Some Things Will Never Change

by Tim Fallis

Our trip to Tepecoyo earlier this week was one of the first times we’ve ever returned to the site of a previous Speroway clinic.  There’s just so much need within an hour’s drive of San Salvador that we’ve always tried to continue moving into new regions as much as possible.  The key exception is Somalia, the one square km inner city slum in San Salvador that’s home to 45,000 people.  Today was our fifth time to Somalia and we’ll always finish our El Salvador trips with a clinic here – that will never change. 

While some who live here are lucky enough to have steady work in the city, it’s safe to say that these are the poorest of the poor in El Salvador.  We’ve told the story of how Somalia came to be in previous posts but it’s worth repeating.  Several years ago, a con artist sold plots of land here to San Salvador’s poorest families. Unfortunately, the land wasn’t his to sell – families lost their life savings leaving them with nothing.  However, without anywhere else for them to live, the city basically turned a blind eye, allowing them to stay.  From then on, Somalia has been a community of squatters, living hand to mouth but eking out an existence somehow.

They built makeshift shacks out of cardboard, plastic sheeting and discarded pieces of corrugated tin. They live on dirt floors, sleep in hammocks or a mattress box, cook over open fires, most have no running water and no electricity.  Most homes have no real walls and remain open to the elements.  (Video tour at http://youtu.be/L0r92TriKrE)  

But several years ago, something happened in Somalia that was to change its future. This sea of humanity, living in and on next to nothing in the middle of San Salvador, had a meeting and decided they could do more for themselves as a group, than as a collection of individuals.  Somalia the slum became Somalia the community. Perhaps it was a response to the drug, crime and gang culture that had developed here.  Or perhaps it was the simple decision to seek more control over their lives.  It’s still a dangerous place when the sun goes down, but there’s a community council, community services and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of community pride developing here.  

A rec centre (of sorts) was built.  And then a church was gradually constructed, bit by bit, over time.  (Dental was located in the Church last year before the roof went on. This year, our dentists have a corrugated tin roof over their heads.  That’s progress – slow, but progress nonetheless.)

We’re told our clinic day here is one of the highlights of the year.  And they were tremendously well-organized and prepared for our arrival.  Rope cordons to guide traffic flow, registration desks, tents over the longer line-ups to shield citizens from the sun and a troop of dedicated volunteers in uniform to move everything along. The line was at least 100 metres long when we arrived – as you can imagine, it was a very busy day.  It was great to see some old friends – patients who we remember and love from previous trips.  Maria, 93, was one of the first in line.  She’s a special friend of Tony who has treated her (and danced with her) at every previous clinic!  

But Dorotea may be the best example of why these experiences are so remarkable – for us, and, I’d venture to guess, for the citizens here.  She’s 51, but struggles with limited mobility due to an amputated leg (15 years ago) and a deformity in her other leg.  On our first visit several years ago, she took a shine to Dr. Steve Russell and has diligently sought him out at every clinic since.  He examines and treats her stump and manages whatever other ailments are bothering her.  Then, on her crutches, she hobbles down to Dental for an emotional reunion with Dr. Mark Cross and his longtime Dental Assistant, Oldamis Hernandez.  It was hugs all around this afternoon as she took the chair for two more fillings.  On her first visit with Mark and Oldamis, they reconstructed her four front teeth which were in horrendous condition.  They’re still looking great all these years later. This kind of story is repeated time and time again.  They so appreciate that we’re here and helping them – that makes the long, hard day pretty easy to take.  For most of the citizens of Somalia, the annual Speroway clinic represents the only primary medical/dental care they receive.  We’re clearly needed here and we know we’re making a difference.  

And speaking of making a difference, we’d be nowhere without the support of some amazing staff and partners here in Central America.  Speroway’s own Director for Central America and Haiti, Efrain de los Rios, is really the key to everything we do here.  He plans the clinics with the various communities and their leaders, organizes our accommodation, our security, our transportation and meals on-site and anything and everything else that needs to happen before we can see our first patient at our first clinic.  You’ll never meet a finer man and we’re lucky to have him on the inside, representing our interests so brilliantly down here.  Thanks, Efrain – we’re glad and grateful that you’re one of us.  

And where would we be without our amazing student translation team?  Nearly 20 high school students from San Salvador have given up their week to join us at every clinic helping us to communicate with our patients and “get the story straight”.  They’re vital to the success of every clinic.  Imagine a 15 year old boy trying to ask a 25 year old woman sensitive questions to help a Medic with a diagnosis or a treatment?  Not easy!  But these kids are professional, understanding, compassionate and mature beyond their years.  A special Speroway thank you to this terrific group of young people for all that they’ve contributed this week.  We’d have been lost (in translation) without them!

And finally, thanks to our fantastic friends at Operation Blessing, a local charity administering to the needs of the impoverished and disadvantaged here in El Salvador.  They helped store our supplies at their warehouse and provided additional doctors and counsellors at every clinic.  Amazing things can happen when we have the support of committed partners like OB – great teamwork driving great results.

In terms of our success today, the numbers tell the story.  Medical saw and treated 1,019 patients.  Dental went non-stop all day seeing 210 patients.  And Marie-Andrée in Optical distributed 181 glasses. It was another amazing day! Across our five clinics this week, we treated nearly 6,000 people – a good week indeed.

And that’s it!  Another unforgettable Speroway trip is over – we’re heading home tomorrow.  But despite our exhaustion, we’d do it all again next week if we could!  What an incredible team this is – extraordinary people who really rolled up their sleeves this week and achieved a great deal.  When your goal is to give, it’s incredible how much you receive.  Here’s hoping we can do it all again soon.  Until then – thanks for following along – it was so great to know you were “with us” in spirit on this awesome adventure.

P. S.  Because of our unprecedented numbers this week, we had to buy additional medicines here in El Salvador – an incremental expense that has taken us way over budget on this trip.  If you’re at all interested in supporting this and future Medical/Dental projects, we’d be thrilled to accept any contribution you can make.  All trip participants pay their own way so any donations we receive are true “working” dollars committed to the drugs and equipment required to mount our clinics every year.  If you’re able, click here to donate.  We and the people we help in Central America are so grateful for your support.


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