Foundation links GJ to El Salvador
El Espino, El Salvador, is small — so small that Google Maps can’t find it, so small that most people have never heard of it. Just 500 families — about 4,000 people — live there.
But it is special, said Anna Stout, a Mesa State College graduate who’s been there 17 times and counting. The first time she went, in 2004, “I was only down there three weeks, but it felt like I was leaving family when I left.”
She was one of a group of students in a sociology class that traveled there with the late David Harmon. Several in the group were so influenced and affected by what they’d experienced that they formed the Foundation for Cultural Exchange, a nonprofit group with the goal of offering support to El Espino and promoting cultural understanding between the town and Grand Valley residents.
Its five-fold mission includes funding a scholarship program for students in El Espino, hosting immersion trips to the town every summer, providing emergency relief during natural disasters there, helping fund development projects in El Espino and offering education and outreach in Grand Junction, Stout said.
In 2005, members of the foundation petitioned the Grand Junction City Council to make El Espino one of Grand Junction’s sister cities. Council members agreed.
“I think (people in Grand Junction and El Espino) have so much to offer each other,” said Stout, who is president of the foundation’s board of directors.
She said education is a particular focus because many students in El Espino can’t afford to attend high school, let alone college. It costs about $300 per year to support an individual high school student and $1,000 for a college student, Stout said.
The foundation supports 15 students, Stout said, and one of the foundation’s goals is for individual families to support one student, an “adopt a student” model.
So, education and cultural outreach in Grand Junction are equally important, Stout said, making people here aware of the vibrant culture and particular needs in El Espino.
The town is hit every three years, on average, by a natural disaster, Stout said. For example, in 2009 El Espino was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Ida, so the foundation raised money to rebuild three homes there.
The foundation works closely with a citizens round table in El Espino, “because they know the needs of the community and they’re well-respected there,” Stout said. “We just want to be a resource and to be part of the effort in supporting the community.”
The foundation has raised money for road and latrine projects, voter education, and in 2009 provided funding for a kindergarten classroom, which increased the school’s capacity by 120 students.
And every summer, the foundation takes a group — no larger than 12 people — from this area to visit El Espino. The trip costs about $2,000, including airfare, and participants stay in the homes of El Espino residents and immerse in the culture.
Knowing Spanish isn’t necessary, Stout said, because a willingness to learn and make friends often transcends language.
“And I think so many people come away from the trip,” Stout said, “feeling like they have a family in El Espino.”