Keeping spirits up in our women's cooperative - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Melissa Altman homeschooling her daughter, Evey, during the quarantine in El Salvador.

Like most of you, my family and I have been in quarantine. When El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele first announced the prospect of a quarantine—before there were any confirmed cases here—our family decided that it would be best to practice physical distancing right away. The public hospital system here in El Salvador is precarious under normal circumstances, and once the virus is at its peak, it won’t matter how much money you have. If you require a hospital bed, you will go where there is one available.

The national convention center in San Salvador is being converted into a 3,000-bed hospital, with 1,000 of those beds designated for intensive-care patients. Our best bet for surviving this pandemic is to stay home and find ways to continue our relationships with the people at our ministries without being physically present—a challenge, but also an opportunity. 

My ministry, the women’s cooperative ACOMUJERZA, has come to a screeching halt. We were in the middle of a huge order for the Education Ministry of El Salvador. We are sewing over 3,000 school uniforms as part of a government-funded program. This order is the biggest we have ever been contracted to make, and frankly before this pandemic our members were scrambling to figure out how we were going to sew more than 3,000 pieces in 60 days and how we were going to pay everyone to make all of those uniforms. 

ACOMUJERZA applied for a loan from a non-governmental organization that has helped us in the past. We received the preliminary approval for the loan, but with all of the economic uncertainty, the NGO froze all lending for the foreseeable future. ACOMUJERZA members packed up all of the finished uniforms and prepared the building for the beginning of a nationwide mandatory quarantine on Saturday, March 21.

There is so much uncertainty, and yet when I talk to each of our members, they remain positive. The government has promised a government grant of $300 a month to unsalaried workers—those most in need, which applies to some of our members—but that money has not been distributed yet. With 12 days into our quarantine, I worry about how my friends at the cooperative are surviving and if they have enough food to eat. 

Melissa Altman with face mask

I spoke with my friend Juanita from the women’s cooperative the other day. She told me that, when she first went home after the president declared quarantine, all she wanted to do was cry. She felt depressed and sad to not be able to go to work and she felt a loss of her freedom. But after a few days, she pulled herself out of her sadness, and she told me about all of the things that she and her daughter decided to do during the mandatory quarantine. They already painted a few rooms in their house, got rid of old clothes, sewed masks and spent time tending to her garden.

“Now the time just seems to be going by quickly, thanks be to God.” she said to me during our last phone call. We chatted a bit longer and before getting off the phone, she reminded me that “we are all called to do our part and, for now, our part is staying at home.”

While checking over my daughter Evey’s daily journal assignment for school, I realized just how I am doing my part. She was assigned to write about what she liked and didn’t like about being homeschooled during the quarantine. She wrote, “I like homeschooling because it is fun and I get to do more fun stuff with my mom.”

Maybe “doing my part” is keeping spirits up among the members of the cooperative, sharing my gifts and talents with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, spending more time with my children and modeling for them how to adjust to an ever-changing reality.

Photo by Peter Altman

Melissa Altman
Melissa Altman serves ACOMUJERZA, a women's cooperative in Zaragoza, El Salvador, with marketing, communications and product development. She and her husband, Peter, are raising their children, Eli and Evey, in mission in El Salvador.