Gabriela Yanes, 19, is from one of El Salvador’s most dangerous municipalities, Las Palmas. Her parents run a food store out of their home, selling rice and other basic commodities to make ends meet each week. They expected that when Yanes finished eighth grade, she would join them in the store. She was a profoundly shy young girl, but everyone had to pitch in.
But Yanes’ fate took an unusual turn. An adult volunteer at her public school encouraged her to enroll in an after-school debate club. Every day, the students got to research and discuss real-world issues of importance to them. Unlike the top-down pedagogy they received during regular school hours, where students were expected to memorize facts and avoid trouble, debate club was all about agency. Students were empowered to pursue topics that got them fired up, and take controversial positions, and not just say what adults wanted to hear. The club competed against clubs in other schools, motivating Yanes to take her participation seriously.
Yanes, formerly quiet and passive, turned into a passionate firebrand. She became highly interested in the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which spent 12 years bringing down corrupt, often high-level politicians before its mandate was allowed to expire in late 2019. Instead of dropping out of school and working in her parents’ shop, Yanes stayed in school and won a scholarship to law school, where she is focusing on anti-corruption law.
Many of her friends gave up on school, however, a perennial problem in El Salvador. Only half of the students in her region reach what is called “bachillerato,” the equivalent of 10th grade in America. Many have migrated north out of desperation—avoiding violence, poverty, a sense of hopelessness. But Yanes sees another way: “There are a lot of us that want to stay here,” she explains. “We know the change isn’t going to come from government, but from youth, from us.”
By staying and committing to work to make El Salvador, Yanes is breaking from a growing trend of hundreds of thousands of people leaving the three Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, usually to seek asylum in the United States.
That’s been especially the case for children: In 2014, nearly 70,000 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the U.S., and the Trump administration’s punitive approach to apprehending and deporting migrants hasn’t deterred them from continuing to come. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, migrants from the Northern Triangle cite violence, forced gang recruitment, and extortion, as well as poverty and lack of opportunity to be among their reasons for leaving. The Pew Research Center reported more than 850,000 immigrants showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border in the year ending Sept. 30, 2019, more than double the number in the previous 12 months. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras accounted of 71% of them, and 56% of them came with their families, four times as many as the year before. Unaccompanied children ages 17 and younger also reached their highest level on record (76,020 in fiscal 2019, compared with a previous high of 68,541 in fiscal 2014).
The debate club that encouraged Yanes to buck that trend was the result of a program launched by Celina de Sola, a Salvadoran-American, and her American husband, Ken Baker. The nonprofit organization Glasswing International works primarily in Central America to ensure that young people have reasons to stay in school, stay safe, and stay inspired about their own futures, and the future of their homelands.
“How do you help communities recover the social fabric that has been torn over decades of migration and violence?” de Sola says. “How do you create a community around each young person so they have a greater sense of rooting?”
De Sola became a humanitarian aid worker after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 with a master’s degree in social work. She worked for big aid organizations all over the world in war zones and natural disaster sites—including Liberia, Chad, Sudan, and Afghanistan, and loved being able to put her natural warmth and openness to good use, comforting people in their darkest hours.
But she’s also a systems thinker—the kind of person who can’t pull out just one thread of any conversation, but instead unravels the whole knot. It frustrated her that the humanitarian aid industry was so top-down.
“I started thinking a lot about the aid model and how many resources didn’t really reach communities,” De Sola remembers. “I also felt like we were making assumptions about what the local people needed, particularly around mental health. We clinicalized it a lot.”
She went to graduate school and then headed back to El Salvador in 2007. She and Baker, a White American from Connecticut with a background in business, started volunteering in public schools near where they lived in San Salvador, teaching after-school courses such as English and robotics. They were shocked to learn that kids were only in school for four hours a day. The rest of the time some of the students worked, selling umbrellas on the street or cleaning car windows at busy intersections, but many had nothing to do. Joining a gang was an alluring alternative.
According to USAID, only about half of young people in El Salvador attend high school or graduate. In a country with a population of only 6 million, 300,000 people between 15 and 24 are both unemployed and unenrolled in school, and El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world for youth under 19.
These are problems with old roots. Fighting between the military-led government, which the U.S. had supported, and leftist guerrilla groups from the late 1970s until the early ’90s left as many as 75,000 dead. At the official end of the war, there was a whole generation schooled in violence and lacking in formal education or employment opportunities. Easy access to weapons and a thriving international drug trade made organized crime an easy “career” choice. Today, somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 gang members are in the Northern Triangle, according to the Congressional Research Service.
That vulnerability of such a large number of youth has brought in many nongovernmental organizations, both local and international, working at the intersections of children, youth, and communities, including violence prevention and forced migration. These include Asaprosar, Fusalmo, and Cristosal locally, as well as larger organizations such as Fe y Alegria, Catholic Relief Services, and PLAN.
De Sola and Baker recognized that public schools were a deeply neglected asset in poor communities throughout El Salvador, both in rural and urban areas. But the schools also were centrally located, trusted and, most important, free. “We began to treat schools as the center of communities, providing anything and everything that kids and their families needed with a trauma-informed lens,” De Sola explains.
“Trauma-informed” is new language for an age-old concept—understanding kids, even their worst behaviors, as results of their environment, and not using that behavior to make essential statements about their character. Glasswing operates programs that are driven by the abundant evidence that kids often thrive, even in extremely challenging circumstances, if they have just one unconditionally loving adult in their lives.
Their commitment to their methodology is steadfast—identify the assets in the community no matter how poor, and then build programs and services that leverage those assets to meet the unmet needs. This means that a Glasswing suite of programs can look different from community to community, depending on what the kids are most interested in. “We aren’t dogmatic about the content—whether it’s soccer or financial literacy or debate,” Baker explains. “For us, the caring adult is the core offering, and otherwise we can work with a community’s particular need or a donor’s specific interest.”
What began as an organic and small program quickly grew. Glasswing is now operating in more than 100 schools, and serving 35,000 kids on a weekly basis in nine countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. It has an operating budget of just $15 million and employs 300 people, 220 of them in the Northern Triangle.
The after-school programming (two hours a day, year-round) is still the foundation of what they do, but they have also expanded to providing healthcare on-site, repairing and rebuilding schools, disaster preparedness training, youth employment, and even group therapy. They call what they do “community schools.”
In a yearlong randomized control trial published by the World Bank, students in the community schools showed marked improvement in math and science, language and reading courses. Students also had reduced absenteeism and showed better behavior, and more students identified their schools as a safe and positive space. Importantly, students with the highest propensity for violence were the most likely to have improved academic performance and to have missed fewer days of school.
Even students who don’t enroll in Glasswing’s programs, but just attended the schools where they operate, experienced a “spillover effect” of showing modest improvements in their grades and attendance, according to the trial.
Glasswing declines to talk about the group’s work preventing gang activity in communities where it operates, but in 12 years, the organization has never been threatened by violence—despite the fact that gangs are omnipresent. Many of the kids that Glasswing serves have family members affiliated with local gangs. “The semantics are really important,” De Sola explains. “We tell community members that we are here to do positive youth development and ensure that kids can be the best version of themselves.”
Volunteerism was not a cultural norm in El Salvador when Glasswing International got off the ground. De Sola and Baker had to work hard to explain to adults why it would be worthwhile to come spend time at their community schools. To date, Glasswing International has mobilized more than 100,000 adult volunteers, many of them coming from low-income backgrounds. “This is not the elite serving the poor,” De Sola explains. “We have some volunteers who can’t even read. That’s fine! You can coach soccer or teach meditation.”
Selena Sermeno, a consulting psychologist specializing in youth and trauma who has worked all over the world, recently visited Glasswing sites in El Salvador (also her country of origin) and she was struck by the depth of relationships and even the lightness: “Their staff and youth have this deep joyfulness without being naive or phony.”
She goes on: “They don’t assume that because a place is deemed unsafe, the people who live in these territories are themselves unsafe. They build the richest and deepest relationships in the midst of real danger. It’s only because of their capacity to build trust that they are successful.”
Mauricio Sanchez, now 19, got involved in his local glee club when he was 10. “I lived with my 13-year-old brother, and we were basically raising ourselves,” he explains, declining to give further information about the whereabouts of his parents. “Glee was fun, like a distraction from the fact that I was living this adult life.”
Sanchez says it was the first time that he really came out of his shell, making friends with other classmates, and being nurtured by an adult. At 14, he was thinking seriously about dropping out of school and finding a way to make money when a staff member suggested that he get involved in the leadership program. He was flattered and decided to try it out. He not only stayed in school, but graduated, and now he is studying the American equivalent of restaurant management on a scholarship in a public school in San Salvador.
“It’s really tough to be young in El Salvador,” he explains. Sanchez is frequently stopped by police, suspicious of him because he is a young man from Las Palmas, but now he is able to show them his student identification and they let him go.
Eneyda Rivera, now 21, only signed up for the Glasswing-sponsored debate club because it was the only club with space left. She initially worried it would be boring. “I fell in love!” she says.
A core part of Glasswing’s strategy is to keep former students involved as volunteers, and Rivera now teaches debate in the school she graduated from, attending to law school and working with women’s rights groups. She also lovingly debates abortion with her mother and grandmother, a taboo subject because El Salvador’s total ban on the procedure means anyone suspected of having one can be arrested, including people who have had obstetric emergencies or miscarriages. Rivera has seen many young women who get pregnant as teens and then travel north to the U.S. in hopes of giving their babies a better life.
“It’s all about opportunity,” she explains. “If I hadn’t started debating in ninth grade, if I hadn’t gotten a scholarship to study law, I might be as desperate as them.”
And yet, Glasswing, relying almost entirely on local leadership and fueled by the young people who want to stay and re-imagine their birthplace together, are giving more people reasons to stay.
“Those of us living relatively privileged lives in the U.S. have a lot to learn from the people of El Salvador and other such places,” Sermeno says. “As a psychologist, I know that healing from trauma is not only about symptom reduction, but also about making life better for others and about losing the fear of feeling sadness.”
“Sadness shared does not kill. Sadness felt alone does,” she says.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of many books, including “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” and a weekly newsletter, The Examined Life. She is also the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network.