03 August 2006
by Julie Thompson
Lauren McElroy teaches working children in El Salvador as a volunteer with the Angeles Descalzos ('fallen angels') programme. (Photo: Courtesy Global Volunteer Network)
The Lonely Planet describes El Salvador as “a country of beautiful beaches, dramatic scenery, and friendly people”.
While this is no doubt true, El Salvador is also marred with poverty and suffering. Child labour is prevalent, as many young children need to go to work in order to survive, and often provide for their families.
Ever wondered where the tasty sugar of your can of Coca Cola comes from? Odds are it is from an El Salvadorian sugarcane mill, which openly uses child labour. Children as young as eight work for up to eight hours a day in hot sun, cutting sugar cane with huge machetes. It is dangerous work, and injuries, sometimes life threatening, are all too common. Other children labour in sweatshops making garments for western countries, climb landfills in order to collect recycling material to sell, and young girls risk physical and sexual abuse by working in the domestic sector.
Perhaps the most visible of child labour in El Salvador, is children working in the marketplace. The kids can be seen selling goods and services in the streets, and in local markets, some as young as four and five. This work often includes running in and out of traffic, backbreaking work carrying goods, and working in the extreme heat. Education is expensive, and many poverty-stricken families cannot afford to send their children to school. Children instead spend hours working, their childhood stripped from them, in order to survive.
By volunteering through the Global Volunteer Network, Lauren McElroy of Washington, USA was able to visit El Salvador to see first hand how these people live, and to work for a programme that helps to give the children a break from that environment.
“One of my friends had gone to El Salvador the year before, and she said what an amazing experience she’d had, and that she was going back again,” says Lauren, reflecting on her five weeks spent volunteering.
“I was just getting back into Spanish, so I was able to go. I knew that I could actually be able to talk to the kids, and I felt like that would make more of a difference.”
Lauren volunteered with a programme called ‘Angeles Descalzos’ which means ‘fallen angels’. The programme is for kids who work in the marketplace, many of whom cannot afford to go to school, and provides them with the chance to learn and play.
“We had a morning and an afternoon session. I taught some English, because a lot of the kids didn’t go to school, and English is something that really they can only learn in school. It’s really useful for them, because there’s a lot more opportunities if you know English, both educational, and job opportunities.”
The children come to the programme part time, when they are not working, and are able to come to this programme free of charge thanks to the support of volunteers.
The programme enables the marketplace children to take some time out, and provides an environment where they can be themselves and enjoy their childhood, as many of the children that Lauren met had been working as long as they could remember. “My friend Lisa who came with me is a theatre Major, so we did drama, which is really fun, just to try to get the kids to be a bit more creative and have fun. They don’t have board games and store-bought toys like in developed countries. They are not really encouraged to be creative, and to just play.”
The Civil War in El Salvador raged for over a decade. When it ended in 1992, it left around 70,000 people dead, causing damages worth over $2 billion. This put a huge strain on the already struggling economy, and left thousands of men, women and children alike maimed, injured and emotionally scarred. Although the war officially ended in 1992, it still has a massive impact on the day-to-day life of El Salvador’s people. Many are still left suffering, coming to terms with war-related injuries and illness.
Lauren stayed with a host family, and was able to see first hand the impact of the war on families in El Salvador. “Their dad had been in the war, and he had been injured, and had just started to work again in a sweatshop in San Salvador, which is about a three-hour bus ride from Santa Ana where he lived. He would go there every week, and he would have basically day-long shifts, up to 24 hours, so he would stay there overnight and come back on weekends. It was amazing to see the sacrifice that he made for his family, and hear about his experiences fighting in the war and being injured, then recovering, and trying to get back into the workforce.”
Hosting the volunteers also provides the families with valuable extra income. Lauren’s host family could then afford to send two of their children to school. One has also recently been able to attend university, thanks to the extra income gained by hosting volunteers.
Volunteering in El Salvador also brought Lauren the obvious challenges, such as the language barriers, but these were quickly overcome. Other challenges were not so obvious. Learning about kids’ lives that are so different from our own childhoods can be heartbreaking.
“When the kids are telling you their stories, you just want to be able to change everything,” says Lauren. “I was only there for five weeks, and you can’t change everything. Just knowing that you were going to leave, and they are going to stay there and still be having the same life, I think that was really hard, and one of the biggest challenges. To do what you can, and accept the fact that things aren’t going to change overnight… you have to just let that be, and do what you can while you are there.”
The programme, which receives very little government funding, relies on volunteers, mainly from foreign countries, to teach the classes. If it wasn’t for volunteers like Lauren, programmes like ‘Angeles Descalzos’ would not be able to stay running. As a volunteer Lauren was able to develop friendships with these children, which is a totally unique element of travelling in a developing country.
“When you picture a country like that when you go there, you see these kids out there selling things, but you don’t really have a personal relationship with them, so it just gave an incredibly different face and a different perspective on child poverty and child labour,” says Lauren. “It was really different when you knew the kid, and knew about their daily life, and had a relationship with them, rather than when it was just some faceless kid trying to sell you something. I have much more compassion, and respect, and understanding of their lives, and what that’s like.”
GVN has several programmes in El Salvador, including teaching English to children from the marketplace, or children who collect rubbish at landfills for recycling. There are also community maintenance programmes, and the opportunity to work in an orphanage desperate for help.
If you are interested in volunteering in El Salvador, visit the Global Volunteer Network web site