LENDING HELPING HAND IN EL SALVADOR
By Gary Fletcher
Observer Staff Writer
Two Enterprise Rotarians are trying to help some people they'd never met, in a village that's not even a dot on the map of El Salvador.
Ralph Swinehart returned in June from the village of El Progresso with luggage full of colorful hammocks and a souvenir brick twice the size of any he'd seen.
Rick Bombaci will visit El Progresso soon. His suitcases will contain pipe fittings. He also wants to present the village with the keys to a new pickup.
There are only half a dozen vehicles in the village of 1,200 illiterate, subsistence-level farmers who grow corn and beans on a rugged mountainside. With no irrigation system, their crops depend on the whims of the weather.
They used to have jobs on coffee plantations, which are no more, since world coffee prices have been depressed by competition from Africa and Vietnam.
With virtually no cash income, few can afford a donkey, much less one of the old, small, Japanese pickups popular in the region. Many absentee fathers illegally immigrated to the United States to earn money. Some of them were caught and ended up in jail.
In El Progresso, which had no electricity until 1997, villagers live in dirt-floor shacks, with no running water. Villagers must travel 11 miles to the town of Santa Ana to obtain medical services. It takes an hour to drive the steep, rugged, dirt road.
Much has changed in the village, however, thanks to a remarkable young man from Youngstown, Ohio.
Dan Pappalardo's story is being related to Rotary clubs across Oregon by Bombaci.
Bombaci met Pappalardo in the woods of Georgia in 2000. They were both hiking the 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail to Maine. They became close companions.
"You get to know a person pretty well under these circumstances," Bombaci said. "You see how they cope with adversity, how they hold the course during a storm, and whether they can reach a difficult and distant goal.
"What most impressed me about Dan's character was his generosity and love for his fellow man," Bombaci said about the humanitarian who shared the last of his food with the hungry and gave up his warm, dry spot in a shelter to someone who was wet and cold.
Those on the Appalachian Trail AT hikers came to be known by nicknames. Pappalardo's was Gilligan, for a little white hat he wore.
He and Bombaci finished their trek Oct. 13, 2000. It would be October 2002 before they'd see each other again in Pennsylvania, at the wedding of a couple they met on the trail.
Gilligan pulled Bombaci aside to ask for his help. He had just given his automobile to a friend in need. He needed help in buying a new vehicle, not for himself but for El Progresso.
It turned out that after finishing the AT, Gilligan, 24, moved to El Salvador to volunteer for six months as a teacher and physical therapist.
Now, three years later, he's still there volunteering. He teaches grades 5 through 12 at a school where he had to write the textbooks. He started a school-lunch program for kids who typically had no breakfast or lunch.
He expanded the school by adding band, choir, special-needs tutoring, porta-potties where there had been no facilities previously classrooms and a basketball court .
To make a level spot on the steep mountainside, retaining walls had to be built and backfilled. With a playground, Gilligan then started baseball and soccer programs.
Villagers were initially skeptical of the school. It began with 5 students, but now there are 500. Some walk an hour from neighboring villages to attend.
Gilligan organized people to build simple housing for 10 of the poorest of the village's poor, and to build a collection reservoir at a spring 1 1/2 miles from the village, and 750 feet lower in elevation.
Gilligan has been back to the states twice to raise funds for materials, like the 7,000 big bricks that villagers carry down the precarious slope seven at a time, along with 40 cubic yards of sand and gravel for mortar. There was no trail to the spring, and the way is too rough for donkeys.
Like their thirsty crops, residents of El Progresso use rainwater when available. They collect runoff or turn to an intermittent, contaminated well from which they lift water in a bucket.
When the well dries up, they have to make a two-hour round-trip, up and down a steep path to haul water from a creek. The creek's flow is so little that people get up at 3 a.m. to try to be the first there, so they don't have to wait in line.
When Gilligan learned that Bombaci had a friend who is an engineer, Gilligan called him and asked how to get a 50-horsepower pump.
"What kind?" the friend, Swinehart, asked. There must be 100 different types.
It became apparent that Gilligan needed on-site help. So, Swinehart flew down and spent five days redesigning the water system.
There will still be no indoor plumbing in El Progresso, but the plan is to have a tap of fresh, safe water available to the yard of each home.
While there, Swinehart was introduced to colorful and comfortable, handmade, cotton hammocks. Gilligan had helped local families start a hammocks-for-export business to produce a cash income.
Gilligan now wants to provide the village with a pickup one that doesn't die once a week on the way to school for the entire village to share.
The school's headmaster has been letting the village use his 1970s Mazda pickup. The rough and rutted, primitive back-roads beat vehicles to death, and the Mazda is on its last legs.
Any local, compact pickup is used for public transportation. People are loaded in the back to maintain traction up the mountain grade, Swinehart said.
The pickup/ambulance/school bus can provide faster access to medical care, carry crops and hammocks to market, haul building materials, and transport teachers and students to activities.
Swinehart and Bombaci are nearing their two goals. Swinehart is waiting for the last plumbing parts that were ordered at cost through Enterprise Electric.
Thursday, Bombaci finally collected enough to buy a 4-wheel-drive pickup that can carefully crawl instead of shudder, careen and ricochet up and off the mountainside.
One-third of the funding came from a Rotary International Foundation grant.
The rest came through a network of Rotary clubs and people Bombaci met on the AT. Donations were received from Gibraltar and all across the United States from West Virginia to Walla Walla.
Bombaci would also like to raise money for a maintenance and insurance fund. Donations made out to the Rotary Foundation are tax-deductible. They can be mailed to Rick Bombaci at P.O. Box 555, Enterprise 97828.
Orders for handmade cotton hammocks each one unique can be called to Swinehart at Wallowa Mountain Engineering at 541-426-4085. He will deliver them free to La Grande.
Coarse woven hammocks are $50 and fine woven are $65.