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St. Barnabas parishioner recognized for mission work in El Salvador

Posted: May 19, 2017

by Erica Peterson


If you ask Gerry Jira about the award he received from the Catholic Commission of Summit County recognizing his mission work, don’t expect to hear a lot about Gerry Jira.


“This isn’t about me,” he said. “This is about the mission team. There are an awful lot of people who make what we do happen.”


Jira, 76, of Sagamore Hills, received the 2016 Bishop Anthony M. Pilla Leadership award in recognition of his work with social justice programs through St. Barnabas Church. 


He has been a part of the El Salvador Mission Team for 10 years and returned from a week long trip in January. The team includes members from churches throughout the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.


Inspired by the Church’s challenge that parishioners donate time and talents, not just money, Jira went on his first trip in 2006. 


“I was retired, looking for the next step in life,” he said. “My dentist did trips to the Philippines, but I didn’t want to go that far.”


He decided to go to El Salvador and joined a medical team on a trip to Teotepeque and Chiltiupan, two of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country. The average annual income in Chiltiupan is $600.


“There are 6 million people in El Salvador,” he said. “We can’t help 6 million, so we tried to narrow down our scope.”


A decade of mission trips


Jira has traveled with the El Salvador Mission Team 10 times, focusing on different areas. One year, they gave children custom-made shoes. 


Another year, the team wanted to teach a marketable skill to the women in an area that has a 95 percent unemployment rate. They bought sewing machines and hired an instructor to teach the women how to sew.


The first attempt didn’t go well, Jira said.


“We thought we could teach them to sew in a week, if we had classes every day,” he said. “But we didn’t realize the women didn’t have a day to spend. They worked for an hour and then had to walk back home to feed their husbands who were returning from working in the fields. They have no refrigeration, so lunch has to be made fresh.”


Most of the women lived more than an hour away, Jira explained, so by the time they returned after lunch, they only had another hour or so of instruction.


So, the team hired two instructors for Saturday classes, one before lunch and one after.


That approach was a success. 


“One lady sold enough items to tourists she was able to save up and put up a chicken coop,” he said. “Now her family has fresh eggs and chickens.”


The project proved successful in more than one way, Jira said. 


“Yes, they learned to make things to sell to tourists and make money, but the greatest thing they got was self worth,” he said. “A few of the women told us they didn’t think they could do anything until they learned to sew.”


Catholic Academy of St. Peter


Today, the mission team is concentrating on education. It helped build the Catholic Academy of St. Peter, a school in Teotepeque. 


In the beginning, the team worked on basics, like making sure the children had something to eat, as many came to school with no lunch or with nothing but one potato. 


When donations provided 40 lunches a day, teachers told Jira unexpected things started happening. 


“One of the boys was a terrible troublemaker, causing a lot of distractions,” he said. “Once he had something to eat, he completely changed. Now, he is the first to lead the kids in prayer before lunch.”


Jira added that the students are eager to learn. Some walk to school more than 2 hours each way every day. One little girl walks 3 hours, he said.


“We make a sacrifice to help, but they are really making the sacrifices to go to school,” he said.


The team is now working on stocking the school’s library. Eighty percent of schools in El Salvador don’t have a library, Jira said. Now in its fourth year, the academy has just a few bookshelves.


“I told Father my granddaughter had more books than that in her bedroom, and she couldn’t read yet,” he said.


How to help


Jira said team members pay their own way to travel. Those who want to help can send donations to St. Barnabas earmarked for El Salvador or contact Jira through the church. Donations are sent to the diocese and then transferred to El Salvador.


Sometimes, the scope of the poverty can be overwhelming, Jira said. 


“Even when we’re helping, we wonder if we’re doing any good,” he said.


Then he remembers two students, a brother, 10, and a sister, 14. Teachers wrote to Jira, telling him they were struggling to understand how to teach them.


“Their vision was so bad, they couldn’t see the teachers,” he said. They had to hold papers within inches of their face to see them.


Jira learned that they lived with their grandmother, because their mother died when they were very young, and their father abandoned them. But she was too poor to go to an eye doctor, and they missed out on a medical mission for free eye care a few years before.


Jira said the team used donations to pay for transportation, an eye examination and glasses. Since then, their schooling has taken off.


“You wonder if you’re helping, and then you get to be a part of such a little thing like that, that makes such a big difference,” he said, tearing up. “So, we persevere.”


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