March 2, 2004 - Spokesman-Review: RPCV Phyllis Andersen finds friendships, solidarity in El Salvador

Peace Corps Online: Directory: El Salvador: Peace Corps El Salvador : The Peace Corps in El Salvador: March 2, 2004 - Spokesman-Review: RPCV Phyllis Andersen finds friendships, solidarity in El Salvador

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RPCV Phyllis Andersen finds friendships, solidarity in El Salvador

RPCV Phyllis Andersen finds friendships, solidarity in El Salvador

`Sisters' find friendships, solidarity ; Ties with El Salvador bind

Mar 2, 2004


by Virginia De Leon Staff Writer

The friendship began three years ago when a Spokane woman packed her bags and headed south in her '92 Suburban.

Phyllis Andersen drove 4,000 miles - all the way to El Salvador.

Her six-month sojourn in the village of Huizisilapa gave birth to a kinship that now spans international borders - forging ties that transcend differences in language, culture and lifestyle.

In the past two years, Andersen and a group of professional women in Spokane have fostered a relationship with the women of Huizisilapa in central El Salvador. Despite the apparent incongruence of their lives, the women have discovered they share the same concerns - feeding their families, educating their children and improving their communities.

"We see these women as our friends and peers," Andersen said. "Our mission was to be in solidarity with them."

Her work with "Las Hermanas" (Spanish for "the sisters") received national attention Monday. Among 3,000 nominees for the Volvo for Life Awards - a contest that recognizes people who make a difference in the world - Andersen placed in the top 100. She was chosen by a group of judges including actor Paul Newman, astronaut Sally Ride and attorney Caroline Kennedy.

Andersen, 56, won't take any credit for establishing the cross- cultural connection. The award is for all the women - here and in the farming community of Huizisilapa, she said.

The core group of 15 Spokane women, however, say it was Andersen who inspired them and brought them together.

"She has changed my life," said Laurae Sather who traveled to Huizisilapa last summer with Las Hermanas. "We have formed some great relationships and I wouldn't trade it for the world. We've had a lot of fun and a lot of adventures."

A former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, Andersen returned to the country in 2001 to learn about how the women of Huizisilapa survived the civil war and the refugee camps to emerge as leaders of their community. She established connections there after living in the village and used her experience to write her doctoral dissertation at Gonzaga University.

When Andersen returned to Spokane, she quickly mobilized Las Hermanas. Since then, they have aided the women of Huizisilapa by helping them start a small jewelry-making cooperative, providing them with resources to sew school uniforms for their children, helping them raise funds to obtain computers.

Although the Spokane women have donated money to the village women, their goal is to create a partnership, an equal exchange of philosophy and ideas. "They know more about leadership for their time and space than we do," said Andersen, an adjunct professor at Spokane Community College and Whitworth College.

The women in Spokane - who work in business, education and a variety of fields - say they have gained more than they have given. The lessons they've learned from the other female leaders of Huizisilapa have empowered their own lives in Spokane, Sather said.

Huizisilapa is a small farming community of 800 people established after many El Salvadorans returned from refugee camps in the early '90s. The center of the village is a basketball court with an enormous ceiba tree that provides shade. Electricity became available only a few years ago. There are no paved roads. In this village where even the health center has no running water, ibuprofen is like gold.

After the civil war in the 1980s and their decade-long stay in the Honduran refugee camps, the El Salvadoran women developed a philosophy of nonviolent change, explained Andersen. Formerly relegated to the home, these women suddenly found themselves in the public arena working to improve their community. One of the women is now a member of the village's school board. Their experience with war also reconfirmed their desire for peace, Andersen said.

Westerners often feel pity for the poor in the Third World, said Las Hermanas member Claudia Start of Spokane. But after visiting Huizisilapa twice and staying with the families of the El Salvadoran women, Start said she discovered many of these women live with a profound sense of inner peace and an appreciation for simplicity despite the poverty in their lives.

"It was very much an exercise in awareness-building," said Start.

During a gathering this month, the Spokane women celebrated their second year of being together with a meal of pupusas and tamales, initiated with a toast of champagne.

"Salud!" they cried, raising their glasses.

"Here's to friendship," said Andersen, "to solidarity. ..." Tears welled in her eyes and she got too choked up to continue.

"I feel full of love and happiness that all this has made a difference," she said later after gaining her composure.

Born and raised in the tiny town of Staples, Minn., Andersen got a degree in physical education and health from the University of Wyoming just in time for the passage of Title IX in 1972. "I went into P.E. because we didn't have sports for girls, and I felt cheated that I didn't get to participate in organized sports," said Andersen, who has a 13-year-old daughter.

After the Peace Corps, she became a teacher, working at various schools throughout the country. Her passion has always been learning about other cultures and developing an understanding of the social and economic differences that affect people in this country. She moved to Spokane 20 years ago.

Andersen has albums full of photos from El Salvador, but one in particular stands out. It is a photo of women - women from Spokane and Huizisilapa, standing on a dirt road in front of lush, wild greenery. They are holding hands and smiling.

It is hoped that this give-and-take relationship between the women will become a model for other communities in the United States and abroad, Andersen said. It's a positive step "toward creating a loving and sustainable world."

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Story Source: Spokesman-Review

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - El Salvador



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