Mary Kotnour had trekked through 33 European and Asian countries and gorged on cultural experiences like a woman fresh off a starvation diet.
But it was a trip she took halfheartedly that filled her soul.
“I would never have chosen to go to a place like El Salvador,” says Mary, stepping over the obstacle course of travel trinkets in her Coeur d’Alene home.
Poverty saddens her. So Mary, who’s 39, avoided it in her travels. But in 1991, her church adopted a church in El Paisnal, a small town of mud homes and outhouses north of San Salvador.
Mary volunteered to make friends in El Paisnal for her church. She felt called south, though she spoke no Spanish. It took a plane, bus and cattle truck to get her there.
In El Paisnal, she found the victims of war - people who had been tortured and raped, had lost their sons and husbands. They were poor, with little electricity and no plumbing. They ate what the tropical terrain yielded.
“But they had such joy in being together,” Mary says, her wonder at them still fresh. “Their faith was so incredible. They had lost everything, but just prayed that their enemies’ hearts would be changed.”
These people with nothing showed Mary how much they had.
“They were grateful just to wake in the morning,” Mary says. “They value people above all else.”
They shared everything. After one boy blew out the candles on his birthday cake, the candles were relit for other children whose families were too poor to throw parties.
Mary stayed 10 days, then returned in 1992 with a year’s worth of night-school Spanish. The next year she stayed a month with a pastor’s family and returned home the godmother of the pastor’s new son, Jose.
She learned to dodge cockroaches and sleep while rats ran on the roof. She helped the pastor and sang in church. Mostly, she made friends with people who wanted nothing else from her.
Last year, Mary made friends with two Spanishspeaking girls at Ramsey Elementary, where she teaches physical education.
She was floored to learn the mothers of the girls were sisters who had grown up in El Paisnal. One mother, Antonia, was forced to leave 18 years ago after the priest she worked with was assassinated. She returned to visit her family once, but fear drove her away.
In Mary’s pictures from the 1990s, Antonia found the house in which she was raised 30 years ago. She cried, and packed a suitcase with clothes for Mary to take to Antonia’s parents in El Paisnal on her next trip.
Mary returned from 10 days in El Salvador last month. She’d held the pastor’s new daughter and her new godchild, Laura. She’d told Antonia’s parents about their daughter and granddaughter. Antonia’s mother sent back a cheese.
“I always felt I was supposed to be there,” Mary says, her eyes lingering on the photograph of Antonia’s El Paisnal home. “This just adds to it.”
Breakfast of champions
It’s worth it to pack away a few hotcakes at the Rathdrum Lion’s Club from 8 a.m. to noon on Labor Day. The Lions turn the money raised at the annual breakfast into eyeglasses for poor people, scholarships and food baskets.
They raised $20,000 for Don Haney, the Rathdrum man in need of a liver transplant. Don’s in Seattle now, near the top of the transplant list.
All the ham, eggs and hotcakes you can eat will cost $4 unless you’re under 7. Then breakfast is $2. Go hobnob with the Spokane Bicycle Club, which makes the Lion’s breakfast an annual club event. The clubhouse is on Hwy. 53 just east of Rathdrum.
My big accomplishment this summer was learning to change my bike tires. It may sound small, but I shy away from mechanical tricks. Now I’m almost cocky when I ride.
Crow about your summer feats to Cynthia Taggart, “Close to Home,” 608 Northwest Blvd., Suite 200, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 83814; FAX to 765-7149; or call 765-7128.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo