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Accompany Me

Accompany Me

By Alicia K. Gonzales ’09

Global, local: The Casa program brings students from many campuses in the United States and beyond—and they study alongside Romero Scholar students from El Salvador. Here are Maura Bernt, a student from St. Joseph’s University, and Maria Demetria Peñate, from El Salvador. View full image. Photo by Quinn Fitzgerald
Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador was founded by SCU in 1999 to reimagine what study abroad could be. International students learn alongside Salvadorans and work in local communities. But in spring 2016, the program was suspended over safety concerns in the country. Great news came in November: The Casa is back—and accepting applications for fall 2017.

The CASA study abroad program engages students in the culture, economy, and existence of the Salvadoran poor. Along with classes held at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), students spend time in service placements throughout the region: with medical clinics, adult education programs, English and art classes, even local farming initiatives.

One such CASA placement: Centro Hogar, or home center. In December 2007, the child development center lost its funding and could no longer financially support its 35 preschoolers, children who were growing up exposed to extreme poverty—gangs, drugs, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation.

Juan Velasco, an associate professor of English who teaches in the CASA program, decided to create a grassroots campaign to raise funds for these children. Serendipitously, enough donations from around the world arrived to ensure the children could stay. Soon after, the center re-established itself as Programa Velasco, a nonprofit so named by the parents to honor the man whose program to date has helped 341 children secure scholarships to continue their education.

Organizations like this illuminate why halting CASA enrollment in support of student safety was such a difficult decision, considering that the program and the University already have homegrown relationships with the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps, the Salvadoran government, and Catholic Relief Services. But as students of the country’s history know, violence in El Salvador didn’t end with the civil war. Recent surges in murder rates led to a state department travel advisory.

Yet in March, several CASA alumni created a Change.org petition, urging SCU to relaunch the study abroad program. Provost Dennis Jacobs responded by arranging for an independent security assessment team to travel to El Salvador and evaluate whether the program could again run. Following the review, CASA got the green light to resume. It was a week of other cheerful news about El Salvador for SCU, as well: Thomas Smolich, S.J., M.Div ’86, international director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), received the Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ) Award for his work serving the poor and espousing the Salvadoran theology of social justice and peace.

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