For the residents of Soyapango, violence is an everyday occurrence. The shrill noise of sirens and gunfire is heard throughout this densely populated community in San Salvador as gangs and police collide. Rapidly becoming one of the most violent countries in the world, El Salvador witnessed 911 homicides in August alone, the deadliest month in nearly a quarter of a century.
In the midst of this danger and darkness shines a beacon of hope, Faro de Luz Child Development Centre. Faro de Luz means lighthouse and the bright blue project t-shirts are embroidered with the words 'Yo soy la Luz' - I am the light.
Eighteen-year-old Jimmy Chicas knows only too well the darkness that lies outside of the project gates. Gangs operate in the streets leading to Jimmy’s house, recruiting children like him as a 'poster' (informant). In a community that lacks resources, security and opportunities, children and young people are easily lured by the gang leader’s promises of food and clothing, protection and identity.
Registered at the Compassion project when he was 5 years old, Jimmy was always full of harmless mischief, playing practical jokes and having fun with the other children. Watching him grow up, the staff never imagined that Jimmy would stray from the project. Over a period of time the staff witnessed a change. Jimmy’s clothing and vocabulary altered and he started hanging out on the streets.
Thanks to the number of face-to-face contact hours at the project, the staff noticed when things started going wrong and stepped in to help. Raul Claros, the project director sat down with Jimmy and together they evaluated the benefits he received from the gang and how by staying in the project he would receive so much more. Raul suggested Jimmy started a vocational training course in the bakery connected to the project. There he could earn the money to buy the shoes he wanted and the clothes he needed. The bakery would also provide an extra meal for him after each baking session. Set back on the right path, Jimmy began working in the bakery, but even this wasn’t the full extent of Jimmy’s undiscovered talents and potential.
Through the opportunities he received at the project, Jimmy discovered he had an incredible talent for running and jumping. In his first competition Jimmy was wearing his blue Compassion project t-shirt. Other athletes approached him, they had noticed the slogan on his t-shirt and expressed a genuine desire to be part of that light also. Like Jimmy these athletes also came from poor backgrounds, though they lacked the opportunities and support Jimmy had been given. As Jimmy explains, ‘I didn’t know that we were actually so blessed, because we received support to get our running shoes, and the national athletes have to buy their own stuff… and they have low resources too.’ In comparison, Jimmy and the other students from the project received nutritious snacks and water which their project director carried in a cooler. Even though they were competing against each other, the boys shared their water with the other competitors, passing on the love and care that they had received.
In communities like Soyapango, gangs take advantage of those who lack identity and hope. Thanks to the local church, loving and dedicated project staff, and committed sponsors, Compassion is able to work in some of the most dangerous cities around the world. Like Jimmy, each child in every project is known, loved and protected. The project is a safe haven where children and young people are invested in and have the opportunities and tools to succeed.
For Jimmy, the gangs have not gone away. They still wait at the gates to the project, but this time he is determined not to turn back. He's focused on the light before him.