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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2006-07-30

El Salvador Trip: 'Many were afraid of the big, black box that I had around my neck…'
By Ashley Franscell, (Provo) Daily Herald

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Ruthmenia, 8, goes to school at noon each day after waking up at 5 a.m. to work collecting crabs until 11 a.m. She lives in a one-room hut with five brothers and sisters and her parents in a small coastal village in El Salvador.
Months after my trip to El Salvador with Give a Kid a Backpack Foundation, images still keep me awake at night.

I can't get rid of the passionate embrace those kids gave me on the last day. I can still feel the tight hugs they gave me as they uttered "Thank you" over and over again.

They didn't let me go then and I know that I still haven't let go of them.

* * *

On April 29th I boarded a plane from Miami to San Salvador with five other women from the Give A Kid A Backpack Foundation. I was terrified. I'd been warned about violence, gangs and poverty in El Salvador and I knew that going to this almost-third-world country would be different than going to a major metropolitan European city that I'd been to before.

I had been hired about two months prior by the organizer to come along and document the humanitarian group hand-delivering 900 backpacks filled with school supplies to the poor children in El Salvador. It would be there eighth delivery since the mother-daughter duo started their work in 2001. When I was asked there were no hesitations on my part. To me, it was an opportunity to make a donation in my own creative way.

For five days we traveled to five schools and three orphanages in the back of a pick up truck along dirt roads and sometimes by boat. The children would run to greet us. Some tried their hand at English. Just as we were trying out our high school Spanish.

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Children at an orphanage in El Salvador run by the Catholic Church. Because the orphanage is run by the nuns and not by the state they are often low on funding and run out of food supplies for children.
Many were afraid of the big, black box that I had around my neck. Some were intrigued. I constantly showed the children their picture on the back of my camera. They were amazed and would giggle continuously. These children had never seen such a thing before. In Spanish, they would say, "I wasn't ready. Do it again! Me next!"

It was impossible to be a fly-on-the-wall with these children when they had never seen such a device before. Whether I liked it or not I had become part of the situation and ended up taking more portraits of them with their doe eyes staring back at me. I would try hard to photograph them opening up their backpack to get their initial reaction but they would stop and stare at me. At time it was frustrating. They didn't - and couldn't - understand that I just wanted them to not pay attention to me.

On the fourth day of our trip we went to Ahuachapan (a small coastal village on the Pacific side of El Salvador) to deliver 200 backpacks to a school run by an American couple that have been ministering in El Salvador for decades.

As the children lined up, their eyes focused on their shoes. Their embarrassment could have easily been mistaken as shyness. Their families have no electricity. The children have few toys. Most of these children had nothing. Many of them lived in a "house" made entirely of palm leaves. Many of their parents had a very low paying jobs as a fishermen or house maids. Many were forced to work themselves, most often before or after school. They weren't required to go to school and if they did attend they had to pay for all supplies, uniforms, tuition, etc., which was hard for most to afford. They walk miles to and from work and school. Their lives are anything but easy.

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Children open their backpacks at a school in El Salvador. The children were given backpacks filled with school supplies by the Give A Kid A Backpack Foundation in April.
Like each day before, I photographed the children receiving their backpacks filled with pencils, notebooks, folders and other school supplies. I photographed their smiles. Their excitement. Their gratitude.

The kids were changed. The backpacks gave them a little hope for a promising future or just one more year of school. They were vibrant and alive. They ran through their school courtyard laughing and shrieking in excitement as they pulled rulers and erasers from their bags.

Before this, I had shot the same thing at four other schools in the previous three days, feeling that I had made the same picture over and over and over, I hung my camera on my shoulder.

When I put down my camera I saw -- and felt -- something that I hadn't been able to through a square-inch-eyepiece. For the first time in four days, I became a part of it all. I was no longer the journalist keeping her emotional and objective distance from her subjects.

I couldn't help but scour my own mind -- and my pockets -- thinking of anything I had to give them. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But, I did have a camera.

Their world as I had known it became more than just a picture. It became an emotional attachment. Something -- and at that point I realized -- I would never be able to let go.

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Photo by Ashley Franscell / Daily Herald

Give A Kid A Backpack founder, Rosanna Kingston, gives a hug to Johnny at a school in Isla de Méndez after giving him his backpack.
Every journalist hopes that, at some point in their career, they can change something, whether it's in legislation or social. This was the first time in my career that I really felt that I could make a difference. If one of my photos could stir up an emotion in someone strong enough to donate a backpack or a notebook or anything that promotes the education and a future for these children then I had done my job.

Photos are really worth a thousand words. But until I got back to the United States all I could give these children were hugs and smiles. And that was enough for them.

If you would like to donate anything please contact me at: ashmcdash@gmail.com

Or send to:
Give A Kid A Backpack
www.givebackpacks.com
PO Box 120397
Clermont, Fla. 34712-5089
(352) 217-0800
info@givebackpacks.com


(Ashley Franscell recently joined the staff of the Daily Herald in Provo as a staff photographer. You can check out her work at: http://www.sportsshooter.com/ashmcdash.)

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