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 CNS Story:

NUESTRO AHORA Jul-6-2009 (720 words) With photo. xxxn

Education program in El Salvador began with founder's college trip

By Jordan Gamble
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When Victoria Cavanaugh first went to El Salvador as a junior at Boston College, she had no idea that her semester abroad would turn into such an ambitious project.

Now just 23 years old, she helps run Nuestro Ahora, a nonprofit organization she founded in 2007 that provides scholarships, housing and college preparation classes to high school and university students in El Salvador.

Cavanaugh arrived in El Salvador in August 2005 with 27 other college students for a service-learning program.

She spent two days a week volunteering in El Salvador's orphanages -- where, she explained, more than half of the children still have living parents. Extreme poverty and neighborhood violence force many parents to put their children in orphanages, where three meals a day and safety are usually assured.

Cavanaugh grew so close to many of the children that she decided to stay for another semester. She even returned the next fall to attend the high school graduation of a friend from the orphanage, Magdalena Lopez.

But Lopez was unsure of what to do next. She wanted to continue on to college, Cavanaugh said, but the orphanage could not pay for it.

Barely a college graduate herself, Cavanaugh offered to help Lopez enroll at the Universidad Centroamerica, a Jesuit university in San Salvador. Cavanaugh used her own money from campus and summer jobs to pay for her friend's first semester in 2007.

Lopez's success inspired Cavanaugh to do more.

"As Magda and I continued to talk, I came to realize that her situation wasn't so unique," she said in an e-mail to Catholic News Service. "Many kids were and are leaving orphanages with no real place to go."

But with little money and no clear plan, Cavanaugh was wary of moving too fast.

"One of the reasons that I wanted to do it quietly was because I was worried about people taking me seriously ... One of the difficulties I had in the beginning was not knowing how it was going to turn out," she said in an earlier telephone interview with CNS from Easthampton, Mass.

After moving to El Salvador, Cavanaugh gradually started adding students and resources, building an education program she would call Nuestro Ahora (Our Time).

"The idea of time is important because I think it is one of the few equalizers among us. ... We all have 24 hours in a day, no matter who we are. ... (The program is) about the students doing something meaningful, taking control of their lives, helping those around them now. It's about them taking ownership, not about being victims of a developing country," she explained.

Nuestro Ahora's university component provides tuition, transportation and books for four students attending colleges in San Salvador. The students live in a rented house where they work together to shop for groceries and make meals.

The high school program developed later as a way to reach out to possible scholarship students. Besides attending weekend college preparation classes, the 14 high school students meet with the current university students and mentors to discuss their plans for the future.

Cavanaugh also visits the orphanages on a regular basis.

"We focus on collecting data: know who's in what grades, who's ready to graduate. We have the kids tracked, so we don't wait until they're already out of the orphanages," she said.

To raise money while in El Salvador, Cavanaugh works full time as a teacher and English tutor at local schools. During summer break, she returns to Massachusetts to teach summer school four days a week.

But donations -- whether it be money, time or items such as clothing and mattresses -- keep the program running. So she spends the summer weekends and evenings spreading the word about Nuestro Ahora to church and school groups.

Across the United States, members of the program's board of directors give similar presentations. Cavanaugh also regularly updates a Web site -- nuestroahora.blogspot.com -- in English and Spanish.

As more and more students joined Nuestro Ahora and succeeded, Cavanaugh's outlook has evolved from cautious to ambitious.

"In many ways the program grew out of a need and a good friendship and has evolved gradually from there. ... The program continues to grow ... as the students and I try to respond to the challenges and realities we're presented with," she said.


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