In this biographical documentary, a Passionist sister transforms lives through service to the poor in El Salvador.
What does it mean to live a life of service to others?
The purpose of this documentary film is to show the power of one person’s ability to transform the lives of others through a commitment to service. It is inspired by a Passionist sister, Yolanda, who fearlessly provides education and a safe, loving school environment to children who are plagued by poverty and seemingly overwhelming social issues. Her acts of compassion offer hope for a better future to these children and their families.
The setting is El Salvador, an area of the Americas where human beings suffer extreme hardship with few economic opportunities. El Salvador is the smallest, most densely populated, and one of the poorest and most violent countries on the Western mainland. In 2001, nearly ten years after the country’s decade-long bloody civil war, the country was struck by two deadly earthquakes, magnitude of 7.6 and 6.6, within one month of each other. In the impoverished city of Santiago de Maria in the Usulután department of El Salvador, the city has been feeling the “aftershock” of the earthquake for a decade following the disasters. Homes, businesses, and the coffee plants, which were the backbone of the city’s economy, were leveled to the ground. Following the quakes, the government supplied sheets of corrugated tin to the people so that they could build “temporary” tin shacks for shelter on top of the rubble of the razed city. Ten years later, these tin shacks still form the squalid slums where resides a population struggling for survival in a climate of abject poverty. Compounding the struggle for survival in the slums are the complex social issues that the people face: abandonment by family members who have left to try and cross into the United States, gang warfare, sickness, hunger, unemployment, overpopulation, and death from alcoholism, violence, suicide, AIDS and other infectious diseases. The odds seem insurmountable and the people are aware of their situation, commonly saying that one would “rather die in the desert” (trying to cross without documentation into the United States from Mexico) than to stay where they are.
The protagonist, Yolanda, is a petit and determined Passionist sister who serves the local children by running a grammar school. The film will be a window into Yolanda’s commitment to service, and will depict her day-to-day life with the children and their families that she serves. The story will be told from Yolanda’s point of view, and will explore how she came to her decision to devote her life to service, how her commitment to service impacts her own lifestyle, and how she remains motivated in the face of overwhelming challenges and frequent discouragement.
The school Yolanda runs a few kilometers from the slums is a diamond in the rough, humbly surrounded by an eight-foot barbed-wire fence. Inside the school the grounds are clean and simple, painted with bright colors and full of children ages five to 14. The children come from squalid living conditions and many arrive hungry. The film will contrast the children’s deplorable home environment with the security, happiness, and love they encounter within the school. The few hours they spend within the school environment enable them to forget the horrendous conditions that are their reality at home. More important, the education they receive at school is the hope for their future.
Yolanda’s service to the community extends beyond the school compound. She also ventures out into the slums every day to check on her students and meet with local families who are the poorest of the poor. Her sense of service is deep, inspired by her faith, her loyalty to her country, her deep commitment to justice, and accomplished by her personal fortitude. She not only provides a school for the children to be educated, but also offers support and hope through her daily interactions with desperate families, providing the only light for many people in this dark corner of the world.
Documentary filmmaker, Matthew Campanella, returns to El Salvador, where he was deeply impacted by his experience working with Yolanda and her fellow-sisters in 2007. Together with cinematographer, Eduardo Barraza, Campanella's film, The Santa Gema Film Project, will explore what it means to be truly of service to others.
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