Author Archives: mazonheather

A New Approach to Thanksgiving

Courtesy Flickr user riptheskull (http://flickr.com/photos/vintagehalloweencollector/)

A few days ago, I read the devastating news — 49 million Americans are food insecure and live on the edge of hunger.  One in four children don’t know when and where they will have their next meal. Over a year ago, as our economy began to slide and we entered a recession, the face of hunger changed dramatically — now, it may pain your neighbor who lives next door or your colleague in an office down the hall.

These past months, individuals have had to make the decision between paying bills or putting food on the table.  No one should ever have to make this decision.  Food and shelter are basic necessities that everyone should be able to access.

This Thanksgiving, I will be sitting at a beautiful table, surrounded by family, enjoying delicious food and festivity.  Although I give thanks for all that I have had in my life, how can I sit at my Thanksgiving meal knowing how many in this country are going to bed with an empty stomach?

Let’s show how thankful we are for what we have by helping make a difference. I encourage you to join me in starting a new Thanksgiving tradition at your holiday table. As you share what you are thankful for with your family and friends, make a pledge to donate to MAZON what it would be to invite one additional person to your holiday table (like at Passover) and invite your friends and family to match your contribution.

This Thanksgiving, we can make a difference.

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Filed under Food For Thought, Hunger Advocacy

Making the Grade

A MAZON donor was recently highlighted in The News-Gazette  newspaper of Champaign-Urbana, IL.

August 13, 2009

Making the Grade

“For his bar mitzvah – a coming-of-age ceremony for Jews – Saul Downie elected to give gifts instead of receive them and collected thousands of dollars for two charities in the process.

The Urbana Middle School student raised more than $3,000 for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, requesting guests at his June ceremony contribute to the organization’s Back Pack Buddies Program (a joint effort with Junior League) in a note saying: “As a growing adolescent I know how much food I need (a lot), and as an athlete, I know the importance of eating right. Many kids are not as privileged as I am to be able to always open a fridge or cupboard and have something waiting for them to eat.”

With the same mission, Downie also raised more than $4,400 for Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national organization that works to help feed people of all religions and backgrounds around the world.”

Many thanks to Saul!

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Filed under Hunger in the Media, MAZON News

Back to School!

The months of August and September mark the time for new beginnings.  Young children are going off to school; young adults are off to college; and we begin our “normal” routine.  As I reflect on this summer, I recall the worries of drought, concerns about the economy and the slowly increasing gas prices.  All of which continued to add pressure to the 36 million hungry Americans, including 12 million children to constantly go between proper nutrition and not being able to provide for their families.

Studies show that children who do not receive proper nutrition can face poor cognitive development, lower test scores, increased risk of illness and a number of other issues.  Yet, as we enter a new school year, there are federally funded programs available to student and their families to regulate the fluctuation of having nutritious food or not being provided with foods to sustain themselves.  One of the most important programs available to children at school is the National School Lunch Program.  The NSLP ensures that all school children receive nutritious lunches every day at school.

This September also marks the expiration of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004. Lawmakers must ask themselves a number of questions to understand how the Child Nutrition Program can best address the needs of the hungry and how nutritious meals can be provided to children in school on a daily basis.  The Child Nutrition Act supports a series of programs, including the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program, that provide daily nutritious meals to school children in need.   Every five years, lawmakers work together to model improvements and reauthorize the federal Child Nutrition Program.

Contact your local legislators and promote the Reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, and help put an END to childhood hunger.

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Filed under Hunger Advocacy

El Salvador Days 6 and 7 (March 15 and 16, 2009)

March 16, 2009 marked a day in history for the El Salvadorian people and we were able to be a part of it as we witnessed the nation’s presidential elections as international observers. At 5 a.m. we entered a polling place, a high school, in the southern part of San Salvador. In El Salvador, citizens not only vote by city/region but also by their last name. We were at the polling place with individuals with last names that begin with “M.” Approximately 45,000 were expected throughout the day. Although the polls didn’t open until 7 a.m. we witnessed the organization of each of the 92 voting areas. Four individuals (four from each party, dressed in non-party colors) began the process of putting up signs and lists to indicate where voters should vote. Additionally, they confirmed that the count of the ballots was correct and that they had enough materials for the day.

At 7 a.m. the polling place opened. The high school became filled with individuals, some in political party shirts, and others plain clothed. There were children with their parents, elderly, those who had experienced the war, those who wanted to be heard…etc. Voters in El Salvador approach the voting table and have their ID’s checked against the registry, and then they received a signed and sealed ballot. The ballot contains images of the flags of the two parties and in the voting booth; the voter is to place a “X” on the flag of the party they are voting for. After voting, they place their ballot in the ballot box, they sign their name on another registry and then dip their finger in ink that stays on the skin for about two days to avoid duplicate voting.

Watching the polls get set-up.

Watching the polls get set-up.

For 10 hours I watched as people voted. At the high school, the current President and his wife came to vote, as well as the current mayor of San Salvador. The polls were civilized throughout the day. At 5 p.m., the polls closed and the counting process began. Each table was responsible for counting the unused ballots and confirming the amount of people who voted at their table by checking both registries. Then the ballot box is opened and each ballot is counted. The ballot is unfolded and presented to the people around the table and the passed to the party representative based for whom the vote was for. Once the count was finalized, the party that won at the table chanted for their party. By 6:30 p.m. most of the tables completed their counting and the FMLN seemed to have had the lead. As we left the polling place and embarked on El Salvador’s roads, those who support FMLN took to the streets in celebration. Although it was not confirmed that the FMLN had officially won, people were optimistic.

As I write, FMLN has claimed victory, but the final vote won’t be finalized until sometime on Tuesday. It is time for great change in El Salvador.

This is my last day in El Salvador, I would like to thank the SHARE Foundation for organizing this experience for us. It is truly one trip that I will remember for a lifetime.

The MAZON delegation.

The MAZON delegation.

Thank you for reading. Adios!

Heather Wolfson

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Filed under International Relief, MAZON Grantees, Site Visits, Travel

El Salvador Days 4 and 5 (March 13 and 14, 2009)

The past day and half has been incredible. On Friday morning we made the two-hour drive to Chalatenago in the northern part of the country.  We met with the leaders form the community of Guarjila to discuss their partnership with SHARE as the CCR, a grassrooots board of leaders in the neighboring communities.  Many of the people living in the north were originally refugees who were in Mesa Grande refugee camp about 12 miles inside Honduras.  The first group left the camp 22 years ago and entered back into El Salvador with nothing.  They had plastic to lie on the ground and a few blankets.  Today, the region has homes, restaurants and roads.

The CCR addresses health, education and building organization within the region.  The CCR represents 110 communities in 22 municipalities.  The CCR works side-by-side with the municipalities to develop a united front.  The CCR leaders shared with us two of their latest concerns:  1.  The question of mining for gold in the region; and 2.  The mega-highway project that would ultimately connect all of Central America.  The Pacific Rim Company recently came to El Salvador looking for areas to mine.  The CCR and many residents don’t believe mining is possible.   According to the CCR, the company would only leave 1% of their profit in the country.  Many of the jobs mining would produce would also come from other countries, therefore it will not help to stimulate the economy.  Additionally, the region sits along the Lempa River that goes from the north to the south of the country.  The CCR is concerned that first, there is not enough water to successfully do the mining and secondly, they are concerned about contamination. As they said, before gold, they would rather have water.

Although mining is their first concern, the mega-freeway may also impact the region.  First, many people will be displaced by the building of the freeway and as such will have to re-create their lives elsewhere.  Furthermore, many hotels and restaurants have taken interest in developing the areas off of the freeway.  As with the mining, there is a concern that the money would not come back into the community.

Evely Laser Shlensky, a long-time MAZON board member is traveling with us.  She visited Honduras 22 years ago on an interfaith mission to the Mesa Grande camp.  She accompanied the first group to the border.  Jose Angel Serrano, a CCR member, remembered Evely joining refugees on the buses.  Over lunch, Evely and Jose recounted the “Exodus” over two decades ago.

Evely & Jose

Evely & Jose

Friday evening, we joined the Jewish community for Shabbat services.  The community warmly embraced us.  Additionally, Knesset member Ron Cohen was at services to address the community.  He too is in El Salvador as an international observer.  The service was traditional but you could feel the ruach (spirit) throughout the sanctuary.  Members of the community welcomed us into their homes for a traditional Shabbat meal.  El Salvador had a larger Jewish community prior to the war, today there are only about 50 families, but they are loyal to Judaism and sustaining their community.

Saturday morning I had the opportunity to visit the Divina Providencia, the home of Monsenor Romero and the site of his assassination.  Romero was for the people.  He became Archbishop in 1977 and decided to live at the Divina with the sisters in a very small room.  He didn’t want anything elaborate as he wanted to live like the people of El Salvador.  He was outspoken and cared about the poor.  He knew the risk of uniting with the poor and pursuing social justice, but he knew that this was what he was meant to do.  On March 24, 1980, Monsenor Romero was assassinated.  Today, individuals are still trying to pursue justice on behalf of Romero.

Saturday afternoon will be filled with formal election training.  Sunday we will be at our polling place at 5 a.m. to begin election observations.  The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. we will then witness the counting of the ballots at the polling place.  Due to our long day, I will most likely write Monday to debrief about the election.

Until next time…

Heather Wolfson

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Filed under International Relief, MAZON Grantees, Site Visits, Travel

El Salvador Day 3 (March 12, 2009)

We spent the day in the southeast region of El Salvador visiting two cooperative programs.  After our hour and a half bus ride, we visited Los Frailes cooperative with CONFRAS, a grassroots organization that cultivates organic and agro-ecological basic grains and vegetables.  CONFRAS, with the support of SHARE, organizes the Peasant to Peasant program, where CONFRAS teaches it agricultural skills to farmers who then passes it on to other farmers.  There are 28 cooperatives throughout El Salvador that participate in the program.  Their main focus is to utilize organic methods to grow crops in the region.

At Los Frailes cooperative, there is a group of 38 families participating as a group and some of the families have their own crops in front of their homes.   The important element in their crop development is the creation of its own fertilizer.  Before the CAFTA trade agreement was signed, fertilizer was about $2 a bag, today it is nearly $115.  Additionally, farmers only receive about $4 a day making it very difficult for them to purchase the needed fertilizer.  Therefore, the cooperative shared with us how they prepare their own with a mixture of elements that is turned over daily for 20 days with molasses water before it is packaged.   Last year, the cooperative was able to exchange product and have some revenue to buy goats.  The hope this year is that they will make a significant revenue from their newest crop of pineapples to purchase cattle.

Tilling fertilizer.

Tilling fertilizer.

Our second stop was a visit with ACAMG, a cooperative of women who predominately work with cattle, but have also been growing basic grains during this most recent food crisis.  In 1993, 68 women started the cooperative through a Jesuit fund.  They had no experience with loans but they were introduced to raising cattle and chickens.  They spent several years getting trained in loan making but received a grant through Oxfam to establish microcredit loans to women of the cooperative to purchase baby cattle and then sell them after a year for a profit.  In  2001, they became a legalized cooperative with a board.  Fifteen villages participate with approximately 300 women involved, fifty percent of whom are single mothers.  The loans are for about $500 at 6% interest, with a 100% repayment rate within the cooperative.  Women typically have a maximum of 10 cows at a time.

As part of the program UC Davis veterinary school partnered with the cooperative to teach 12 women how to care for the cattle.  Another program that the women are proud of is their literacy program.  Many of these women have not had any education and therefore, the women have an opportunity to learn to read and become empowered.   With the support of SHARE the women have an office, kitchen, training center, archives room and store.  Since the women are located in a flood region, they built a second story on one of their buildings to which they move their product and information to prevent any damages when the rains come.

At the conclusion of our day we joined the community to remember Rutilio Grande who was assassinated 32 years ago.  Although we weren’t aware of this ceremony before we got to the village, we joined.  The memorial began with a procession on the main road.  We lined up in two perfect lines and walked with palm fronds tied with red ribbon.  The residents sang songs as we were led to a local community center.  There a ceremony took place with about 150 people.  The youth danced and sang.  This was an experience we will remember for a lifetime.dscn0301

Tomorrow we go to the north and then visit with the local Jeiwhs community.  I will most likely post on Saturday.

Until next time…

Heather Wolfson

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Filed under International Relief, MAZON Grantees, Site Visits, Travel

El Salvador Day 2 (March 11, 2009)

Today began by interacting with all of the participants (MAZON’s delegation of eight people is part of the larger SHARE delegation of 150 individuals) while also going through an in-depth orientation on health, safety, and the elections as well as on the SHARE Foundation. Important health, safety and election takeaways:

1. Brush your teeth with bottled water only.

2. The cars have the right of way, so even though they might see you, they may not stop. Therefore, avoid crossing the street.

3. Don’t go out on your own. Partner system.

4. All official campaigning for the election ends tonight (Wednesday, March 11).

5. El Salvador becomes a dry country at midnight tomorrow (Thursday, March 12).

The SHARE Foundation has been mobilizing residents of El Salvador since the late 80s. SHARE supports poor and historically marginalized communities in their struggle for empowerment, to meet basic needs and to build long-term, sustainable solutions to poverty, underdevelopment and social injustice. Their objectives are to empower women (social, political, economic), to develop successful models for local development, to create alternative rural policies and to build solidarity between the United States and El Salvador through community groups. To achieve these objectives SHARE engages in local development in El Salvador, participates in advocacy both in El Salvador and in the United States and through works on the grassroots level. With offices in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and San Salvador, SHARE has become a critical organization for the people of El Salvador. SHARE’s staff believes that we will be making and writing history on this trip.

This afternoon, I had the honor and privilege to hear Mirna Perla a Supreme Court Magistrate. She is also known for her human rights activism in El Salvador. During our discussion she gave us some context about the situation in El Salvador. On January 16, 1991, the peace accords were signed which was followed by a period of democratization. During this time, there was the abolishment of security forces since the army was key in violating human rights during the civil war. They were responsible for the systematic practice of torture as well as the forced disappearance of persons, including 700 children. Mirna has played a critical role in locating these children and currently approximately 350 of these children have been located, and of those, 200 have been reconnected with their families. Unfortunately, because of an amnesty law, the former army cannot be brought to justice.

Although El Salvador is experiencing some level of peace, there are still many human rights issues. Mirna explained that over the years, instead of the government offering its residents opportunities to get out of poverty, the leadership has led with a strong hand. This has a direct affect on families, where many parents are leaving the country for work in the United States and leaving their children with grandparents, other family members or friends. This leads to the decomposition of family life. Children sometimes end up participating in gangs as there are no community resources to keep them off the streets. From other conversations I’ve had in the past 24 hours, I’ve also learned that children typically only make it through elementary school (which is paid for, except for books, supplies and the uniform). Beyond that, families must pay for further education.

Additionally, El Salvador was built as an agricultural country, but the government has ignored this sector for many years and has imported grains, beans, rice, corn and other staples. This has directly affected food security with 70% of the population in poverty. The average wage is $196 per month, but the typical family needs $350 per month to live moderately.

The question at hand today is, is there enough democracy in the country for a transfer of power? Regardless of the results after Sunday’s election, Mirna will continue pursuing human rights for the people of El Salvador.

Tomorrow, the MAZON delegation will be going into the field to see some of the projects we help to fund.

Until then…

Heather Wolfson

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Filed under International Relief, MAZON Grantees, Site Visits, Travel