As an international undergraduate student from El Salvador studying in Burlington, Vermont, I never imagined that my 4000-kilometer journey north would bring me closer to, and enable me to positively influence change in, the youth of my nation. After the enthusiastic response from our partners, facilitators and camp participants during the first year of BREAKAWAY camps in 2013, the team was committed to returning to Sonsonate, El Salvador to host a second round of camps in 2014. However, it was more than just a positive response that got us back to El Salvador, it was the relationships and friendships that we built with the people from Sonsonate, the hospitality with which they received us, the growth we experienced with them, and the happiness and energy they shared with us that motivated us to work hard and do everything we could to return in 2014.
Thanks to the BREAKAWAY team’s fundraising efforts and the support of all the individuals that believe in the education of youth to prevent and stop violence against women and girls (VAWG), the 2014 BREAKAWAY camps became a reality. It would be our second year returning to the cozy and modest Hotel Agape, the sizzling pupusas overflowing with cheese, the tasty coffee, the midday sunshine and bright blue skies, the humid heat, the shade of the tropical vegetation under which we ate lunch out of Styrofoam boxes drinking Kolashampan (Salvadoran Coca Cola) and the flexible concept of punctuality and ever changing schedules for which Salvadorans are known. But most of all, I was excited to see the cheerful, caring, and friendly, facilitators who had been communicating through Facebook for a whole year, waiting anxiously for our return.
All of my expectations and visions I had so anxiously anticipated became true as we exited the airport doors into what felt like a wall of humidity and heat and we found ourselves in the middle of a sea of people, most waiting for their relatives that come from the different parts of the U.S for the holidays. We settled in Sonsonate and the facilitator training took place for the first two days, everything went smoothly and as expected. It was not until the first days of camps that the return of a group of six camp participants from last year took me by surprise.
We had been expecting a completely different group of children to participate in this year’s camps. I must not have done my best at hiding the concern in my face as they greeted me with a “Are you happy to see us again this year?” accompanied by mischievous smiles. And of course it was not that I wasn’t happy to see them. They had been one of the most rewarding groups of children to work with, but I knew that sense of reward only came with hard work, as this group of 10-16 year olds had earned the title of “the troublemakers” in last year’s camps.
El Salvador is a country marked by gang violence, with one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. Although a lot of progress has been accomplished, Sonsonate has historically been one of the most violent areas of El Salvador. Some of those “troublemakers” we work with come from the vulnerable communities in Sonsonate. They have little opportunity to leave the streets, and it is in the streets where they find their friends, their family, their role models, and most importantly a sense of identity and belonging; something all teenagers are looking for. As I had anticipated, it had been a year but our group of troublemakers was still as dynamic and restless, trying to do anything disruptive to make our jobs more difficult and to make their friends think they were “cool”.
After the first day of camps, we knew there had to be a better way to deal with the “troublemakers” other than having one facilitator per child watching their every move. Long discussions and thinking allowed the team to develop a plan; however, this plan had a level of uncertainty: it could solve the conduct problem we were facing with this group or take things out of our hands and turn the situation into complete chaos. With this in mind, the next day we decided to pick three of the “troublemakers” and give them the title of “assistant facilitators.” They were given the responsibility of helping the younger children with game play, since they already had experience with the BREAKAWAY model, and they had the task of giving out stickers to the camp participants upon completion of each worksheet and discussion. Fortunately, the plan worked in our favor. They took their title and responsibilities seriously. They helped the younger kids read through the game and knowing they were being looked up to by the younger ones motivated them to act respectfully. The first day we had to persuade them to participate during the discussions and to do their activities but I was able to observe a positive change in behavior. By the next day, they were doing the activity sheets and participating without even being asked to. At the end of the day one of them even asked me if he could also have a sticker, showing me his completed sheet proudly. I could not help but smile and think: “He cares!”
The rest of the days of camp went by smoothly, with only minor trouble here and there, because after all we cannot go back and change the environments these kids have grown up in and the violence that is rooted so deeply in El Salvador’s society. We cannot do this in four days of camps. But the BREAKAWAY team is strives to teach respect and improve how individuals interact with each other, especially how boys interact with and view girls. I believe this change within the individual has the power to gradually change the social context of these communities. Giving our trust to the “troublemakers” showed them that we respected them which cultivated a positive camp experience for these participants. It is these groups that we need to work with the most to make change happen and giving opportunities, big and small, to these “troublemakers” is what really can make a difference.