SANTOS HERN'ANDEZ is learning to read. At 34, this mother of four who never attended school is starting out on a new life. It's not the first time: Seven years ago, her husband left her to raise her children alone.
She was living in northeastern El Salvador, raising corn, beans, pigs, and chickens on a quarter of an acre of land. She also sold vegetables in the streets, carrying them in a basket on her head.
In 1984, civil war swept through the region. Her corn crop was destroyed, and her life and the lives of her children were in danger.
Mrs. Hern'andez was obliged to move to a refugee camp, and to accept grants of money and food from relief agencies.
It was a miserable life in the camp. Hernandez says she felt that she was ``losing my dignity.'' The worst part, she says, was ``putting out my hand'' to receive food.
One day last January she heard about a community bank being organized in a town next to the camp. She went to a meeting and that night, along with 40 others, received her first loan ever - $40. The bank is financed by Save the Children and organized by the Foundation for International Community Assistance (Finca), an independent agency based in Tucson, Ariz.
With $35 she bought a tiny shack for herself and her children to live in. She used the remaining $5 to buy vegetables for resale in a local market.
Hern'andez earned a profit of $2.40 a day, out of which she saved 40 cents a day toward repayment of her six-month loan.
She was charged 3 percent interest per month. She repaid the $40, plus $7.20 interest, thus becoming eligible to receive a second loan of $48.
She says that for the first time in her life, saving has become a habit, and she likes the power it gives her.
Now in her second loan cycle, Hern'andez has bought a pig and chickens.
She expects to make a profit of $30 when she sells the pig at Christmas. Her children are all attending school, and she is enrolled in a literacy class offered by Save the Children and Finca.