Health and home

Helping preschoolers—and their families—through Programa Velasco in El Salvador.

In the San Ramon, Mejicanos, area of San Salvador, a good child development center like Centro Hogar is a refuge for small children—especially for those of single mothers, the vast majority. The area is plagued with gangs. Parents, if there are two, might be gone from 4 in the morning to 10 at night, traveling to work, working, traveling home. If the kids aren’t in school, they are in the streets or in the house alone.

University students in El Salvador, through SCU’s Casa de la Solidaridad, have assisted children at Centro Hogar with classroom work, while a health program provides psychological help for abused children, medical consultations, and AIDS treatment and prevention. As a student in the Casa program, Annie Boyd of Marquette University worked there. After she graduated, she joined the staff at Centro Hogar—which means “home center.” She was there when, in December 2007, the child development center hit a financial crisis: It could no longer support attendance for some 35 kids—and their parents couldn’t afford to pay.

Juan Velasco, an associate professor of English at SCU, was teaching in the Casa program that semester. Heartbroken, Boyd went to his office asking for advice. His solution: a grassroots fundraising effort, asking friends and acquaintances to chip in some small amount in lieu of a Christmas present. The result, Velasco says, was “like the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life.” Donations from around the world allowed the 35 children to stay.

To continue raising support for scholarships, they established a nonprofit organization. In naming it, the parents who’d benefited wanted to recognize the man who’d led the launch: Programa Velasco was born.

For board members, Velasco turned to Luis Calero, S.J., an associate professor of anthropology, and Cynthia Mertens, a professor of law, among others. Calero has helped lead faculty and staff immersion trips to the country; Mertens has led trips from the law school and brought experience in advocacy for children. Boyd serves as executive director.

It’s not charity, Velasco emphasizes. “It’s about educating and empowering children. And to do that, we needed to educate and empower the families.” Programa Velasco subsequently launched a microloan program for women to create their own businesses.

“We’re planting the seeds for a better future for El Salvador, and also the seeds of a deeper connection,” Velasco says. “We need to look into the future … This is not just about what happened in the 1980s.”

Indeed, the recent Central American refugee crisis on the U.S. border has underscored that all too clearly. “The origin of the program is helping these children to survive—so we don’t have the border issue that we had in the last few months.” In other words, it’s far better to keep kids fed, in school, with a chance of making it at home.

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