning we needed to take advantage of any opportunity to slow down. We spent the rest of the night playing games and continuing to get to know each other. Some people played Pit while a couple others played ping pong. Meanwhile I was outside under the moonlight playing a game of Signs with a small group. It was a weird moment where I was finally where I wanted to be after waiting for so long, yet with seemingly no time passing at all. I went to bed that night with that same smile on my face that I had when I arrived at the house. I was back.

Sunday, January 6

Despite not starting work until the next day we still had a busy day ahead. We started out with a beautiful mass at a church close to our house. Although I had been in this same church last year I was still blown away by the sheer beauty of it. Since I didn’t know the language in which the mass was being said that just allowed me to really focus on the aesthetics of the church. At one point during the mass something caught my attention. It was the music. It sounded so familiar even thought I didn’t know the words. I was trying to place where I knew that tune when it dawned on me – it was White Christmas. I wasn’t the only one to make the connection, as we all began looking at one another and laughing. Other than that my favorite part of the mass was during the sign of peace when I noticed several children running up to the priest to give him a hug. How awesome is that, I thought. That’s not something you typically see at our masses. There was just something about the mass that felt so pure and heartfelt. You could feel the faith of the people. Sadly it often feels like people at home simply go through the motions while at mass (I’m as guilty of that as anyone). What a great way to start the day.

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Sunday Mass

After mass we had a couple other churches on our must-see list. Our first stop would be the cathedral, which has a huge place in the lives of many Salvadoran people. It’s where the funeral mass for Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero!) was held on the doorsteps. Thousands upon thousands of people attended this mass, putting World Series victory parades to shame. It’s also where the government placed snipers on top of nearby buildings and ordered them to lay fire upon that same crowd, causing the people to run for their lives. People ran into the cathedral and stayed inside for hours, afraid of leaving for fear of being killed. It was eerie to stand in that same plaza where people desperately fled. But it also gave me perspective for how important that cathedral was in the history of the country.

We went into the basement of the cathedral where we visited the crypt of Saint Romero. Even nearly 40 decades after his assassination there were still dozens of Salvadoran people there to pay homage to him. He was a saint for these people long before he was canonized by the church and that was evident in each individual I witnessed praying over his crypt.

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The Cathedral (plus Gloria and Emily)

The next church we visited, Iglesia del Rosario, didn’t look like much from the outside, but my goodness does it take your breath away from the inside. I’ve never set foot in a church with such a design and tiered stained glass. In the back of the church are two distinct sections. One is covered in bright, light colored stained glass. There is where daily mass is held. The other side is much more somber, with dark blue stained glass overhead. This is where they have confessions and where the stations of the cross are located. The stations at this church are now my favorite I’ve ever seen. The simplicity of them make them so beautiful and powerful, especially given that they are made of steel and stone. Simple, yet strong. Just like the Salvadoran people.

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La Iglesia del Rosario
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Jesus carries His cross

After visiting these churches it was time for our next adventure: the market. And boy, is it an adventure. The market is all about haggling prices with the vendors. It’s a sport of sorts. A sport that I’m very terrible at, might I add. We were told before we went to cut the initial price in half and find somewhere in the middle. We were also told to not be afraid to walk away. I thought I had learned my lesson from last year. I thought I’d do a better job. In fact, I told myself to make it past a few stands before I even attempted to buy something. Yeah, right. I got sucked in by the first vendor I walked by and was buying a coffee mug within 5 minutes of being there. Before I knew it I had bought about 6 different things: the mug, a soccer jersey, an El Salvador flag, letters to spell out YMCA, shoes for my niece, and an “I love pupusas” shirt (much more on pupusas later). Although I failed in my mission to be more selective and strategic about my purchases I still had an absolute blast at the market. It’s an overwhelming environment with hundreds of different nick-nacs in all sorts of shapes and colors. While I was terrible at haggling it was fun to watch people in my group be total naturals at it.

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El mercado

An hour (and way too much money spent) later we went back to the volunteer house for a quick lunch. Our next stop of the day would be one of the more moving experiences of my trip. We went to a small orphanage about an hour away from the city. When we went last year I spent most of the time playing soccer with the kids. Although I had enjoyed the experience I didn’t feel I had enough time with the kids to really form a connection, especially since I was hesitant to converse with them due to my lack of Spanish knowledge. This year I went into it with a little more conviction.

When we got there the kids were a little bashful at first. We stationed ourselves around the orphanage, each of us with different toys and things to do. We brought legos, blocks, coloring pages, soccer balls, basketballs, etc. A few kids waded in, getting a feel for who these strangers were. Once they knew we were friendly they embraced us. Before long, we were all having the time of our lives. There was one girl taking a group of four or five of the volunteers through a game of hide and seek. There were a handful of kids playing jump rope. One little boy took me by the hand to show me all the cats, dogs, turkeys, and chickens they had there. Another girl, Brenna, had more sass than anyone I’ve ever met. To see what I’m talking about just watch this video:

 

Everywhere you looked there were members of our group playing and laughing with the kids. What an incredible thing to witness. There was another little boy that had the most pure joy I’ve ever seen in a person. Probably no older than 5 years old, he spent a majority of his time with us playing keep away where our objective was to make sure Beth didn’t get the ball. His laugh was so unbelievably contagious. He was in absolute bliss playing with us. So much so that he peed his pants. No joke. We initially felt so bad for him. He must feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, we thought. Not even close. It didn’t even phase him. After we got back to the house Beth made the comment that he was probably just so happy that he didn’t want to miss a moment of it. Imagine living your life with so much happiness and appreciation for the moment that you don’t even notice peeing yourself.

 

While overall this was a joyous, laughter filled experience there were a couple instances that left me a little heartbroken. The first was when I found a fork lying on the ground. Not only that, but the fork was very close to the animal cages. It dawned on me that one of those kids was probably going to use that fork for their next meal without so much as rinsing it off. If kids in orphanages or day cares here in the states were eating with utensils in the dirt they would be shut down immediately. But that’s just reality these kids live in. The other instance was when we were playing basketball with Brenna where we were shooting the ball into a trash can. While that in and of itself can make your stomach turn, what got to me was when she proceeded to show me the poop on the ball. She tried to hand me the ball and I initially hesitated, because who wants to touch a ball with poop on it. Brenna, on the other hand, didn’t have a care in the world. She proceeded to bounce the ball around, totally unconcerned if her hands were then covered in poop. It was in that moment that I was reminded of what we were told before we came. We were there to be in solidarity with the people, to do things as they do. Not just in how they work or eat but in everything they do. That meant I was going to have to play basketball with that ball, regardless of what was on it.

That particular instance also opened my eyes to a couple things. These kids are happy to have 1) things to play with and, more importantly, 2) people to play with. We could have brought them the newest, best soccer ball there is and they would be totally content with the lumpy, old, disgusting ball they already have. How often do we feel like we need the newest *fill in the blank.* We have to have the newest iPhone, a new car, better clothes, and so on. Also, how often do we take the people in our lives for granted? How often do we take time to appreciate those people? I honestly don’t know how often these kids have visitors. But what I do know is that they love every person that comes to see them. They’re just happy to have people to play with and spend time with. I desire to live my life like those kids – appreciative for what I have and always living in the moment.

We departed from the orphanage, waving goodbye to the kids as we drove off. After such a heart-filling experience we were all overflowing with enthusiasm and positive energy on the bus. Thus begun our week-long obsession with Zume Zume. In a nutshell, Zume Zume is a game where each person has a number. You say your number twice and someone else’s number twice. The person with those numbers then says their number and someone else’s, and so on. The objective of the game is to keep it going for as long as possible (it’s way more fun than it sounds, I promise). We had SO much fun playing this game all week long. Over the course of the week the game shifted from numbers to names. See for yourself:

 

As I mentioned earlier, it makes a huge difference when you truly connect and bond with the people you’re serving with. One of the best parts of the trip was feeling the love and community within this group. We all genuinely enjoyed being with one another, which is especially important when just about every bus ride we took was an hour long.

After the orphanage we made one more stop at Super Selectos (because of course) and made it back to the volunteer house for dinner. That night we had a special guest speaker by the name of Gene Palumbo. Gene is a journalist from the United States who has been living in El Salvador since 1980. He interviewed Saint Romero before he was killed and covered the civil war that took place during the 1980s. He shared with us some background on Romero and the war, giving us insight into where the people Of El Salvador were coming from. Even having been twice now I still can’t fathom what the people went through during the war.

After dinner we spent the rest of the evening preparing for the next day, which would be our first day of work. We signed up for different work sites and projects, eager to finally get to work. For not having started actual work yet I was beat. It had been a long and busy couple days with lots still ahead. With that being the case I was out cold in my bed by 9:00 that night.

Monday, January 7

Despite having my alarm set for 7:00am I was up and out of bed half an hour early. I was just too excited to get the day started. Every morning started with a cup of coffee, a bowl of cereal, and some fruit. Breakfast time, much like dinner, was a great way to get to know the members of my group. It didn’t take too long to figure out who were the early risers and who liked to sleep until the last minute.

After you finished breakfast you’d make your lunch and head outside to put on your sunscreen and bug spray. Once everyone was ready we’d get in a circle and read a brief reflection to get everyone in the mindset of service.

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Getting ready for the first day of work!

We were on our way to a tiny little village called Las Delicias. This is the same village where I worked last year and I was so eager to get back. I was curious to see how much progress had been made since I was there and I was excited to see the community center where the kids were. Today, however, I’d be working at a new worksite. Starting that day was a project to dig a mile-long trench to put in a water pipe to help distribute water throughout the village.

Before going to the water pipe site we first stopped in the village to drop off members of the group that would be working there for the day and pick up tools for our site. That gave me a little bit of time to walk around and drink it all in. The two houses we had been working on last year were now finished with two new houses now in progress. I was eager to see how much more progress we’d make this week.

The water pipe group hopped into the van and, along with our shovels and pick axes, drove off to our site. When we arrived there were already locals members of the village working on the trench from the start. As we drove past them they’d stop their work and give us a friendly wave and an “Hola.” We went about a quarter mile before we stopped and found our spot for the day. The ground we’d be digging was untouched and rough. We broke up into pairs, with one person using the pick axe to loosen up the dirt and the other using the shovel to dig it up.

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Digging the trench for the water pipe

About half an hour in and it felt like we barely made any progress. We were lucky to have a little bit of shade but it was still incredibly hot, especially considering where we were coming from. We all took intermittent breaks to give ourselves a chance to catch our breaths. Meanwhile, the local Salvadoran people just kept cruising along without stopping. We had barely scratched the surface of the dirt while they were just about to their knees. They didn’t have water, hats covering their faces, or gloves to prevent blisters like we did. And yet there they were, trudging along. Talk about motivating.

The further down we dug the more rocks we ran into. We were able to wedge out and dig up most of these rocks. One, however, proved to be quite a challenge. More of a boulder than a rock, we tried to get underneath it in an attempt to pry it out. No luck. One of the local leaders of this project, Luis, came over with a sledgehammer and literally began breaking up the boulder.

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Luis breaking up the boulder with a sledgehammer

That helped a little bit, as we were able to dig out some of the smaller pieces. The boulder proved to be too large. But that was one of the coolest moments of the day. We weren’t just a group of outsiders working in their own little section next to the locals. We were working with them. Luis saw we were struggling and he came over to help us. And to think, we were supposed to be there to help them.

After a few hours of hard, grueling work it was now time to head back to the community center for lunch. We loaded up in the van, waving adios to the people as we drove past. When we arrived at the community center we could see the kids eagerly awaiting our arrival. We said hola to them as we walked in and found our seats at the table to eat lunch.

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Lunch at the community center

I finished my lunch as quickly as I could so I could play with the kids. I headed outside and joined a group of people kicking a soccer ball around. My Spanish is admittedly terrible, with two of the only phrases I know being “Como se llama” (what’s your name) and “Quanto anos tienes” (how old are you)? The kids probably thought it was pretty funny that this group of outsiders only knew how to say two things. It didn’t matter, though. We were all part of the same community in that moment, regardless of the language barrier. We all simply enjoyed each other’s company as we passed the soccer ball around, from an American to a Salvadoran.

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Fútbol with the kids

We spent about an hour at the community center playing and spending time with the kids. We had more work to do, though. This afternoon we’d all be going to the village to work. There was only one thing I wanted to do when I got there: cut the grass. As I mentioned earlier, though, we work the way the people there do. That means we use the tools they do. The people in this village don’t have lawnmowers or power tools. What they use for cutting grass is a machete. That was the first kind of work I did last year and I had so much fun doing it.

When we got to the site we all split up and started working on different things. It was so incredible to look around the work site and see people doing so many different things, putting their heart and sweat into it. There were people playing with the kids at the village, while others were digging and excavating for one of the new houses. Others were mixing mortar to make the bricks while others were actually laying the bricks. I was busy cutting grass with a machete along with a few other people. We were exhausted from a tough morning of work and running around with the kids, but everyone working had one thing in common. We were all smiling.

After a couple more hours at the work site we began our trek back home. We didn’t have anything else planned when we got home, which was completely fine by me. I was exhausted after the first day of work and was completely covered in dirt, sweat, bug spray, and sunscreen. One thing you should know about our showers – we didn’t have hot water. I wouldn’t consider it cold but it’s definitely not what we’re used to at home. The first couple days the water was a bit of a shock to my system, causing me to feel like I was short of breath. But after being out in the hot sun all day? A cold shower sounded amazing.

We all have a couple hours to clean up and decompress before dinner. Dinner that night consisted of grilled chicken and, you guessed it, rice and beans. During dinner Lynette told us that throughout the week we’d have a nightly reflection and that we’d need to split into four groups, with each one being responsible for organizing a night of reflection. I volunteered to be in the group to lead reflection that night. Reflection time last year was one of my favorite parts of the trip because it was a special community building tool and allowed us time to really appreciate where we were. Our group got together and started brainstorming ideas for how we wanted to run this particular reflection. One of our members, Jim, shared the quote at the very beginning of this post. I immediately loved it. To save you the trouble of scrolling all the way back up, here it is:

“In some ways life is a happiness project. This project is full of paradoxes. For example, it may seem like it is about you, but it’s actually more about what you can do for other people. It turns out that bringing happiness to others increases your chances of being happy, while seeking happiness for yourself decreases those chances.”

I thought it was totally appropriate because in many ways this mission trip we were on was a project. It just wasn’t the kind of project you might typically think of. Before I ever went on this trip I thought of it in terms of labor projects – house building projects, water pipe projects, digging projects, etc. I assumed the trip would revolve around completing these projects – we were there simply to work. After my first trip I realized how wrong I was. We were there for so much more. We were there on a happiness project with our mission being to help spread happiness to the people.

We centered our reflection around that quote, asking people how they sought happiness at home, how they saw happiness in the people of El Salvador, and what we can do as missionaries to share happiness with them. It was incredible to hear everyone’s testimonies about happiness, particularly as it pertained to the people we were serving. There was one comment someone made that really got me thinking. The houses we build for these people won’t last forever. Eventually they’ll erode, crumble, and fall apart. The grass we cut will eventually grow back. But the joy and love we share with them will last them a lifetime. The memories that we create with them can help sustain them through the struggles of life. Our mission while we were there wasn’t just to dig trenches and mix mortar. Our greater purpose was to help the Salvadoran people feel loved, valued, and known. If there’s one thing I could already tell at that point it was that the people of El Salvador had a happiness project of their own, as they made each of us missionaries feel so loved and happy.

Tuesday, January 8

Now into my fourth day of the trip I found myself starting to develop a routine: wake up, eat a bowl of cereal, drink a cup of coffee, clean my dishes, get dressed, make my lunch, put on my sunscreen and bug spray, and wait for morning reflection. That routine gave me a level of comfort that really made me feel at home. I walked around the volunteer house as if I had lived there for years.

A full day of work under our collective belt didn’t affect our energy level or excitement. In fact, it only gave us more enthusiasm. We were ready to get back to work. But first, another hour long bus ride. The rides were truly one of the best parts of the trip because they were filled with singing, laughter, and games. This particular bus ride included a true turning point. The youngest member of our group, at only 11 years old, has an incredible spirit and imagination. One of her favorite things to do was write random notes, words, and phrases on little pieces of paper and give them to people on the bus. She passed me a little piece of paper that had one word on it: mangoes. For whatever reason I thought it was hilarious and decided to make it a catchphrase. As a group we decided it should mean something along the lines of cool or awesome. For example, “This trip is totally mangoes!” For as silly as it sounds this little joke brought me so much laughter and happiness. It was an indication of the joyous spirit our group had and I loved it.

I get to the village with a big smile on my face and an eagerness to get to work. Today I’d be excavating, meaning I was going to be digging the perimeter of the next house. This was one of my favorite things of last year’s trip because it meant I got to get down and dirty. However, the best part of working at this site wasn’t a job but a person: Don Miguel. Don Miguel is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Don Miguel is the foreman at the worksite and is the person telling us what to do each day. I’ve never known someone with such a care-free attitude and such a passion for life. Don Miguel has lived a wild life, going from the seminary studying under Saint Romero, to living in the mountains for three years, working as a strategist during the civil war. He somehow ended up in this little village. I’m beyond thankful he did. If he noticed you were doing something wrong he’d simply say “Un momemto” and show you the correct way to do it. The best thing about Don Miguel is that he’d walk around the work site and just begin singing for us. We had no idea what he was singing about but it was absolutely beautiful. It was one of those things where you immediately stop what you’re doing and just take it all in.

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Don Miguel helping Katie

With the continuous encouragement, guidance, and support of Don Miguel we all went to work. It’s hard to estimate how many reps I had with the shovel but it was definitely up there. Sadly we didn’t come across too many rocks, which meant I didn’t need to get too far down in the dirt. No matter. I was just enjoying working alongside friends, both new and old.

We headed back to the community center for lunch and, I’ll tell you what, the sight of the kids anxiously waiting for our arrival will never get old. I again eat my lunch as quickly as I can before I head outside to see Gloria playing soccer with a few of the Salvadoran people. She introduced me to one of the people, a 23 year old man named Wilbur. The first thing I noticed about Wilbur was that he was wearing crocs and that caused my heart to sink a little bit (that’s not a dig at crocs, I promise). It was one thing to see kids without nice clothes or shoes. Call it wishful thinking or an attempt to make myself feel better, but I at least had a hope that they’d find something better later in life. Meeting a man that was just about the same age as me and seeing the conditions he lived in made me sad. Knowing that those pair of crocs were likely his only pair of shoes made me sad. Seeing him wear the same Mbappe jersey three days in a row made me sad.

What made me happy was seeing a soccer ball on Wilbur’s foot. Crocs or not, he had some of the best soccer skills I’ve seen. He and I passed the ball back and forth and even worked on some corner kicks before more people joined us. Before I knew it we were picking teams and getting ready to play a game. During the game Wilbur continued to amaze me, dribbling past us and making most of us look silly. Back home we go through soccer clinics, tryouts, practices, games, season after season, to improve our skills. All the people there need is a ball and an open field. Playing alongside the people, seeing their passion and skill, had me in pure heaven.

 

Our work for the day was finished and we made our way to our next destination, which included some of the best scenery of the trip – El Boqueron. El Boqueron is one of the volcanoes in the country and it’s definitely not what you’d expect when you think of a volcano. Most volcanoes you envision include at least a little bit of lava. What you don’t anticipate seeing inside the volcano is so much green.

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El Boqueron

This volcano is just further proof that there is so much more to this country than meets the eye. The more you look at it the more beautiful and amazing it becomes.

We spent a little bit of time taking in the views of the volcano before loading back up into the bus and heading back to the house. It was Taco Tuesday for dinner that night, followed by a birthday celebration for one of the teens, Emily.

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Happy Birthday Emily!

This is yet another example of how incredible our group was. I can’t imagine spending my 17th birthday away from family and friends in a foreign country. But Emily, like everyone else on the trip, values serving those in need more than an elaborate birthday celebration. Talk about sacrifice and selflessness.

That night we had our nightly reflection where we were each encouraged to share our experiences thus far. I was still in awe of the sheer beauty of the volcano we had just visited. I shared with the group how the first thing you may notice when you visit El Salvador is the trash on the side of the road, the poverty, or the tiny houses with tin roofs. However, when you look closer you discover the real El Salvador. The jaw dropping sights, the kind souls, and generous spirit of the people. Oftentimes we see the negatives in others (and even ourselves) first before we see anything else. But when you really take the time to dig deeper you see what makes that person special and worthy of love. The more you look at El Salvador the more you fall in love with it.

At the conclusion of reflection we had another turning point of the trip. A small group of us sang Light the Fire, with the girls echoing the guys. For anyone involved in youth ministry you know it’s a classic. That song would wind up being our unofficial theme song of the trip. More on this song later.

After reflection we watched a documentary on Saint Romero. Having already seen this particular documentary I decided to skip it and instead hang out with the other “vets” who had already seen it. We sat outside, enjoying the cool night. Up to that point we had had a very busy week. This was one of those small moments where I was able to slow things down and remind myself of where I was and what I was doing. I was thankful.

Wednesday, January 9

Today was going to be a bit different. Instead of heading to the worksite we would instead have a “relaxation” day. Every year Lynette gives the group the Wednesday off as a chance to allow our muscles and bodies to heal. It was also an opportunity for us to explore more of the country and take in more of its uniqueness. We had a few stops on our agenda. Our first stop was the memorial for Rutilio Grande in the place where he was killed. Grande, like Romero, was a priest who was revered by the people of El Salvador. Although he often gets overshadowed by Romero, Grande was a voice for the marginalized and oppressed. This didn’t sit well with the government, who ordered that he be killed. He was murdered while driving to his home parish in El Paisnal. That parish was our next destination.

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Roadside memorial for Rutilio Grande

Grande’s parish was a very quaint little church. It wasn’t nearly as big as the cathedral or the church where we went for mass but it had a certain charm about it. When you walked in your eyes were immediately drawn to a painting in the back of the church.

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Painting of Grande, Romero, and Jesus with the people of El Salvador

I love this painting. Grande is on the left and Romero on the right. I love that they’re sitting around the table with the people, sharing a meal together. One of our group members, Jake, pointed out that Jesus and Romero have halos around their heads while Grande just has the light blue. We discovered that Grande is also being considered for sainthood. Maybe someday when I come back to this church Grande will have a halo of his own.

We left the church and walked outside into a stunning little courtyard. It was so peaceful and serene. Seeing everyone wander around the courtyard, enjoying the scenery and community was something I had to capture.

 

We moved on from El Paisnal to Suchitoto, another beautiful little town. Of all the places we’d been so far this was definitely the most touristy. There was a town square centered around, you guessed it, another church. There were food stands, an ice cream place, and shopping stores. We all brought our lunch, so we all spread out around the square in groups and ate our lunches. We gradually made our way down to one particular shop, one that Lynette had highly recommended visiting. When we visited this shop last year Lynette explained to us that the owner was of Mayan descent, drawing inspiration from his culture for the creation of his goods. The biggest draw were the clothes sold that were made with blue indigo dye. Last year we got a little peak into how these clothes came to be. He would dip the shirt into the blue indigo dye, say a little prayer, dip it again, say another prayer, and so on. He did this for every item of clothing that was made. How cool is that? Everything he sold was made intentionally and with passion.

Last year Lynette also told us that the store owner’s wife was very sick, bringing him a lot of pain and stress. That’s what made it so great seeing his wife there at the store, healthy and happy.

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Lynette and the store owner’s wife, giving a tutorial of the blue indigo dye

We finished up our shopping at the little store, with me walking away with a coffee mug with mangoes on it (I had to), a set of coasters, and earrings for my mom (per her request). I get on the bus and look over to see a quite a few members of our group spending time with a little girl. It was a beautiful site to see, witnessing these teens embrace a little girl, and vice versa. That’s one of those things we just don’t see at home.

 

Once everyone was loaded up we went about five minutes down the road to the lake in town. We split into three boats and went on a boat tour on the lake. Not to brag, but my boat had the best guide of the three boats, Nelson. At one point I was trying to take a selfie of our group when he took my phone, took about five pictures of us, and then about 10 more of the other boats.

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Boat ride photo courtesy of Nelson

As we were going along we saw three crosses floating in the water. Our boat, along with the other two, stopped to listen to Nelson tell the story. Nelson explained, through the interpretation of our group member, Luis, that there was a plane crash on that spot of the lake four years ago. There were four people on the plane but only one survived. Someone asked how the one person was saved and we were shocked to find out that it was Nelson himself that saved the man. He said he was on the nearby island when he saw the crash. He got in his boat and pulled the lone survivor out of the plane. He said he then borrowed somebody else’s car (without their knowledge) and drove the man to the hospital, saving his life. The plane was eventually dragged out of the water and put back together on a cliff on the nearby island.

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Nelson telling us about the plane crash

We made our way over to that very same island where we’d get to see the plane. The only problem: we had to climb up a ladder that may as well have been 90 degrees straight up. It didn’t help that Nelson borrowed yet another camera and wanted pictures of the group as we made the climb. That resulted in us stopping on the ladder to turn around and face the camera. I was only a little terrified of falling. We all made it to the top (safely) and took in the scenery. Perched up there on the cliff was the plane we had just learned about, in tatters but reassembled as much as possible. This was a perfect picture taking location, with big rocks all over the place just waiting for us to be perched on top.

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Group photo over the lake

The best part was that Nelson, again with someone’s camera, used us for his own personal photo shoot. We smiled from atop the rocks as Nelson jumped from rock to rock himself, trying to capture as many angles as possible. We were no longer smiling for the camera, we were all genuinely laughing at the situation we were in.

Nelson’s photo shoot took so long that we were late getting back to our bus, causing Lynette to grow concerned and call Nelson on our boat ride back wondering where the heck we were. When we finally made it back to shore I made a point to go up to Nelson and ask him his name (up to that point I had missed what his name was). Nelson was one of my favorite people I met on this trip. The reason was that he had a passion for what he did. As I sat on the boat I wondered how many of these same rides he’d given to tourists. I wondered how many times he’d told the same story of the plane crash. Regardless of what that number was he treated our expedition as if it was his first time. You could tell he was passionate about what he did. That passion is something I’ve long yearned for in my working life. He could have just recited the same lines over and over but instead he engaged with us, wanting our experience to the best possible. He decided to have fun with us by taking dozens of pictures of our group. He truly lived what he loved.

We got into our bus yet again and made the short trip to the local resort and restaurant, one of the main tourist locations in the country. This is where we’d truly get to relax and take time to breathe a bit. Once we got there about half our group jumped in the pool while the rest of us took the opportunity to sit and lounge around. At one point I went out to the bus to fill up my water bottle and when I returned I was surprised by a friendly face: Cesar!

Cesar was one our guides last year that helped make the trip as fun as it was. This year he had moved on to another job but he made sure to see us while we were there. He immediately made his presence felt with the group, with an incredibly engaging and fun-loving personality. While he was only with our group for a short time this year he made an incredible impact, much like many of the Salvadoran people we met.

That was a great night, as we all shared dinner together and I got to catch up with Cesar. We were halfway through the week, which was shocking. Part of me couldn’t believe how quickly the week was flying by, while the rest of me hadn’t felt time move so slowly in a long time. I hadn’t been so present in conversations or moments for months, if not years. I wanted to capture every little moment and take it home with me. I was excited to have another half a week left. I was also sad to only have half a week left.

Thursday, January 10

Back to work. Today I’d be returning to the trenches, ready to do some more digging. When were returned to the site of the trench I was taken aback by just how much progress had been made. And let me be clear: very little of that progress was made by us. As we enjoyed our day off the people of the village continued working. While this worksite was just a mere stop along the way of our trip, this trench affected the livelihood of these people. In just a matter of days these people (along with an ounce of help from us) had made it almost 3/4 of the way to their goal of a one mile trench. This realization, along with a full day’s rest, had me even more eager to get digging. I started out with a pick axe, ready to start hacking away. Only one problem: my pick axe was loose, with the pick sliding down the shaft.

I showed Rodrigo what I was working with and he told one of the project leaders, Nora, who then began walking the opposite way. Within a few minutes she returned with a man wielding a machete. Unsure of what the game plan was I just stood back and observed. The man with the machete proceeded to chop down a large branch from a nearby tree. Once he had the branch he then laid it down over a rock and began whittling it down to form a wedge to place in the top of my pick axe. Once he had the wedge the right size he left the rest to Edgar, our bus driver. Edgar began slamming the wedge end of the pick axe against the rock to secure it in place. I was in awe. I thought of what I would have done if this happened back home. The simple answer: I would have thrown it away and bought a new one. But not here. The people saw that this was still a perfectly good pick axe, it just took a little resourcefulness to fix it. I wasn’t the only one bewildered by this scene. Many people in our group just witnessed what I did and began taking their own pick axes to Edgar for him to work his magic.

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Edgar fixing our pick axes

With what was essentially a brand new pick axe I was ready to roll. After a couple hours, though, I started to wear down. Even with the day off I was starting to feel the other couple days of labor. Just as I was getting ready for a break I noticed our work site leaders, Luis and Nora, talking with a few of the volunteers about coffee beans they had just found. I wandered over to join the conversation. We stood there for about 10 minutes talking about fruit. They told us about the fruit they grew there in El Salvador while we told them about the fruit we had in the states. No joke, this was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. Not because I’m passionate about fruit but because Luis and Nora were so genuine. They listened intently as we shared the fruits we ate at home. It was a conversation with very broken Spanish on our end and very broken on English on their end but it didn’t matter one bit. We could’ve talked for another hour if Edgar hadn’t called us back over to get back to work. That conversation gave us a second wind. We began singing songs and cheering each other on. Just as soon as we started making actual progress it was naturally time for lunch.

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Andy going to work with a pick axe

This day’s lunch at the community center would turn out to be my favorite of the trip, possibly my favorite memory. I once again ate my lunch as quickly as I could so I could head outside and join the action. There was already a group of people out there kicking the soccer ball around. Then one of the Salvadoran people began pointing at a couple of us. We thought he was designating us as team captains. The two of us began splitting up teams when someone clarified what he meant: Americanos vs Salvadorans. I ran inside and began recruiting people to join us. Before too long we had two full sized teams ready to go. We may have had the slight edge in numbers, but boy did they have the advantage in skill. I’d say our number advantage (plus the Papin family) is what made the game evenly matched. Both sides played extremely hard but most importantly everyone had fun. The only thing I could do when one of the boys on the other team juked right past me, despite my best efforts, was laugh.

By my count we ended the game tied at 6-6, which I thought was perfect – neither team was better than the other, just like neither the Americans or the Salvadorans are better than the other.

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Americanos vs Salvadorans

My lasting image of that afternoon will be when I looked around the field and saw that everyone was playing. Not every single person was playing soccer but those that weren’t were playing tag, playing jump rope, singing songs, simply interacting with one another. How absolutely beautiful that image is for me. That moment, which is now ingrained in my memory, is the first thing that will pop into my head when I think about true community and love.

I didn’t want that soccer game to end, despite how exhausted and sweaty I was. But like all things in life, all good things must come to an end. Both sides told the other good game and we all got together for a group picture, with Americans standing next Salvadorans and Salvadorans standing next to Americans.

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Americanos AND Salvadorans

We said our goodbyes, which was bittersweet knowing we had just one more opportunity to see these people. We filed into our vehicles, waving out the window to our friends.

Although we would have stayed at the center all day we still had quite a few things left to do. Our next stop was the lava rock field. It was crazy to think that the volcano we had seen just days prior, filled with green vegetation, was responsible for this sea of black rocks. We had some time to explore the field and pick out a lava rock to bring home as a souvenir.

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Lava rock field

We were all shocked to learn that people actually lived on this lava rock field. I couldn’t even fathom how someone could do that. One false step and you’re tearing up your arms and legs on the sharp edges of the rocks with the possibility of slamming your head into one of the large boulders. How desperate must someone be to call this literal lava field home? This was another reminder of the sad reality for some of the people in this country. For all the beauty and wonder we saw we also witnessed just as much hardship, tragedy, and despair. And yet the people persevered through it all.

The lava rock field was just a brief detour on the way to our next stop: the place of Saint Romero’s death. We went inside the church where Romero was saying mass when he was shot and killed. Lynette explained to us that this is where Romero became a martyr, which strengthened his case for sainthood. Lynette told us that Romero was standing behind the altar, with a completely clear view to the outside street. There was no way, Lynette explained, that he would have been unable to see the van pull up in front of the church with the gunman aiming out the window. In that moment Romero knew he was going to be killed. Instead of trying to get away or cause a stir he remained calm and allowed himself to be sacrificed – for the people of El Salvador. We each had a chance to walk to the front of the altar and see what he saw right before he was murdered.

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The altar where Saint Romero was killed

Immediately adjacent to the church is where Romero lived. It was a quaint little home that was built by the nuns at the church (they fooled Romero by telling him they were extending the laundry room, otherwise he would have never accepted). We had a chance to see where Romero lived, see the car he drove, see the items he possessed. I wish I had comprehended in the moment that I was standing where a saint had lived and breathed. How unbelievable is that?

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A powerful painting of Saint Romero

We gradually made our way outside and as we were standing around Lynette gleefully pointed out a cashew fruit hanging from a nearby tree. She asked one of the caretakers of the facility if we could try them. The woman happily agreed and handed me, the tallest member of our group present, a long stick to knock them out of the tree. There were three in total and we passed them around, each of us taking a bite. Needless to say, it wasn’t anyone’s favorite fruit in the world.

We had already had a pretty full day behind us, filled with work, soccer, lava rocks, and Romero history. Yet we still had so much more to experience. I’d be lying if I said the item on the menu for dinner that night wasn’t one of the main reasons I decided to return: PUPUSAS!

A pupusa is one of the main dishes in El Salvador. It’s essentially a tortilla stuffed with beans and cheese, as well as any kind of meat you’d want to put in there. It’s then topped with a thin tomato sauce. The key thing with pupusas is that you eat them with your hands. You’ll get really messy but it’s so worth it.

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PUPUSAS!

For dinner that night I donned the “I love pupusas” shirt that I bought at the market (along with Jake, Tony, and Mason, who also bought shirts). This was the moment I’d been waiting for and it did not disappoint. It was so great to be sitting there eating my pupusas and enjoying another meal alongside friends. And if you thought I loved pupusas, you should have seen Jake’s plate, who put down 6 (and a quarter) pupusas all on his own.

Beyond the pupusas, dinner that night was extra special because we were joined by some guests. Following dinner we would be having a dance party with music from a local band. The members of the band came early to eat with us and my table was joined by the flute and bongos player named Marvin. Like most of the conversations I had throughout the week, we spoke through very broken Spanish on my part. I asked him the standard questions I had asked everyone: what’s your name, how old are you, where are you from, do you have any brothers/sisters, etc. He happily answered my questions, regardless of how difficult it was for to get the question out. In fact, the harder it was for me to ask the question the more we laughed.

Once dinner was over it was time for our own private concert. This same group came last year and seeing their passion was one of the highlights of my trip. That didn’t change at all this year. I loved witnessing how much they enjoyed playing for us. Many of their songs were about Romero, which was yet another reminder of how much he meant to the people.

After a few songs to get warmed up it was time for the dance party to begin. We cleared out all the chairs and one of the members of the band would dance with one of the girls and then pair her up with one of the guys. He did this until just about everyone was dancing. At one point we formed a huge conga line and danced all throughout the house. We fed off of their energy, which caused all the exhaustion we had to completely wash away. Like Nelson, this band lived what they loved. Pure joy filled the house that night.

At the conclusion of the concert one of our teens had the idea to sing for them. As I mentioned earlier, Light the Fire became our theme song of the week. I can’t even begin to count how many times we had sung it up to that point. We all got together in front of the band and sang. They had no idea what we were saying (although Rodrigo was interpreting for them as we were singing) but I think they could see the passion we were singing with. We wanted to share the joy with them that they had just shared with us.

As we bid farewell to our new friends the reality began to set in that our trip was gradually nearing its end. I didn’t want to think about that. I wanted to enjoy each little experience. I wanted every single second of my life to be filled with the happiness I had right there in that moment. I didn’t want this trip to end.

Friday, January 11

Today would be our last day of work. One more day to give it everything we had. On the surface, helping the people build and dig was the reason we were there, so we owed it to them to give last bit we had left. I’d be spending another day digging and excavating at the village. We were joined by another special guest: Don Miguel’s 15 year old daughter, Christina. Christina was no mere bystander. She was working with us, digging alongside us. How do often do you see a 15 year old at work with their dad doing physical labor? I assume the answer is never, right? But that’s just her life. She just wanted to spend time with her dad, and if that meant working with him then so be it.

As we were digging someone came across a big rock. Finally! Digging up big rocks was one of my favorite parts of last year’s trip and I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to do that just yet. I took a look at it and immediately knew this would take some time. I got down in the dirt and, along with Andy, began digging. After about half an hour and lots of dirt breathed in we had barely made a dent. This rock was wedged in there pretty deep. After another 15-20 minutes we called Don Miguel over to get his input on what to do. He looked at it for about 5 seconds and told us it was too big to get out, we’d have to leave it. That’s why he’s the expert. While initially a little disappointed that we had spent so much time on one rock, Andy and I began working on a few of the other nearby rocks. We were able to get a few out before the end of the day, meaning our work wasn’t for naught.

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Andy and I after we rolled around in the dirt

Before I left that day I wanted to make sure I captured what was happening around me. It’s not everyday I get to work alongside people in this kind of setting so I wanted to ensure I recorded at least a little bit of it.

I was going to miss the views we had everyday of the palm trees and the mountains in the background. I was going to miss the simplicity and reward of the work. Most importantly, though, I was going to miss the people. None more so than Don Miguel, our joyful, encouraging foreman. I was going to miss his enthusiasm for life and his ability to lift the spirits of those around him through the power of song.

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Don Miguel and I

Saying goodbye to the work site was difficult. I wanted to stay there and keep working. Although we had made some progress through the week I felt like there was more we could do. Nevertheless, it was lunch time and the kids were waiting.

My focus at the community center was a little different this day. I still wanted to play with the kids but I also wanted to buy a few things. I have failed to mention that there were also women at the community center each day selling goods. These goods included crosses, bracelets, necklaces, and other little things of that nature. I bought a couple bracelets and a necklace last year. I wear these things every single day and they serve as reminder of the experience I had. I wanted to get a couple other items that would be reminders of this year’s trip and ended up getting a couple more bracelets for only a few dollars.

I eventually made my way outside and joined small group that was kicking the soccer ball around. There would be no big game of soccer today, but that was okay. I just enjoyed kicking the ball around with a few people. One of the people playing with us was a little boy, about 8 or 9 years old, named Nelson (of course!). We formed a circle and tried to see how many times we could juggle the ball, counting it out loud in Spanish. Nelson could have done more on his own than the rest of us could together. But he didn’t mind, he just laughed along each time one of us messed up.

Our call to leave inevitably came but we delayed it as long as possible. As we headed back in Meagan and I played keep away with Nelson but he was too good for us. We’d have it for maybe 4 or 5 seconds before he’d steal it from us. I was going to miss Nelson.

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Nelson and I

Back in the community center everyone began saying their goodbyes. It’s truly amazing how much you can love people after only knowing them a week. That room was filled with love-filled goodbyes and happy interactions. I wanted to be sad, not knowing how long it would be until I saw these people again. But happiness filled the room, making it impossible to do anything but smile.

Our smiles wouldn’t last too much longer, as we were about to endure the heaviest portion of the trip. Our next stop was the University of Central America. It was here that six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper, and her 16 year old daughter were brutally murdered on orders from the government during the civil war. We visited the lawn where the priests’ dead bodies were laid, mutilated to the point where they were unrecognizable. We visited the little room where the housekeeper and her daughter were tortured and left for dead. We were shown pictures of the tragedy, gruesome enough to make you absolutely sick to your stomach. Imagining that someone could be filled with so much hatred to do something like this was impossible for me to wrap my head around. Looking through these pictures filled me horror and sorrow.

Yet through all of this the El Salvador people remained hopeful and strong. The husband of the housekeeper planted a garden where the Jesuits were slain, not 30 seconds away from where his wife and daughter were killed. He planted six red roses, one for each of the priests, and two yellow roses in honor of his wife and daughter. I can’t imagine the pain he must have gone through, only to be reminded of it each time he tended the garden. And yet he knew their deaths shouldn’t be in vain. This small garden would keep their memories and sacrifices alive and strong, giving hope and motivation to all who visited. Although the man has since passed away the garden is still up-kept, with even more roses being planted in honor of all those killed during the war.

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Rose garden in honor of the Jesuits, housekeeper, and her daughter

Our trip to the university was emotional and difficult. It also gave us even more perspective into the lives of the people we had been serving all week. It gave us a clearer understanding of the pain and suffering they had endured and why they were in need of help. But it also brought into sharper focus their faith. I truly believe that their faith is what enabled them to make it through the suffering. Figures like Rutilio Grande and Oscar Romero were figures of hope, symbols of love, and voices for the voiceless. Without their strength and devotion who knows what would have happened to the people.

One of the things I admire most about the people is that they don’t forget. They don’t attempt to brush these painful memories under the rug and pretend they never happened. They embrace the tragic experiences and allow them to serve as reminders of how far they’ve come. Remembering those who died allows their memories and sacrifices to live on. The strength of the El Salvador people is monumental.

Weighed down by what we had just seen we made our way back to the house. Tonight we didn’t have much time to shower and relax, as we had one more item on our agenda. Our house was right next to a teaching university, so we walked next door for our dancing lessons. There were a couple dancing groups that performed for us. They performed both traditional dances and contemporary dances. It was cool to see the history of the country displayed through dance, as well as see how the country has progressed in some of its more modernized dancing.

Of course we weren’t just there to watch. It wouldn’t be a true El Salvador experience if we didn’t participate alongside the people. We first learned one of the more traditional dances followed by a merengue dance. Let me tell you, after four days of digging, sweating, and playing soccer, that merengue was the best workout I had all week. I’ve never attempted (and failed) to move my feet as quickly as I did during that dance. Thankfully I wasn’t the only one in the group struggling to keep up.

*Before you scroll down hoping to see a video of me dancing know that I will never willingly post such a video. You will need to find that video elsewhere.*

After working up a good sweat we made our way over to the house for dinner, joined by our dancing instructors. This would be our last meal shared together at the house, so to celebrate we had Pollo Campero brought in. Pollo Campero is one of the biggest chain restaurants in El Salvador and probably the most Americanized food you can find. The fried chicken we were eating certainly reminded me of home.

That night we had our final official reflection of the week. I couldn’t believe just how much we had seen and experienced in just a week. I was also blown away with how close I felt with each person in our group. While we were certainly growing closer to the people of El Salvador we were also growing closer with one another by the day. These people were no longer just members of the same youth group or parish. We had all been going through a life changing experience. As super cheesy as it sounds we had become a family. There are so many little experiences we had together that I’ve left out of this post, tiny, almost unnoticeable moments that made feel so unbelievably loved and happy. Sitting in reflection on Friday night helped me realize that my experiences in El Salvador wouldn’t just stay there. I’d be able to bring them home with me because of this community.

I can’t begin to express my admiration and pride I have for all the people that made the trip with me. Each and every one of them was called to be there and they answered that call. Making a trip like this isn’t easy, especially for those in our group that are in school. And yet they did it and they put everything they had into it. I can’t imagine having this experience without Beth, Ann, Jim, Tony, Katie, Emily, Abby, Emily, Sam, Meagan, Allison, Bill, Anne, Joan, Jake, Ellen, Grace, Gloria, Rodrigo, Luis, David, Mason, Chrissy, Patti, and Andy. After reflection I was sad that I wasn’t going to be with all these people for much longer. But our time together wasn’t over just yet. There was still more fun to be had.

Saturday, January 12

Every year our group typically heads to the airport on Saturday at 4:00am to head back home. But this wasn’t a typical year. For whatever reason ticket prices were cheaper to fly back on Sunday instead of Saturday. That meant we had a bonus day in El Salvador. Much like Wednesday, Lynette wanted this to be a day to relax and see more of the beauty of El Salvador. We had spent the entire week looking in all directions to see mountains and volcanoes. Today we’d be going to the beach to see the Pacific Ocean!

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BEACH!

What a great way to end the week. For all the fun we had we did work incredibly hard. Everyone was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. We were excited to have our last day together, filled with relaxation and fellowship. As soon as we got to the resort we walked down to the water. We threw a football and frisbee around and played some sand volleyball. Then I remembered someone saying there were hammocks nearby. I claimed a hammock, coconut drink in hand, and rested in pure bliss.

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Pure relaxation after a long week

As everyone sat around for lunch we all joked about “losing” or burning our passports so we had to stay. It wasn’t all that much of a joke, though. We genuinely would have stayed longer if we had a chance (and I don’t just mean at the resort). We weren’t ready to leave this place that had become home.

We spent the day at the beach and only a handful of people got sunburned (I’m proud to say I was not one of them). When we got back to the house our focus immediately shifted to packing. As I was cleaning up my space I came across my packing list for the trip. I couldn’t believe that the trip was already over. I had spent months mentally and physically preparing for this trip and it was over. In the blink of an eye. There was no time to be down, however, because there was still too much joy and laughter filling the house. After everyone had packed and put their suitcases downstairs we all just hung out. Emily H and I played the spit take game where you try to make the other person laugh and spit out a mouthful of water. Meanwhile others were singing the Duck Song that we had been been stuck in our heads all week. Community. Happiness.

Sunday, January 13

The unfortunate day had arrived. We all knew it was coming no matter how much we may tried to will it away. It didn’t help that we had to wake up at 3:00am and leave by 4:00. I was surprisingly awake. I had one last cup of coffee and one last bowl of cereal. I packed one last lunch. We loaded everything into the bus and we said our goodbyes. We said goodbye to Hiromi, Carla, and Alejandra, and thanked them for all of their help guiding us that week. And we said goodbye to Lynette. What do you say to someone who has had such a profound impact on your life? How do you properly thank someone for demonstrating selflessness, love, generosity, and kindness each and every day? How do you tell someone they’ve helped you discover your own purpose and mission in life? I didn’t know what to say in the moment other than a simple thank you. She told me how proud she was of me and I almost started crying. I was going to miss this woman.

On the hour long ride to the airport no one slept. We were all still wired from the week we just had. We talked about our highlights of the trip, what was the most shocking thing to see, and what we’d miss the most. Talking about these things didn’t make me sad, though. They made me excited to go home and tell everyone I could about what I had just experienced. I couldn’t wait to go home and truly live what I loved like the El Salvador people.

Then came the 10 hour layover. Our flight from El Salvador to Houston didn’t feel like it took that long. But boy, did that layover in Houston hit us. I felt like I ran into a wall. The early mornings, physical work, and constant busyness caught up to me. The adrenaline and energy I had all week had worn off and now all I wanted to do was sleep. Luckily we found a place to gather and I curled up in the corner to take a quick nap. I was woken up when it was time to say goodbye to David.

David’s aunt, Ann, is the one who organized the trip and the one who invited me to go way back when. David is from Detroit and didn’t know any of us before he came on this trip. He told us he was initially hesitant to go and that it took a lot of persuading from his Aunt Ann. The trip honestly would not have been the same without him. Despite not knowing any of us he jumped in feet first and immediately clicked with the entire group. He brought an energy and a zest for life that was absolutely contagious. Not only that but he worked his butt off all week long. You couldn’t help but be inspired by him.

After a long, long wait it was finally time to board our plane and head home. On the flight home I thought more about what I had done and how the trip came to be. I thought of all the people that supported my trip, most notably my family. Not only did they help me financially, but more importantly they encouraged me to go back and follow this passion of mine. I thought of all my friends who had prayed for me and offered me words of encouragement. I thought of my coworkers who had to pick up the slack for me while I was gone. Without the sacrifices and support of these people I wouldn’t have been able to have the experience of a lifetime. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell them everything.

…………….

I’m aware of the negative connotations surrounding El Salvador. I’m aware of the gangs that have come from the country and that still occupy the country. I was aware of the poverty before I got there. I can’t begin to count the number of people that asked me if I would feel safe there. My answer – I 100% felt safe the entire time I was there. You know why? Because I was surrounded by the most loving, gracious, joyful people I’ve ever met. I learned last year that love is a universal language and I’m doubling down on that statement now. I felt stronger connections with people I can’t even have a conversation with than some people I interact with here at home. So yeah, I felt safe. I hate that when people hear about El Salvador they think of the violent gangs or associate nothing but negativity with it. I hate it because I know the people there. I’ve played, eaten, and worked with the people there. The people of El Salvador embody peace, strength, and virtue. I’m not saying that those negative things don’t exist or aren’t true. Saying so would be naive. I witnessed some of those negative things and talked about them in this very same post. What I am saying is that before you form an opinion of El Salvador based on the negative news headlines, come talk to me first. I’ll tell you all you need to know.

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One thought on “The Happiness Project

  1. Amazing story Drew Brought tears and joy reading every day. I can relate being there the last 2 previous years. Each year is a different experience for sure. Thanks for the pictures some that I have taken but never the same, plus your input is an added bonus.

    Liked by 1 person

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