Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Place of Hope and Love

Tulum was a dream, but I'd like to skip ahead 5 months to real life in El Salvador. I just kind of, maybe, sort of, somewhat bypassed a few stories and experiences between Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. I hope to touch on a few of them at some point in the future.

Situated on a steep hill overlooking the dirty and sprawling city of San Salvador sits a giant concrete house. This is not just any house, though. It is a place like few others in Central America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It is a place of second chances. It is a refuge for orphaned, abused, abandoned, underprivileged, disabled, and neglected children. Founded on Biblical principles and overflowing with the love of God, it's a place where lives are changed. It is a house full of hope and love, it's walls cannot contain the smiles or the laughter. It's not just a house, it's a home. And it is properly named Love and Hope Children's Home.

Irene, Eric, and I

I had no intention or plan of coming here because I didn't even know it existed. However, a good friend back home (thanks Matthew, you're awesome) mentioned that he had a good friend (thanks Eric, you're awesome too) who was working at an orphanage somewhere in El Salvador. Four days later I found myself in the midst of organized chaos. The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was the smiles and laughter of the children. I immediately knew that this was a house full of joy. And the more time I spent there only confirmed my initial impressions. The children of Love and Hope truly are happy. Regardless of where they came from, they now have a family and a place to call home.

Dinner time!

It is the people who run Love and Hope that have created such a nurturing environment. Not only do the administration keep the machine running, but they also spend almost all their spare time loving on the kids. They are extremely involved on all levels. There are a few paid Salvadorian employees called 'Tias' and 'Tios' (Aunts and Uncles) who live with the kids 24 hours a day. They are able to attend to any needs, come what may, day or night. In addition, there are also a number of volunteers that spend their days playing, hanging out, and working with the kids as well as helping out wherever needed (many hours are spent driving the kids to and from school and other extracurricular activities).

The staff is very important, but the heart and soul of the entire operation, the glue that holds it all together, is Rachel, the house mom. Rachel is an amazing woman, and let me tell you why. Rachel started coming down to San Salvador on yearly mission trips with her local church when she was 14. Before she graduated high school, she knew her heart was to help the children of El Salvador. Shortly after graduating, she moved to San Salvador and started the children's home. She gave up everything (or what many of us might consider everything) and moved to San Salvador (not exactly my city of choice) to follow the voice, the calling, the passion deep within her heart. And not only did she follow her heart, but she has, without a doubt, changed the lives numerous children who would have otherwise never had such a chance. I tried to talk with her a number of times, but we never actually finished a conversation because she was constantly tending to the children she loves so dearly, and that's cool.

Broken pipe + torrential rains = massive sink hole

Back when it all began, it was just a small house with very limited resources and funding. But that didn't matter because there were children to help, there were needs to meet. As the years went on, the house grew as did the support coming in from her home community. A few years ago, they were able sell the old house and move in to the mansion (I use that term very loosely) on the mountain. There were only 4 children when she started the home. They now comfortably house 17 kids, but have had up to 28 at one time! Some have been with her from the beginning, others have shown up recently. Every single one of them has a story to tell. In my short time at the house I was not able to hear all of their stories or get to know many them on a more personal level. However, I did connect with a few kids and I would like to share a little bit about them.

Brenda is one of older girls and she has been with the home for 8 years. She is not the oldest, but is definitely looked up to and respected by the others. I was immediately stuck by how smart and mature she is. I felt like we related from the beginning because she could carry on a real and honest conversation, something difficult for many 12 year olds. She was just so easy to talk to while some of the other teenagers expressed little interest in talking to me. I guess that's life, one connects with some and will forever be distant from others. Or maybe my red beard scared them off? Who knows... As with many of the kids in the house, she speaks excellent English. I was hoping for a private Spanish lesson, but we never got around to it. One day, she asked about my middle name, Rand, which to her sounded like rana or 'frog' in Spanish. From that day on, she called me Mr. Froggy. Brenda is one of those I simply enjoyed being around. She is a kind soul with a great energy about her. I am thankful I got to know her and I wish her the very best for the future. I get the feeling that she will be successful in whatever she does and I hope to hear great stories about her one day.

Kevincito, literally “Little Kevin,” is one of the smallest 8 year olds in the world. His weight fluctuates somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds! He is tiny and very fragile. His arms are approximately 1 inch in diameter, his legs almost 1.5. He can hold up his head on his own, but only for a short time. The only noises I heard him make were the occasional grunts when he is not happy. He also grinds his teeth often, a very uncomfortable sound to me. He requires around the clock care, for he is not able to function on his own. Kevincito suffers from cerebral palsy, in the most severe degree.

I spent some time observing the little guy, and I tried to imagine what was going through his head. What did he think? What did he feel? How did he see the world? I tried to put myself in his situation. What would it be like not being able to communicate with the rest of the world? Being completely dependent on those around you? Not being able to walk? Even able to hold up my own head? I tried and tried and tried, and I never could quite put myself in his tiny, little shoes. All that said, he is still a part of this wonderful family. There is a family in the States who is trying to adopt him, but the paperwork is taking forever (standard for all of Central America). The hope is that Kevincito will be able to move north within the next year, fingers crossed.

Ahhh, yes, and there's Tonio. Tonio is another 8 year old boy who suffers from cerebral palsy, but his is not as severe as Kevincito. At first, I was very hesitant to interact with him because he was different than the rest of the kids. I had never been around special needs children before, especially those with CP. What do I do? What do I say? How do I act? I need to treat him different than the other kids, right? Those are just a few of the thoughts that passed through my mind as a result of my ignorance and lack of experience. The answer is simple, just be yourself and treat them like the others. True, they may need a little more patience and understanding and special needs, but they're just kids. There is no question that Tonio is different than the others, but he doesn't let this slow him down. He has trouble walking because his legs are malformed and they just don't to want to work properly. However, his upper body is incredibly strong and he goes wherever he wants with determination (and crutches). Mentally, he is also in a different place than the others. However, he is still very sharp and observant. He is passionate about music, he loves to listen as well as sing. He always has a smile on his face, and he emits a certain joy and peace I felt when I was near him.

I can't help but smile when I see that toothless grin :)
Tonio is also a clever little monkey. One evening during dinner, one of the young boys (who I named “The Biter,” never did actually learn his name...) started to chew on my shirt and eventually bit a hole in the back of it. I was a bit perturbed because it was one of those old shirts that is so soft and comfortable from many years of use. Anyway, after dealing with said The Biter, I had resumed to my eating of beans and rice when I noticed that Tonio was listening to music on an iPhone. I thought it was quite strange that Tonio had an iPhone. Where the heck did he get an iPhone? Suddenly it struck me that it was not his, it was mine. Apparently, as I was being attacked by Snaggletooth, Tonio had pick pocketed my iPhone from my shorts and figured out how to open my music library. Side note: no cell phone is safe in this house, from even the sweetest and kindest of the kids. If they want to play games on your phone, they will find a way. Almost every time Tonio and I hung out in the days that followed, he begged to listen to the music on my phone. I was going to post on Facebook that I had my iPhone pick pocketed by an 8 year old child with cerebral palsy, but some might find that a bit insensitive. I think it's hilarious. The point is that Tonio is a very special kid who has a lot of potential. He needs a lot of love and guidance, but that is exactly what he's getting. I never expected this, but in just a few short days, he worked his way into my heart and I can't help but smile when I think of him. I sure do miss that little man.

Hauling sand to fill in the giant sink hole.

There are a number of others that I only got to know briefly. Chamba, unfortunately, is suspected of having fetal alcohol syndrome. He is intellectually very different than the others and needs a bit more supervision than the rest, for he is 100% energy, 100% of the time. But he's a good guy. He is a extremely musical, excellent at keeping the beat. I think it would be great if he ended up in a band one day. Ali is the smallest 8 year old girl I've ever seen, but she has more spunk, fire, and attitude than anyone twice her size. She will be a force to be reckoned with when she grows up. Don't even think of messing with her favorite umbrella or she will mess you up! At the age of 3, Cheyo is always on the move, always doing something, always off in his own little world, and often getting into some kind of trouble. For some reason I really liked the little guy, maybe it's because he reminded me of myself when I was younger. Leo is one of the teenage girls, but has more courage than most twice her age. Recently, she stood in front of an intimidating committee at child services and passionately explained that she did not want to return to the custody of her parents. She loves her life at Love and Hope and does not want to leave. At the home she has a family and a promising future, at her parents house she has neither. That takes strength and courage, and I wish her the very best. Irene is a sweetheart who is deathly afraid of dogs. Kevin is the older brother who many look up to and appears to be filling those shoes quite well. There are so many more kids, each one a very special and unique person with their own story to tell, and they each have a very promising future awaiting them.  

Little Cheyo up top

If you would like to get to know more about Love and Hope Children's Home, they have an excellent website: You may be asking, 'What can I do to help?' Their greatest need right now is financial support. As you may know, many large NGO's put 25-50% of donations toward administrative and advertizing costs. At Love and Hope, however, all of the money goes to meet the needs of the kids and keep the house running. The greatest expenses are the salaries of the employees (only the Tias and Tios and security guards), food, rent, utilities, and gasoline. I can imagine it takes a lot of funds to keep this machine running. If you are willing and able, you can even sponsor a child. This Christmas, rather than spending your money on material things for friends and family, you may consider donating to an organization such as this in honor of your loved ones. Donations can be made directly on the website via PayPal, all are tax deductible.

For those of you interested in making a more direct impact on the lives of the kids, you may consider coming down to El Salvador to volunteer. They accept short term volunteers such as myself, but they prefer a commitment of 3 months or more. This increases the involvement in the home and lets one get to know the kids on a much more personal level. Long term volunteers are also able to fill specific needs, such as a driving the kids to and fro. Teams are especially welcomed. Say you are a junior or senior in high school (or anyone else for that matter) who has never left the comforts of home and is looking for something special to do next summer, you should think about coming down for a few months. Not only would it be an eye-opening experience filled with culture shock and lots of Spanish, but it may also plant a seed in your heart, or even better, change your life forever. You may come with intentions of touching the lives of the children, but don't be surprised if you are the one who goes away a changed person.

I cannot say enough good things about this place. The time I spent there was too short, but it truly made and impact on me. I feel blessed and fortunate to have met so many great kids and volunteers and I am excited for each and every one of them.

Love and Hope is truly a place of hope and love!


  1. Beautiful post. Thank you, Shaun. :)

  2. Shaun, love your blog about Love and Hope, a great snapshot of the work there and the precious kids...LOVE the pic of Kevincito's hands in your hand, that is PRECIOUS!! And, I also, have a special place in my heart for Tonio...what a spirit! Shaun, if you forgot who I am, I am the one you met a Union church that had the same vet as the one you worked in in Vancouver, Washington...yep, that's me! Enjoyed meeting you! Hope your having a blast!

  3. A beautiful post. I don't always get a chance to read them but I am happy that I read this one. Truly a story of inspiration. The kids, the people who run the house and you as well. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Yeah, and I still miss ya, but I am happy you are following your heart.