The Berks-Mont News (http://www.berksmontnews.com)

St. Paul's UCC members volunteer in El Salvador


By Emily Thiel, The Southern Berks News.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A group of 12 members of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Amityville, went on a week-long mission trip to El Salvador from Jan. 4 to 11.

The group was a diverse bunch, ranging in age from high school students to retirees. Team members included church members Shelley and Megan Hickey, Katie and Megan Kunsch, Emily Hussar, Judy Leister, Marianne Reinert, Linda Levengood, Tom and Judy Reitz, Anita Zuber, and Pastor Steven Simpson.

Shelley Hickey, from Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, organized the trip and accompanied the parishioners on their journey.

Hickey teaches nursing at Eastern University and has taken groups of her students down to El Salvador to volunteer.

She invited members of the church to participate in a mission trip and was “a great resource” for those at St. Paul’s. No fundraising was done for the trip as each volunteer had to pay their own way.

Anita Zuber had never been on a mission trip before, but is very well-traveled; she has previously traveled around the Caribbean.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” Zuber said about participating in a mission trip.

The group stayed at the Project Faith in Action Together mission house in San Salvador, the capital city of the country.

A group from Wheeling-Jesuit University, West Virginia and a group of nurses from Thomas Jefferson University, Phila. were also staying at the mission house to volunteer their time.

Due to the heavy gang violence in El Salvador, the mission house was gated with a high metal fence kept locked and guarded by an armed guard. The volunteers were not allowed outside the premises without a guard. The government has armed guards outside the stores and markets.

“We were traveling each day,” Zuber said. “I felt very safe in the village[s] with the people.”

There were two mission sites where volunteers could alternate their assistance. At night, participants would choose where they wanted to go the next day.

One site was a school in a village in Arces; where FIAT built a classroom building for the school. Volunteers had a variety of work from painting to digging ditches to lay pipes for water, playing with the children, or help visiting nurses on their rounds. Zuber got a taste of everything -- except the ditch digging.

When Zuber spent time with the nurse, “we walked to different homes of pregnant women to educate them to care for themselves.” They also visited with a newborn baby and spoke with those in the village.

As a retired educator, Zuber valued her time with the children. “I loved working with the kids,” she said.

In El Salvador the children are out of school until the end of January. “The kids would sit on the hill side and watch... they wanted us to play soccer,” Zuber said. “They are crazy soccer players!” In addition to soccer, St. Paul’s parishioners played cards and completed puzzles with the El Salvadorian children.

“The children loved the attention...especially at the orphanage.”

The second site was a remote village called Las Delicias, which was about an hour away from where the group stayed.

Zuber enjoyed how the language barrier with the children encouraged them to interact - from acting out words to teaching each other words in their native language.

The village people wash their clothing on a cement stone. “Going into their homes... people were clean, their clothes were clean,”Zuber shared. “I was really struck by the poverty.”

The homes in the village were “little and meager.”

“They were very thankful and appreciative,” she said about the interactions with the El Salvadorians. “It was an amazing experience, but not for the faint of heart,” Zuber said. Zuber, who works out every day, said the trip was physically demanding and got sick twice.

“It was hard emotionally, too. Some got upset [because they got] attached to the children and had a hard time saying goodbye.”

Back at the mission home, FIAT invited speakers, and singing and dancing groups to give the visitors “a taste of the culture.”

They were fed traditional meals of rice and beans during their stay. “It was a lot of fun,” Zuber said about the trip overall.

Two days after they returned, however, Zuber saw on the news six evangelical church members were shot to death by gang members in El Salvador near the Guatemala border Jan. 13.

“On Thursday, (Jan. 9) we went on a road trip to Guatemala... it took four hours to get there,” Zuber said.

On the way back, they encountered traffic and the driver took some back roads to make it back to the mission house. “That was the only time I felt unsafe,” she said. A police officer escorted them, but the detour made the trip back last six hours.

Luckily, everyone on this trip made it back to Berks County safe and sound and enjoyed their experience.

Throughout the year, St. Paul’s UCC is active with local outreach within the community