Why would a parent ever voluntarily give up their child? In El Salvador, perilous circumstances pressure some parents to do just that for the sake of the child. Other children find themselves in orphanages because of an abusive or impoverished family. Amid economic malaise and violence, NGO Sus Hijos is improving life in El Salvador by helping Salvadoran youth find hope.
Poverty in El Salvador
In the United States, the poverty line is around $26,000 for a family of four. The same family of four in El Salvador would be making around $8,000 according to the World Bank. That is $5.50 per person daily. In 2017, the poverty rate among Salvadorans was 29%, with 8.5% of Salvadorans surviving in extreme poverty. If one compares this to 2007, these statistics are a win: that year, 39% lived in poverty and 15% in extreme poverty.
Still, the current situation presents a challenge to El Salvador’s government, other countries and private organizations as they try to reduce the poverty rate. El Salvador’s economy has grown slowly since 2000, at an average of 2.3% GDP annually, but the World Bank predicts COVID-19 will contribute to a -4.3% growth rate in 2020. Even if 2021 brings an economic rebound, growth will have stagnated and recovery will be arduous absent additional action. Gangs and corruption both present endemic barriers to anti-poverty reform. In fact, gangs have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic, as police have split their focus between law enforcement and containing the virus.
National efforts to fight corruption and violence can do good if implemented correctly but small-scale efforts should accompany them. These on-the-ground efforts can attain acceptance from the community, and help construct a bottom-up fight against poverty. One such charitable organization improving life in El Salvador is Sus Hijos.
Sus Hijos (His Children) is a faith-based NGO that has been serving in El Salvador since 2008. Its mission has expanded as its support has grown, and it now pursues a variety of poverty-reducing initiatives, such as a community feeding program, a home construction campaign and culinary and cosmetics training programs. It also uses its transition program to help Salvadoran youth stay out of gang violence and off the streets.
The Borgen Project interviewed Dave Sheppard about his work with Sus Hijos, where he served as the transition program director for more than three years, between 2013 and 2016. As the director, he helped 38 young adults through the program, 20 of whom successfully completed the two-year transition. He also observed the sights and way of life around him, in a country that hopelessness often plagues.
Transitioning from Tragedy
The situation Salvadoran youth face is especially saddening. In 2010, parents abandoned 66% of children, often because their parents were simply too poor to care for them. Abandonment is still high today, and for many, the orphanage is safer than home.
Gang violence contributes to this problem. Gangs in El Salvador may outnumber the security forces, and operate by dealing drugs, extorting business owners and human trafficking. As they often control entire neighborhoods, dividing San Salvador into regions of influence, gangsters frequently impress children as young as 10 into their network. Those who do not join experience threats, harassment and assault. Sheppard told The Borgen Project that many families willingly turn their children over to the government so that they can escape gang influence and danger.
Once children turn 18, however, they are no longer eligible to live in government care. As a result, they go back to their families as government employees cannot legally leave them on the street. With unstable family situations, many of these young adults end up on the street or in gangs.
This is where Sus Hijos and other charities step in. It picks up the children on their 18th birthdays and offers them a room, food and support for up to two years. Sheppard told The Borgen Project that Sus Hijos’ transition program targets “the worst of the worst cases” to help—often those who experienced sexual abuse as children or had to work for long hours in sugarcane fields.
Transitioning to Hope
Sus Hijos’ transition program aims to provide young adults with support while fostering work ethic and faith-based values. To enter the program, the children must agree to avoid drugs and alcohol and follow other rules that help promote their personal growth. They also had to pay $1 a day in rent—money that they would receive as a gift from Sus Hijos once they left or completed the program, Sheppard said.
While in the program, the young adults also continued their education, completed chores and worked a job to make money. A ninth-grade education is a requirement to work at certain food establishments, like McDonald’s or Super Selectos. Most children complete only a sixth-grade education in El Salvador, so moving through additional grades can translate into greater pay. Sus Hijos’ training programs in its restaurant and salon also offers the young adults real-world job skills.
In his role as director, Sheppard purchased a bus to ferry the youth between the residence and their jobs. He said that the gangs occasionally harassed him on his routes, but such harassment became “very, very rare” once they discovered who he was. “Once they knew who I was, they would leave me alone,” he stated.
Transitioning to Success
Sheppard told The Borgen Project about two individuals whose success was above average. The first was a young woman in government care through most of her teens due to domestic abuse. She completed Sus Hijos’ two-year program and graduated high school, which ends after 11th grade in El Salvador. Unlike many Salvadorans, she managed to get into a college and complete her associate’s degree. The college was the product of a U.S. doctor who had repaired a derelict hospital. The college paid full tuition while Sus Hijos and others helped out with living costs. Sheppard keeps in touch with the young lady, who now works at a call center where she makes about $600 per month.
The other success story Sheppard mentioned was of a young man whose parents had been killed when he was only four months old. He lived in a government facility until 18, at which point he entered the Sus Hijos program. He completed his seventh, eighth and ninth-grade education while at Sus Hijos, and then left the program to work at a local grocer, where he still has employment.
Even though Sheppard’s volunteer work ended in 2016, he keeps in touch with several of the youth from the program and its administrators. Today, the transition house is assisting nine kids through the program and Sus Hijos is continuing its other works. Its contributions are part of a small-scale, non-governmental initiative with a focus on improving life in El Salvador. If Sus Hijos’ efforts are a barometer of success, the country is bound to continue improving.
– Jonathan Helton