Scores of boys have turned their backs on crime and gangs thanks to a sports initiative that hones their talents and encourages them to pursue an academic career.
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – In the steamy coastal region of the municipality of San Luis Talpa, 34 kilometers south of the nation’s capital, 120 boys use soccer as a means of escaping the poverty and violence that ravage their families.
The boys live, study and play soccer at High Performance Center for the Integral Footballer (CARFI), an Educating a Salvadoran Foundation (FESA) initiative which, since 2000, has been implementing a successful sports and academic training program that produces top-quality players.
“We coach boys between the ages of 10 and 18 with above-average talent to prepare them for joining national and international teams,” FESA President Jorge Bahaia said. “Our mission is to keep them away from crime and drugs and motivate them to succeed.”
FESA organizes small tournaments in areas with little or no facilities to identify players, with the best given the opportunity to enter CARFI, while other talented players are enrolled in local soccer schools run by the foundation.
FESA has helped 10,000 young people, while CARFI has trained about 500 boys, 82 of whom went on to play professionally.
The boys receive all the equipment and nutrition needed to play at a high level while they’re enrolled in CARFI.
About 80% of students come from districts with high levels of violence and drug consumption. Additionally, 72% of first-year students enter the program with signs of malnutrition, according to FESA.
Once their education is complete, 90% of students continue their studies at local universities or obtain athletics scholarships to the United States or other countries.
David Castro, 15, arrived at CARFI in 2013 from the district of Sierra Morena in the municipality of Soyapango, an area ravaged by gangs.
He studies and trains diligently daily to make his dream of wearing the Salvadoran national team’s blue jersey a reality.
“Every day in my hometown is a battle against crime and gang harassment,” he said. “They put a lot of pressure on me to join them. They used to come to my house looking for me and offer me drugs. I used to stay inside to avoid them and not lose my way. I’m much happier now. FESA saved me.”
Denilson Vidal, 17, a native of the municipality of San Sebastián in the department of San Vicente – where gangs have daily battles for territorial control – trains hard to be a forward and pass his second year of high school.
“I came to FESA when I was 11 after passing some the school’s trials held in my town,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for me, as there was a lot of gang harassment where I live. Sometimes, I get tired from all the training and studying, but I know success doesn’t come easily.”
Seventy-two percent of the 2.5 million Salvadorans under 18 are poor, according to the Latin America Social Panorama 2013 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
The commission defines child poverty as the privation of young people’s right of access to education, nutrition, housing, water, sanitation and information.
In El Salvador, 285,096 minors between 4 and 17 years old do not attend school, and 68,356 left school in 2011, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Additionally, just 36% of the 2.5 million people under 18 years of age attend school in El Salvador, according to the latest Multiple-Purpose Household Survey (EHPM) conducted last year.
El Salvador has averaged 8.5 murders a day so far in 2014, according to the National Civil Police (PNC).
In 2013 the PNC registered 2,393 murders, 80% of which were gang-related, after registering 2,576 in 2012.
The key to success
CARFI’s key to success is the constant monitoring of its students, not just by teachers and coaches but also by a team of tutors who instill values and morals, according to Brenda Romero de Fuentes, the center’s director.
“If a person has been involved in a program in which they have studied at least up to high school level and they have a concept of the values and moral principles that will allow them to be successful, that person has a better chance of getting ahead,” she said.
Private donors provide US$1 million in funding annually to operate the center.
“The center is in great demand,” Bahaia said. “Every day, young boys or their parents call us on the phone or send us emails or letters. We are considering expanding the center to include other sports.”