Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz founded the Casa de la Solidaridad study abroad program in El Salvador in 1999.
Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz: Grace and Beauty in the Lived Experience

By Becky Sindelar

December 23, 2015 — In 1999, Trena and Kevin Yonkers-Talz, who had recently completed two years as Jesuit Volunteers in Belize, headed to El Salvador to establish a service learning program for college students through Santa Clara University. The plan was to stay two years to get the program up and running, but 16 years and four daughters later, the couple is still running the Casa de la Solidaridad (Casa) and El Salvador is home.

The future husband and wife met during their first year of graduate school at Miami University in Ohio. Trena had studied accounting as an undergrad before realizing that college student development was a better fit. Kevin had completed his bachelor’s at Fairfield University, where he says, “the whole integration of faith and justice became concrete.”

As grad students, the pair fell in love in an unlikely way: by accompanying undergrads on alternative spring break trips to Appalachia and urban plunges in Cincinnati.

Trena (middle row, left) and Kevin (front row, right) with the Casa staff.

From Miami University, they headed to Boston College to study pastoral ministry to better address the spiritual development of students. While finishing up their degrees at Boston College, they began feeling a deep conviction to a faith that calls for justice. But they felt they couldn’t fully understand it in a privileged, university setting, so they joined Jesuit Volunteers International for two years in Belize as a way to “deepen our understanding of what we felt convicted about intellectually, but didn’t have the long-term lived experience,” Trena explains.

Casa and Romero Program students, along with Casa staff and visiting families, at the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero in May 2015.

After two years in Belize, during which they had the chance to accompany student groups who visited from U.S. colleges, they were ready for more.

The Birth of the Casa

With a vision of their calling, Kevin and Trena began writing letters to Jesuits around the globe. One letter was to Father Dean Brackley, SJ, in El Salvador at the University of Central America, or UCA, where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter had been murdered in 1989. Fr. Brackley was already imagining the Casa, a program where students would come to El Salvador for a semester, integrating immersion with academic study.

From left: Trena with Fr. Andreu Oliva, SJ, president of the UCA; Fr. Stephen Privett, SJ, who hired Trena and Kevin to start the Casa; and her daughters Emma, Hannah and Grace. 

He put them in touch with Father Stephen Privett, SJ, at Santa Clara University and from there they were hired to create the Casa de la Solidaridad program in El Salvador in 1999.

Through the program, students from U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities spend a semester in El Salvador taking a full load of classes and spending two days a week in a marginal Salvadoran community. That’s where they “develop relationships with folks and see the reality on the ground — see the hopes and struggles of our Salvadoran friends,” says Kevin.

The sites differ from traditional service learning trips. Students aren’t there to “fix” problems or complete projects. Instead, “they enter as learners,” explains Kevin. “They’re going there humbly and it’s really the Salvadorans who are our students’ teachers.

During the 15-year anniversary celebration of the Casa, women of one of the program's community sites, Comedor Milagro de Dios, were honored for their service. Fr. Michael Engh, SJ, president of Santa Clara University, is center.

“Yes, we want our students to be men and women of service to others, but in this context we’re really entering with an accompaniment model, humbly as learners.”

For participating students, the program can be an adjustment. “We have students who are movers and shakers on their campuses. They’re student leaders, so they’re used to getting a lot done. This is a very different way of imagining themselves and how they are in the world,” says Trena.

Trena is the liason between the students and the people in the communities, which include a community center with a soup kitchen and computer lab; a health clinic; and a community at the base of the San Salvador volcano, among others. At the sites, students accompany and learn from those in the community, and the Salvadorans see themselves as part of the students’ formation.

Trena, Casa students Ivonne, Maddie and Grace, and Angelica, the site's coordinator, visit Rosario in her home in La Javia, Tepecoyo.

The Casa de la Solidaridad also includes the Romero Program, which supports Salvadoran students from marginal communities in their pursuit of education. “Programmatically this is one of the concrete ways we try and support Salvadoran society by supporting these scholarship students,” says Kevin.

A Family Vocation

When Trena and Kevin came to El Salvador in 1999, they had been married four years and didn’t have any children. In the back of their minds, they figured they’d be there two years to get the program going and then go back to the U.S.

But arbitrary deadlines kept passing. When their oldest, Sophia, was born, Trena said she thought they’d go back when Sophia was going into second grade; when second grade came and went, she decided middle school. Now Sophia is 15 and they have three other daughters: Grace is 13, Hannah is 10 and Emma is 6.

“Honestly, the longer we’re here and the older they get and the more complex their thinking gets, the more I’m convinced that this is exactly where we’re supposed to be,” says Trena.

For Kevin, running the Casa and living with his family in El Salvador has been a gift. “As a dad I can’t think of a better place to be raising our girls; they’re growing up in a very different environment than either Trena or I grew up in, but it’s one where they’re exposed to this bicultural understanding of the world.”

Kevin and Sophia, the couple's oldest daughter, at the beatification of Archbishop Romero.

The girls see the world of privilege in El Salvador at their private school, and on the weekends they’re with the Casa’s Salvadoran community partners, “who are really our family,” says Trena. “From a young age they’ve learned to navigate these realities.”

Trena and Kevin are both grateful for being a part of the Casa’s work. “The combination of the wisdom of the Salvadorans and the energy and the dreams of our young college students — they make me a better person, a better Christian, a better parent and a better professional,” says Trena.

Hannah and Emma (right) with friends Brian and Brianna, from La Javia, El Salvador.

“Casa is a study abroad program rooted in this long tradition of Ignatian education, with one of the strong roots being the historical connection with the Jesuits at the UCA, the martyrs,” says Kevin. “The lives and the commitments of the UCA Martyrs continue to inspire our work here.  One of our hopes is that Casa can continue to give college students access to their legacy.”

For the Yonkers-Talzs, El Salvador is home, Casa is their vocation, and discernment is a part of their family life. Trena recalls asking the girls their thoughts on spending a year in the Philippines to get a similar program up and running at the Jesuit’s Ateneo de Manila University.

Grace and Guadalupe, a Romero Program staff member, make tortillas.

Grace’s response: “You know Mom, the thought of it really scares me, but I think we should do it.”

Trena was blown away. “I think that’s the result of being raised in this context: life can be hard, but we still do it. And there’s grace and beauty in that.”

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