Prior to becoming Panthers, Dallas Center high school students Maria and Niah Howard went on a mission trip to El Salvador with a delegation from their church.
"We fell in love with the country and the people we met," said Maria. "They had a spirit of genuineness, compassion and resilience that was simply unforgettable."
The sisters were deeply concerned, however, about the poor living conditions and their new friends' stories of hardship. "Our eyes were opened to a reality we had previously not understood," Maria said.
In 2010, the summer after their trip, Maria, Niah and their younger sister, Sarah, launched a charity, Art for El Salvador, in their hometown to raise funds for general mission work in that country. The sisters sold handmade art, including drawings, painted boxes, photographs and T-shirts, at their local farmers market.
Business was brisk. The Howards raised $1,000, which was used to supply bean seeds to Salvadoran farmers who had lost their crop due to drought.
The Howard's lives and fundraising efforts came to a halt in August 2010 when the sisters were involved in a car accident. Sarah did not survive.
"Sarah was compassionate, loving and devoted to helping other people," said Maria. "She was a huge part of Art for El Salvador, as she was right by my side each week at the farmers market."
Maria and Niah wanted to continue their fundraising work, and they also wanted to honor Sarah and celebrate her love for education. They decided to do so by using additional funds raised to build a school in El Salvador.
"Even though she never got the chance to visit El Salvador, through this school, which will be named La Escuela De Sarah Lana, her legacy will live on," said Niah.
To reach their $20,000 seed-money goal for the school ($10,000 has already been raised), the sisters resumed their fundraising efforts in Dallas Center in summer 2012. Their fundraising work began at UNI in fall 2012 when Maria joined her sister on campus. Since that time, Art for El Salvador has become a UNI service and fundraising organization that hosts a variety of events, including an art and variety show each February called Art from the Heart. The show features works and performances by UNI students and other contributors. Art for El Salvador also holds art nights throughout the school year. Adviser Denise Tallakson, an instructor in the College of Education, oversees the organization's work.
"I got to know Maria when she was a student in my Methods of Teaching Visual and Performing Arts Integration in the Elementary Classroom course," said Tallakson. "When Maria introduced herself the first day of class, she mentioned her charity and then told us more about it. I saw such a great connection between her mission and our class. We all decided to help. It added such a meaningful service opportunity to my course." From 4-8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 27, on UNI's Lawther Field, Art for El Salvador and the Hispanic Latino Student Union will host UNI's first Latino Fest. The event will feature live music by Latin American music duo Calle Sur, music by the UNI Salsa band, dancing, children's activities, Zumba, an Art for El Salvador art sale and food tastings. The fest is free and all are welcome.