David Nolasco lives in El Ocotillo, a small village in San Fernando, El Salvador, with streets fashioned out of dirt and stone and a local school that educates roughly 50 children. He describes the neighborhood as a “caserio” — similar to a hamlet.
The “caserio” knows its priorities: strengthening unity among its people, developing relationships with outside communities, and educating its children. With the support of a small church in Massachusetts, the goals are slowly coming to fruition.
Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton refers to El Ocotillo as its sister community. Their almost 20-year-long relationship focuses on raising scholarship money to help young adults like Nolasco attain a bachelor’s degree, as well as organizing other projects in El Ocotillo such as providing clean water.
Rolando Guzman, 25, describes the relationship between Good Shepherd and his community as a brotherhood. “They were welcome,” he said, texting in Spanish over WhatsApp.
“Good Shepherd has been one of the fundamental pillars in our community,” he said. “Thanks to the economic contribution of the church, many young people like me have a Bachelor’s degree. God permitting, we can return some of [our students] to the community.”
The relationship between Good Shepherd and El Ocotillo sparked in the 1980s, when a parishioner visited El Salvador. There, they began an association with CRISPAZ, or Christians for Peace in El Salvador, a nonprofit dedicated to community development in poor and marginalized communities.
Good Shepherd’s first trip into El Salvador was organized in 2001 in an effort to become educated on the country’s history, culture, and lessons after civil war.
Since then, delegations from Good Shepherd have been visiting El Salvador approximately every other year to encourage community development and sustain their relationship.
“We were very conscious from the beginning of not trying to impose our perceived analysis of what they needed, but rather ask them what their priorities were and try to work with them,” said Dr. Rafael Pupo, a Good Shepherd parishioner who directs delegations to trips. “It pretty quickly became evident that their priority was the education of their children.”
Good Shepherd raises money through donations from parishioners and fundraising efforts such as hosting pupusa (a Salvadoran staple) trucks.
A committee within El Ocotillo submits recommendations for scholarships, and Good Shepherd coordinates with a nonprofit in El Salvador called FUNDAHMER to determine how many can be funded. FUNDAHMER also oversees the scholarship program in El Salvador, distributing funds, providing mentorship, and confirming that students meet academic milestones.
Guzman studied education with a focus in English at Universidad Gerardo Barrios in San Miguel, El Salvador. He said he earned one of Good Shepherd’s scholarships by receiving excellent grades in high school that demonstrated his ambitions.
Because of minimal teaching opportunities near him, Guzman currently works in coffee fields — but looks forward to the start of his career in education.
Nolasco, 26, graduated from high school then temporarily suspended his studies due to poor economic conditions. Eventually he won an international scholarship that allowed him to study in the United States for two years before returning to El Salvador.
Back home, he met parishioners from Good Shepherd who encouraged him to apply for their own scholarship after witnessing his efforts to teach basic English to young residents.
He won the scholarship and is now attending Universidad de Oriente in San Miguel. He is currently in his third year of his English undergraduate degree and expects to graduate within three or four years.
“I do think the relationship between us is mutually respectful and beneficial,” Nolasco said. “Thanks to this program, the community has about 12 professionals and many graduates.”
He notes, though, one of El Ocotillo’s main problems: the lack of available employment. This has resulted in the flight of several residents to different countries to seek new opportunities for their families.
“The only way [to work] is to go to the city, about three hours from here,” Nolasco said.
Pupo said Good Shepherd’s relationship with El Ocotillo is a different model than most mission trips.
“We were not zipping down there once or twice to build a school and then never be seen again,” Pupo said. “From the very outset, there was that intent for us to be in a relationship with this community where they would pray for our concerns and we would pray for theirs.”
Rev. Melissa Buono, the interim priest at Good Shepherd, confirmed the church’s commitment to El Ocotillo.
“We’re helping this community educate their children so that they are the ones improving their lives and their community,” she said. “It’s not us coming in and building a house or coming in as the person to save the day.”
Good Shepherd’s Sunday school devotes each month on a different mission outreach program — February is El Ocotillo. High school students are studying the theme of “solidarity not charity,” while younger children read and exchange letters with students in El Ocotillo.
“The gospel message of Jesus is to love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord God,” Buono said. “I think this is a way we’re able to do that. Our neighbor isn’t necessarily the house next door… it’s wherever there’s a deep need and your gifts can help.”
Good Shepherd’s gifts lift up students like Nolasco and Guzman. Nolasco envisions Ocotillo continuing to grow — with new technologies, more professionals, and improved local schools.
He wants to use his education to further develop his “caserio,” adding that other Ocotillo students share the same goal. “We are studying with the intention that one day, we can help.”