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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

See Grand Junction's sister city through the eyes of senior travelers

Jul 02, 2024 01:54PM ● By Cloie Sandlin

Andrea Bartlett shares a joyous moment with students during a cultural exchange trip to El Espino, El Salvador with the Foundation for Cultural Exchange.

Anna Stout was part of a group of Mesa State College students who started the Foundation for Cultural Exchange (FCE) in 2004 following a life-changing trip to El Salvador. 

“I had been minoring in Spanish,” said Stout. “I was 19, and I’d just come back to Grand Junction and enrolled at Mesa when I came across a poster for a sociology summer course in El Salvador.” 

Eager to learn the language and travel abroad for the first time, she got her passport and signed up for the trip. 

Anna Stout co-founded the Foundation for Cultural Exchange in 2004 after a life-changing trip to El Espino, El Salvador.

Over two weeks, Stout and her fellow students lived with families in the small community of El Espino. Despite the lack of basic conveniences like electricity and running water, the students were moved by the community’s humility and generosity. 

“It was my first time being ushered into strangers’ homes and immediately not treated as a stranger,” Stout recalled. “It didn’t feel right to come home after this profound experience and basically say, ‘Thanks for everything. Good luck with your crushing poverty,’ and move on with our lives.”

Upon their return, the students requested that City Council establish a sister city relationship between Grand Junction and El Espino. Initially, their request was denied; however, the students formed the FCE, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to support El Espino. By the following year, their persistence paid off and El Espino was officially recognized as Grand Junction’s sister city. 

This milestone created a lasting relationship that would lead to nearly 20 years of cultural immersion trips for Western Slope residents. Except for 2020, the FCE has organized annual cultural immersion trips to El Salvador, open to participants of all ages from the Western Slope and beyond.

SERVICE THROUGH HUMILITY

Each trip consists of relatively small groups led by Stout and an experienced local guide. 

Andrea Bartlett, 74, was part of the group that traveled to El Salvador in July 2023.

“What I loved about the trip was that we’re there to meet our students and be tourists,” said Bartlett. “We’re not there to ‘save’ anybody. We’re there to enjoy the beauty, culture and the people.”

Andrea Bartlett, 74, (center) and fellow travelers in El Salvador with the Foundation for Cultural Exchange, July 2023.

Travelers visit a volcano crater, tour an organic fair trade coffee cooperative, meet community leaders and watch local students play soccer (“football”). They indulge in local cuisine, such as pupusas, El Salvador’s national dish of griddle cakes or flatbreads filled with cheese, meat or refried beans.

The itinerary also includes visits to important historical sites like the site of the 1989 Jesuit massacre, Archbishop Óscar Romero’s house and tomb, and the art workshop of Fernando Llort, one of El Salvador’s most renowned artists. 

Stout emphasized that trips aren’t service projects; they’re opportunities to connect and learn about different cultures. 

“Our motto is we do service through humility,” said Stout. “When we go down to El Salvador, we don’t go to give anything. We don’t go to fix or build or improve anything. We go with a humble approach of wanting to learn, connect and understand—and frankly, needing to be looked after because we’re staying in people’s homes in an unfamiliar community.”

Carole Chowen, who traveled with the FCE in 2007, pictured with her host family in El Espino, El Salvador.

Carole Chowen, a retired teacher and seasoned traveler, visited El Salvador with the FCE in 2007. Although not fluent, her Spanish skills helped her bond closely with her host family. 

“It’s the people that make traveling incredible, and we got to know them pretty intimately on this trip,” said Chowen, now 82. “I was older than the mother, so we had plenty to talk about. She was a good cook. The food was good, and she was even able to accommodate my vegan diet.”

For Bartlett, the trip was especially meaningful as she met the student she sponsored through the FCE’s scholarship program.

“The greatest highlight was going to the school and meeting students…hanging out and laughing with them as they practiced their English and we practiced our Spanish,” she said. 

EMPOWERING FUTURES

Many host homes are families of students who are part of the FCE’s scholarship program, which tackles educational challenges in El Salvador where public schooling is only free through the eighth grade. 

Since its inception in 2009, nearly 70 high school and university students have benefited from these scholarships, with many going on to become professionals and local leaders working to address challenges in their communities.

Andrea Bartlett alongside her first scholarship student, Celso.

 “The scholarship program is the greatest achievement of our organization,” said Stout.

The scholarship program is community-run in El Espino, with the FCE providing financial support and employing a scholarship coordinator. Support is made possible through donations, grants and sponsors like Bartlett. Sponsoring a high school student costs $360 per year, while supporting a university student costs $1,200 annually.

“It’s not a huge financial commitment and it makes an incredible difference for the student and their families,” said Bartlett.

Bartlett first learned about FCE after hearing about the experiences of a friend who participated in the trip a few years earlier. Having attended FCE’s annual anniversary fundraisers for several years, Bartlett eventually chose to sponsor a student and sign up for a trip herself.

“It’s grounding and expanding at the same time,” she said. “It reminded me how fortunate we are to live in a world with such a variety of cultures and people.”

A DIFFERENT WAY OF LIFE

Despite U.S. travel warnings, both Chowen and Bartlett felt safe throughout their trips. 

“We never went anywhere alone, not even to the grocery store. We always went as a group,” said Chowen.

The cultural differences local travelers encounter in El Espino extend into everyday living, including basic amenities.

“Be prepared for a very different way of life,” Chowen advised new travelers headed to El Salvador. “If you’re open to a challenge and are willing to put aside your judgments, it can be really interesting. I don’t know anyone who has participated in these types of trips and came back with nothing good to say.”

A highlight of the trip for many travelers is spending time with students in El Espino—laughing, playing and practicing Spanish/English together.

Accommodations might not meet the standard cleanliness most Americans are accustomed to, but what the homes lack in comforts such as air conditioning and plumbing, the families make up for with warmth and hospitality. 

Stout also emphasized the profound impact of these travel experiences through the FCE. 

“It changes who you are to have friends outside of your small community and to understand the world a little differently,” Stout shared. “Seeing people have the experience that I had, or something akin to it, is so rewarding for me.”

EXPLORE THE RELATIONSHIP

Looking ahead, Stout is dedicated to ensuring the sustainability of the scholarship program, organizing annual immersion trips and fostering a sense of ownership of the sister-city relationship within Grand Junction and its residents.

“This sister-city relationship belongs to Grand Junction,” said Stout. “We want to see that sense of connection and ownership spread throughout the community.” 

On September 13, the City of Grand Junction is planning a “Get to Know Your Sister City” block party in front of City Hall, featuring informative booths, live music and various activities.

The FCE’s 20th anniversary celebration is scheduled for November 9 at Colorado Mesa University.

To learn more about the FCE and upcoming delegations, visit FceElSalvador.org or call 970-433-2897. Trips typically last between 9 to 10 days and cost approximately $1,800, covering all expenses. 


 

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