Killian McGinnis, Dunkirk Road, is not your typical 17-year-old. The Towson High student is a global activist, and has been since she was 15 and went on her first trip to El Salvador to help the people of La Chacra, an urban slum located in the nation's capital of San Salvador.
During El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s, Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church sent three brave members as delegates to accompany and help protect the people of La Chacra from violent government and societal abuse. A partnership between Brown Memorial and a parish in El Salvador was created to provide spiritual, political and financial support. Delegations travel to El Salvador every other year. Killian's first trip was in 2012 and she returned in summer 2014, with seven youth and two adults, including Barbara Cook and Tim Hughes, Brown Memorial's youth pastor.
"The main purpose of the trips is not to do 'missionary' work," Killian said. "The idea of accompaniment ... has become an effort to build personal connections, especially with the youth. La Chacra has a huge gang presence and [this] ... affects the community in countless ways. In many cases, youth aren't able to attend school or youth group because they can't cross gang borderlines. The parish has had to set up satellite churches in each of the community's three different sectors to make faith formation more accessible and so that people can attend Mass without having to cross into contrary gang territory.
Killian said that during the trips the group also travels to other parts of the country "to learn about and compare rural and urban realities," she said. "This past summer, we took an overnight trip to a resettled farming community called San Isidro, where we stayed with host families and learned about projects, such as a seed bank, that the community board, or 'directiva,' has developed."
She believes La Chacra is not just a place of adversity, but rather a place of hope due to the strong sense of community, which stems from people's need to support one another in order to survive.
"Here in the U.S., people are so focused on self-improvement and individual success that we forget to care for others; we forget we're part of a community. It's hard to form a strong community when no one realizes they're part of one," Killian said.
These lessons, along with the stories and perspectives Killian has heard from immigrants, are what led her to continue her work helping immigrant families in Baltimore. After returning from her 2012 trip to El Salvador, she started volunteering at Education-Based Latino Outreach or EBLO, tutoring immigrant children in grades one to eight and helping them with their homework. Getting to know these families and hearing their stories was both fascinating and troubling, but it gave her incredible perspective and prompted her to work with Dumbarton Middle School's ESL program.
"I love working with the kids, most of whom are Spanish-speaking, and although it can be challenging to simultaneously serve as a translator and tutor, it's so rewarding to know that I can serve as a mentor on some level to them."