Helen Alesbury served in the Peace Corps as a rural health volunteer from 2011 to 2013 in El Salvador where she helped facilitate several projects with the health clinic, Engineers Without Borders-NYC, and promoted girl’s education. Today, she is the NYU campus Peace Corps Recruiter, based in the Wasserman Center and a full time graduate student in the College of Arts and Science getting her MA in Anthropology and Human Skeletal Biology.
Sulma gave the best hugs. Her arms would fit perfectly around me and she would tuck her head in under my chin as she would give a firm, comforting squeeze. Even from the moment we met and I started living with her, her mom, Maribel and older sister, Yessica she hugged me like she already knew me. Like we were best friends. Honestly, I have never gotten a hug quite like hers since I left El Salvador.
Growing up as the youngest of three girls I was no stranger to strong women, but living with Maribel, Sulma, and Yessica showed me an entirely different type of strength. Maribel had her two daughters one year apart when she herself was only a teenager, a common and expected situation in rural Latin America. In such an isolated village, Maribel was unable to get much of any education and never learned how to read or write. When I first arrived to the village of Los Cimientos, El Salvador in 2011 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had never met an adult who could not read. As I fumbled my way through communicating in Spanish I often had to look up words in my much-more-than-pocket-sized Spanish/English dictionary. I remember the day I asked Maribel to pronounce a particularly tricky word and she flatly explained that no, she couldn’t help me with the word as she could not read.
Over the next couple years living with Maribel and the girls, I grew to admire her strength and unwavering determination to give her two daughters opportunities she never had. She wanted her daughters to finish middle school and go to high school, even though that meant leaving home. She fought with Sulma over having a boyfriend, for fear that it would lead her down a path similar to her own. She saved everything she could to help them go to school –without the help of her long gone husband.
It was with this in mind that I started a small but effective scholarship project for the young girls in my community. While there is a school in the community, it only goes up to 8th grade, and high school is only available down the mountain, in the nearest village—a distance that requires students to live away from home and only come home on the weekends. While the school itself is government funded, the necessary lodging, transportation, and food costs are not—leaving many kids to “finish” their education at the tender ages of 14 or 15. In many cases, because Los Cimientos is mainly sustained by its high elevation and therefore ample growth of coffee trees, many parents allow their kids to just learn how to read and then pull them out to work by picking coffee (around the third grade). The scholarship was for $300 a year, and would cover most of the transportation costs. In the end, seven girls participated in the program and have since graduated from high school.
Sulma was of course one of the eager participants in the scholarship program along with her sister. After I returning back to the United States I have kept in contact with Sulma through the miracle and ease of Facebook (which is now in small Salvadoran mountain villages) and learned of her high school graduation. A few weeks later we were chatting—she had been posting a lot of photos and statuses about how sad she was and how much she missed her family. My brain immediately assumed she was preparing to come to the United States and join her father here in New York City. I was pained by this decision and immediately prepared to try and talk her out of leaving her mother and sister only to find out that Sulma was not planning to come to the US. Sulma was in college. IN COLLEGE. Spurned on by her recent graduation from high school and support from her mother, Sulma is now getting her degree in teaching English in the eastern capital of San Miguel, a fact that just goes to show that with support and opportunity, literally anything is possible. She will not only be the first in her family to get a college degree but the first in her ENTIRE COMMUNITY. I wish I could give her one of her perfect hugs and somehow communicate just how proud of her I am because somehow, a Facebook message of “estoy muy muy muy orgullosa de ti” just doesn’t feel the same. I am proud that even though she misses her family and her home, she is fighting for a better opportunity and better education. Proud that I got to be a small part of her life for a few years and proud to see her become the young woman she is today.
Want to learn more about women’s empowerment and the importance of education in developing nations? Come to a special panel event organized by Peace Corps, hosted at the NYU Wasserman Career Center on Tuesday, April 5th, at 6:30pm and hear from several professionals about what they are doing to help fight for women’s equality all over the world. Free pizza and great conversation! The event is open to the public. See the Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/440604696136042/