Halfway up the back slope of San Salvador volcano, Cesar Hernandez wakes up at 4 a.m. and leaves his family’s home on a coffee plantation at 5. He makes the hourlong walk down the mountain to the community of Las Delicias, where he catches the bus for another hour’s ride to San Salvador.
On the way through his town, he must be careful to whom he speaks. Not only are gang members watching everything and everyone, the police or military frequently come up the dirt roads “looking for gang members.” To them, every young man from the community is a suspected gang member.
Violence, including murder, is common in communities like Las Delicias. While murders have decreased since 2015-2016, when El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate, disappearances have increased, and the murder rate remains among the worst in the world.
Hernandez makes this long commute to reach the Jesuit-run University of Central America El Salvador, where he studies mechanical engineering. That Hernandez, whose family has very limited economic means, is able to have this opportunity is due in no small part to the support and mentoring he has received through a youth program developed by Maryknoll lay missioner Larry Parr.
Sometimes, when it is too dangerous for Hernandez to make the long trip back to his house on the other side of the volcano, he even stays overnight at Parr’s family’s home, close to the university.
Parr has been working in Las Delicias for the past 11 years. Together with community members and with the support of Maryknoll Lay Missioners and a local community foundation, he has created a variety of programs designed to provide safe spaces and alternatives for young people so they can become educated, stay out of gangs and develop into leaders and role models for their community.
The odds are stacked against them.
“With all that violence in the community, it is not safe for kids to walk around alone,” Parr says. “It is very difficult for kids in marginalized communities to have opportunities.”
Only about 40 percent of Salvadorans graduate from high school and fewer than 10 percent from college. Even though public education is free, many families cannot afford to pay for books and supplies or the 40-minute bus ride to the nearest high school. Schools in poor communities have few resources, so the education that young people receive there is far inferior to that in wealthier areas.
To help improve educational opportunities for the young people in Las Delicias, Parr’s youth program provides tutoring and mentoring as well as scholarships both for high school and for university students. Many of the scholarship recipients lead community projects.
The most popular is a soccer program, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in May. Called Playing for Peace, it provides a safe place for young people, ages 6-21, to play soccer and participate in tournaments. The program is run by young people from the community, who serve as role models and mentors.
“Our motto is ‘First, God. Second, studies. Third, sports,'” Parr explained. “God is always first. We always pray and give thanks to God, and we always read the Bible before each practice. Then we focus on the importance of studying, and finally sports.”
The scholarship recipients help lead many of the program’s activities.
“I love teaching kids sports and arts,” Hernandez said. “We not only help them develop athletically, but we are also helping them develop their talents and teach them how to deal with their problems, family crises or difficulties they may have at school. These programs help to relieve their stress. Being able to help others gives me great satisfaction and joy. Together, we will make this a better community.”
His favorite is the breakdance program, through which he passes on his own passion for breakdance to younger kids, who embrace it just as eagerly.
Parr said he is concerned about the U.S. plan to cut off aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
“In my time living and working in El Salvador,” he said, “I have seen that U.S. foreign policy has had a considerable effect on the current reality and violence in Central America.”
He said he believes “it is very important that the U.S. works together with our Central American brothers and sisters to help local programs that provide opportunities, reduce violence, and work toward a more just and compassionate reality here. The U.S. aid is crucial to help the Northern Triangle reach their goals of making their countries more safe.”
On a recent morning, as Parr, Hernandez and two other scholarship recipients walked through Las Delicias, grade schoolers greeted Parr and the college students, sharing their news, discussing progress at school and anticipating their next activities in the program.
At the grade school, Ismelda Carballo, the school’s custodian, had prepared a letter for Maryknoll Lay Missioners.
“This program is a great blessing,” wrote, “not only for my children but for many young people in this community. From the bottom of my heart, I give thanks to God and to all who, with their great hearts, have given us the opportunity to have projects like this one to help improve our school and our community.”