What started as a partnership that took root between Montgomery County and El Salvador last summer is bearing fruit in the form of continued efforts to foster cultural understanding and spur educational and economic outreach.
County Executive Isiah Leggett will give voice to those deepening ties on Sunday at the Salvadoran Festival at the Montgomery County fairgrounds in Gaithersburg, where he’ll address those celebrating El Salvador's independence.
The burgeoning relationship traces back to 2009 when Leggett (D) pushed to find Montgomery County its first Sister City.
El Salvador accounts for one-third of Montgomery County’s residents who are foreign-born, making the Central American country an obvious choice as Montgomery’s first Sister City. County officials honed in on Morazán, a rural state in the eastern part of the country, where the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s compelled much of the Salvadoran influx to Montgomery County.
Last summer, Leggett and a cadre of elected officials, business leaders and volunteers went to Morazan for an excursion that formalized the Sister Cities relationship. Before he left, Leggett talked with Patch about his vision for the future of that partnership:
"We can be a leader and a spark to encourage others, a role model," he told Patch last year. "We’ve identified a country we think you should help support. What we hope to do is to build on this so we have private sector, the nonprofit sector, the governmental sector, all making some effort to be supportive. And by Montgomery County doing it, I think that we establish a foundation that others in leadership may want to follow."
Click here to see a slideshow from the trip.
Since then, the Sister Cities program has given rise to several initiatives, including:
- A dozen volunteers went with Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County to build a home for a school teacher in Morazan, the first of more than 30 homes and a community center they plan to build there. "Housing is what we can do, and we are only one piece of this process," executive director John Paukstis said in a statement. "Sister Cities is the vehicle that connected Habitat for Humanity with the Morazán community. We are one spoke in the wheel. We are committed to continue with this project and bring positive impact to the community of Morazán through realizing the dream of home ownership.
- A fundraiser in December at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus drew 300 people to help pay for 20 hospital beds, wheelchairs, crutches and commodes for the Morazán hospital and regional clinics.
- The El Salvador Sister Cities Committee paid for 18 teachers in El Salvador to attend an educational conference in the country’s capital.
- El Salvador’s under-23 Olympic team came to the Germantown SoccerPlex for a game with the University of Maryland.
One of the volunteers on the July 2011 trip was Rebecca Kahlenberg, executive director of the nonprofit MoverMoms of Bethesda. She was drawn to work with children and pregnant women at shelters and a maternity center there. She came out of the trip inspired to establish a cultural exchange program between a school in Morazan and Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda.
Kahlenberg and her 9-year-old daughter, Amanda, returned to Morazan a few months later to deliver school supplies and cookware to expectant mothers -- and to plan a larger trip. That came last month, when a group of students and adults went on a week-long service trip that included outreach projects in the small town of Perquin and a visit to the U.S. embassy in El Salvador's capital. Click here to see a slideshow of their visit.