El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Latin America and has the unfortunate standing as one of the world’s most violent countries. With this reality comes widespread poverty and a breakdown of the family structure across society. Publicly funded programs and an adequate protection system to ensure the wellbeing of children simply do not exist. In 2009, upheaval once again become a reality for orphans living in institutions, with the introduction of a new law called Law for Integral Child and Adolescent Protection (LEPINA), which is drawn from the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. An aspect of the law that speaks of the family’s responsibility to care for children has resulted in children leaving orphanages to return to their biological families, regardless of the families’ ability to adequately care for them. This is where Project RED stepped in. Founder and Executive Director Kara Wilson launched the nonprofit organization in 2011 as a response to the great need newly reunited families were experiencing. To strengthen families and promote self-sustainability within families, Project RED focuses on three areas with families: Reintegration of children into a dignified physical environment, access to Education, and spiritual and psychosocial Development. “We focus on basic human rights of the whole family. Otherwise it would be difficult to make lasting changes. We also connect families to a support network in the community, right where they live,” explains Wilson.
The provision of basic material necessities is the foundation that must be in place before families can begin to grow in other areas. Project RED is unique in its approach, which works on a deep level with families. Not only does it aim to facilitate a stable physical environment for children and parents or family members, but staff also reach out emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, to the places where people are in need of healing and growth. It is serious work that demands accountability and real relationships. Project RED staff are messengers of transformation, providing education, counseling, and spiritual care. Wilson points out that “Christ is woven into everything we do.” Counselors remind families of hope in the midst of their difficult circumstances. In this spiritually open environment, the Project RED psychologists are able to provide Christ-centered counseling, opening the door for holistic transformation.
One of the great success stories Project RED has had the privilege of being part of is that of a fifteen-year-old girl named *Laura. Her mother *Elena is slightly intellectually disabled and was unable to adequately care for Laura and her younger brother, and unfortunately the situation included physical abuse. She abandoned them at an orphanage when they were very young, and they lived in institutional care for six years. Laura learned about Jesus and was baptized there. After the LEPINA law was implemented, Laura and her brother were returned to their mother.
When the Project RED social workers and psychologists met Laura and her family just a month later, they were found in unimaginable living conditions, with a completely broken family relationship. To begin, a psychologist started working with the family, which involved individual therapy for the three family members and group therapy for them as a family unit. Change was slow to come.
During this time, the staff realized that Laura’s mother was losing her vision, contributing to her inability to properly care for the children or to work. Project RED connected her with a medical institution that provided two eye surgeries and glasses, fully restoring her sight. Without this intervention, she would have lost her sight completely. Now she is able to work without the challenges of poor vision, providing for her family instead of relying solely on assistance from relatives. While she is unable to take advantage of vocational training due to her intellectual disability, she is working toward self-sufficiency in ways that would otherwise be closed off to her had she lost her sight. The social workers have observed that “this has not only boosted her self-esteem, but has been a factor in improving the mother-child relationships. The two children have more respect for their mother, and are learning to forgive her for the wrongdoings of the past.” Project RED psychologists continue to work with Elena biweekly and attribute much of the family’s progress to their ongoing individual and group therapy over the past year and a half.
The family has also moved into a small house that the organization built. It has the necessities for a healthy life—a shower, toilet, and cooking area with stove. When they moved in, Laura and her brother both said, teary eyed, “I never thought that I was ever going to have my own bed again.” Wilson cites this as “one of those moments where I remember the reason I do what I do.”
Now, only 18 months later, the family has continued to make drastic changes that strengthen their relationships. They are not perfect, but they understand how to live together and appreciate each other. “Love and care are starting to emerge,” Wilson reports, which are certainly foundational markers of a healthy and whole family. Laura is doing remarkably well for all she has come through in her short life, with much potential for leadership and an academic future in university. The interventions in her family have halted the cycle of family brokenness for her today, and for her future family. Project RED’s work is growing deep roots that will continue to promote and support healthy lives in the next generation.
*Names have been changed.