Known as "The Land of Volcanoes," El Salvador is a country full of forest-covered mountains, with beaches bordering the Pacific Ocean. It is both the smallest and most densely populated nation in Central America. With a population of 6,108,590, an estimated 36.5% of Salvadorans live below the poverty line. Many poor Salvadorans live in haphazard shacks pieced together with scraps of roofing tin, wood, and rocks that provide little protection from the elements.
In 2001, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake shook the nation of El Salvador. In the month the followed, there were thousands of aftershocks, including a 6.6 magnitude earthquake exactly one month after the first. Damage was extensive. At least 1,159 people were killed, another 8,122 were injured, and 335,000 homes were damaged or completely destroyed. In addition, infrastructure, including water systems, roads, and hospitals, were badly damaged.
Since 2001, Homes from the Heart has been working in El Salvador, building over 400 homes in various communities as well as a school, daycare, and two medical clinics.
The Romero Community
Named after the martyred Archbishop, Oscar Romero, the Romero Community is a testament to the values held by the late Archbishop. Parishes in Kansas City and sister communities around the world have helped the poor in this community to attend high school and even college. The Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (C.I.S.) also teaches job skills and English, and offers Spanish classes for foreign students. After many years of community development, and nearly a decade spent fighting for land rights, The Romero Community is now ready to move from their tiny shanties into secure, dry homes. Homes from the Heart partnered with the residents of The Romero Community, Kansas City parishes, C.I.S., volunteers, and many others to build decent homes for the entire community. In addition to homes, the team worked hard to complete the construction of the Romero Vo-Tech Center, a place for instructional learning and community events. Check out this video of the creation of the center.
The city of Soyapango, within an hour’s drive east of the capitol city, is the second most populated area in El Salvador. Among numerous economic and other problems, the city has had a long and notorious presence of MS-13 and other gang activities, making it particularly dangerous for anyone to live there. When Homes from the Heart first came to the area in early 2003, we were taken to a Chatarrera, which translates to a junkyard or scrap metal dealer. It was a police impound lot and most of the land was covered in piles of rusty vehicles.
On the same land were the temporary homes of 150 families, those that would eventually receive new homes built by Homes from the Heart. The families had all been displaced by the earthquake, several hurricane disasters, or due to various political reasons and lived in meager structures built by the army or in tents, propped wherever a piece of land could be claimed. Since there was virtually no land in the area that wasn’t either covered in scrap metal or precarious shelters, the only way to build anything was to begin a massive shuffling game of people and metal. Throughout the process, families had to be moved to other locations or live with other families in already cramped spaces.
Homes from the Heart definitely lacked the experience for a project of this scale, and Director Michael Bonderer says that he knew he wasn’t the right man for the job. It took nearly a year of negotiations with local government agencies, corporations, and sponsors before Homes from the Heart was able to commence building. We entered into a Memo of Understanding with the Vice Minister of Housing, Catholic Relief Services, and Kiwanis El Salvador. One of the first steps was to start moving rusty cars out of the way. We borrowed a large crane from the government and began clearing the land, one car at a time.
Beyond the main financial sponsors that helped purchase materials, several businesses from Kansas City made much of the work possible by donating heavy construction equipment as well as engineering and architectural services to the project. In addition, a local electrical contractor helped with the initial electrical inspections, and we obtained large quantities of gravel from the highway department.
Today the community and the people in it have come a long way. The Directiva, a local board of trustees, implements self-governance and organizes community efforts. Many women in the community have completed a training program in sewing. The next phase is to develop micro-businesses and other ways to make the community self-sustaining and give people a way to help themselves.
The construction of a soccer field within the community has also given local children a place to play. A large, earth moving tractor came to the site and cleared an unused portion of land by knocking down trees and leveling the area by pushing dirt off the cliff. Afterward, grass was planted, and goals were constructed from metal pipes. Students from the University of Cincinnati organized a donation of soccer equipment, so the community can now have its own games.
Santa Cruz, El Salvador
When we first visited the community of Santa Cruz in November 2009, just downstream of a collapsed bridge along the coastal highway of El Salvador, the community was nearly buried in sand. The streets were covered in several feet of sand and other debris, and the houses that weren’t destroyed by the river were partially buried with sand and mud. In addition, debris and trash covered the area and many of the houses, and broken building materials were dangerously strewn throughout the area. While other organizations and government officials had been through the area to see the damage and assess the situation, nothing had yet been done to actually improve the situation.
So, we moved our Bobcat, some shovels and wheelbarrows, and our manpower to the site a few days later and began clearing the streets by pushing sand back into the river. One by one we opened up streets. Once a street was clear, teams of people cleared paths to each of the houses. During the next 10 days labor was carried out by Homes from the Heart and Fuller Center for Housing staff, volunteers from the American School of San Salvador, a Global Builders team from the Fuller Center, and many of the homeowners and children of the community. It was an amazing display of spirit, energy, and hope.
University students came to the area in December to help finish the process of removing sand from the homes. 27 students from the University of Cincinnati and UCLA, two adult volunteers, and Homes from the Heart staff cleared the remaining piles of sand and prepared several homes for further repairs. Several homes also benefited from Greater Blessings projects, receiving new roofs, walls, or other repairs that made the homes in the area more livable.
Chiltiupan, El Salvador
Chilitupan is a mountainous region within La Libertad, El Salvador located 34 miles (55 km) Southwest of San Salvador. It is the poorest area of El Salvador, with an average annual income of just $600 USD. The Cleveland Diocese have served in Chiltiupan since 1964, and it's through our relationship with Sister Rose, one of the Ursuline Sisters, that we first came to work there.
Sister Rose helps us connect with families in exceptional need, allowing Homes from the Heart to first pour a new concrete floor for a family, and more recently, to build a home for another family.
When we first learned about Irma and her family, we knew we had to help. Not only does Irma have the challenge of mothering eight children, five of them still living with her, but she does this while coping with a mental disability. In just a couple of weeks, thanks to donations from Kansas City area priests and Conception Abbey, as well as a team of students from UCLA who came to work over their 2013 Christmas break, Irma and her family went from living in a shack pieced together from rusted tin, rocks, and scraps of wood, to a dry, safe, and sturdy concrete home.
San Luis Talpa, El Salvador
This project is located just south of San Luis Talpa, about 15 minutes from the international airport. The project is designed to create a complete 60-home community with water infrastructure and electricity. Homes from the Heart began this project with the Fuller Center for Housing in August, 2008. In November, the Fuller Center hosted a 5-day, 16-house blitz build that got the project moving and created excitement.
We are now nearing the half-way mark, as we will soon have 32 houses completed on the property. Many families are already moved in, but many more are eager for their future home to be completed. Water services a toilet, shower, and sink in each home from an underground network of pipes. After a full year of struggling, we finally got the lights turned on; the electricity is flowing.
We currently have 10 homes under various stages of construction. The rate of home building is difficult to predict and is greatly dependent on available funds and labor. Among many benefits, external work teams typically offer a renewal of energy and excitement for the project as well as new hope for the future. All teams are encouraged to discover ways they can use their skills in the fight against poverty.