Marin Catholic Students Travel to El Carmen

Unfazed by gang activity in El Salvador, Marin Catholic students continue to make a difference throughout the world.


Students from El Carmen visit Marin Catholic. Their travel fares were paid for by donations from last year's Lenten Drive.

Katherine Arnaud '16, Writer

You never truly understand something until you experience it yourself. Ask anyone who’s part of the El Carmen Program and I’m sure they’ll agree that our experience has been one of a kind. Like most service projects, we’ve had the chance to see life from another perspective as well as meet some really wonderful and loving people. However, contrary to common belief, no two service project experiences are the same. Even though they may be similar on a fundamental level, it is the details that make each experience so unique and beautiful. And so, our experience has been unlike any other.

The program focuses on providing tuition for a selected group of students in El Salvador so that they may have the opportunity to be successful and well-educated–a real privilege Marin Catholic students often take for granted. We’ve also spent time with these students down in El Salvador and here in Marin as well.  Our group usually visits the students and the warm, welcoming, and kind community in El Salvador during the summer. However, this year, we had to do something a little bit differently due to the dangerous gang situation in El Salvador. Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, is an international gang that is infamous for its violence and deadly practice of guerilla warfare. Over the past two years, gang activity, including acts of violence by MS-13, has increased all over El Salvador, causing potential danger to native El Salvadoreans and foreigners alike.  Therefore, as a matter of safety it was decided that we would not return. We were crushed when we found out that we wouldn’t be able to go back and see those who we’ve come to think of as family, but we didn’t let that stop us. Donations from the MC community during the Lenten Drive made it possible to bring our students here to Marin. Members of the program hosted the students in their houses and made them part of the family. During the days we took “field trips” to places like Stinson beach, an A’s game, and even the Exploratorium.

While we still love, support, and miss those in El Salvador, this summer we visited the Dominican Republic (DR) and became part of another generous and welcoming community. Our main project in the DR was helping out at the local school, Ruth Plaut. The school was filled with over two dozen boys and girls from around the ages three to eight. Our plan was to do sports, art, and English activities with the kids. It took a while for the kids to warm up to us. Not only were we big and scary, but for some of us the language barrier made it hard to connect. While we all have a good amount of experience with Spanish, it is 100 times harder speaking with children. Sometimes it’s impossible to understand children even when they are speaking English. Nevertheless, we made the most of it.

It would be impossible for me to recount all of the heartwarming, as well as sometimes heart-breaking, moments we had, so instead I’ll share my favorite. Most of the kids there have never been swimming before — not even in the river, let alone a swimming pool. So, one of the days we decided to introduce these children to the idea of swimming in the pool at the place we were staying, a sort of resort called Blue Moon that features cabins and an eating/ hangout area with a little pool. Each one of us was in charge of one child in the water, just to be safe. I remember how the various looks of unsure excitement, curiosity, and even pure terror transformed into smiles and nothing but joy as we played with them in the water. The amount of trust these children put in us was unbelievable. Even though they had only know us for a week, their hearts were tied to ours.

For me, it’s really difficult to sum up what this program really means. In my mind, something that makes the whole thing so special is that fact that it’s “ours.” Even though each of us in the program may have a different point of view about the program and what it’s all about, one thing that remains the same is that it’s our experience. I find it hard to explain what it really feels like to see people with so much less than we have be willing to give us everything they own, or what it’s like to have these lovely people open their hearts to us. Whether it be a giant spider on the wall or a beautiful, warm smile from a stranger, these experiences, these moments are ours, and they will always be ours.