Young U.S. Latino changes lives in El Salvador through soccer and ‘The Power of Play’

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The first class of AFJA in Los Amates. (Photo/ Sara Jule / AFJA)

There are few who know the extreme disparities between the U.S. and Central America like 29-year-old Steven Levy.

His mother immigrated to Los Angeles from the infamously dangerous Los Amates, El Salvador in 1979. A decade later, Levy was born, the youngest of five brothers — and the only one born on U.S. soil.

 

He was also the one to give birth to a legacy of lasting change.

One year ago, he founded Academia de Fútbol Juvenil Amatense (AFJA) — a Los Angeles based non-profit that recycles soccer equipment throughout the U.S. and establishes community-based soccer academies for youth, ages 5-19.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC. (Photo/ Ron Sosa / AFJA)

Brian Aguilar, of Guatemalan heritage and Levy’s college friend, heard about the project and was inspired to make a short documentary about it called, “El Poder del Juego” (“The Power of Play”). It will be screening at the Central American International Film Festival this Saturday, November 10, in Los Angeles.

The idea for AFJA was conceived because Levy’s mom would send him to her hometown, a town made up of about 150 homes in the northern part of El Salvador, during summer vacations, while his school friends were being sent to summer camp. This allowed Levy to witness firsthand the life his mother had left behind.

“I saw kids, already at 10, working in agriculture and doing hard work,” said Levy about the impoverished youth in El Salvador, who often only had one pair of worn shoes, if that.

“I would communicate with the kids, and make friends, through soccer,” said Levy. “I would start leaving stuff behind like soccer balls, equipment, and toys, because I saw the disparity between my friends here and there.”

Fast forward to 2015. Levy graduated from the University of Southern California, and he now works full-time in IT at an LA-area hospital. However, despite his average American life, with everyday comforts like clean drinking water and takeout food, the image of his young friends in El Salvador — without those same luxuries — never left him.

In the summer of 2017, Levy decided to start a Go Fund Me with a $500 goal, which was quickly surpassed.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA. (Courtesy AFJA)

“I was just going to buy new gear, and bring it to the kids, but within two weeks we surpassed the goal,” Levy told NBC News. “After I went to El Salvador and took videos and photos, then it really took off. People saw the joy in the kids’ faces. We captured the moment of some of these kids receiving their first shoes.”

The original idea was to give these hard-working youth an outlet to play, but it grew to become an academy for them to also be future leaders in their towns. There are three requirements for eligibility, including academic, attendance, and community service. One of their most important duties is “clean up days.”

“The coaches, teachers and kids in the community get together to pick up the trash in the neighborhood,” Levy explained. “You know we’re having impact when a 5-year-old sees an adult throw a wrapper on the ground and says, ‘Hey, pick that up.’”

Another serious problem Levy has witnessed is the water, which is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.

“The same water kids were taking to practice is contaminated. One of the moms told us she had to take her 10-year-old to dialysis, because of the level of contamination in the water,” said Levy. “We partnered with another nonprofit called La Mission por Vida, (launching a Giving Tuesday campaign on the 27th of this month) which provides water filters for the whole community.”

Levy said he could not have done this all without the help of his mom, who is the program’s director, residing back in El Salvador, as well as the help of other family members and some of the children’s parents. Thanks to the group effort, the organization now serves 122 youth in Los Amates and Ateos, El Salvador, and there are plans to start a chapter in Guatemala in January.

In Los Angeles, Levy said it really hits home for him to see Central American children in the news, detained by immigration authorities. But he understands why they try to come. It’s out of desperation.

“Here we are with the same kids, and what they look like when someone believes in them,” he said.

Levy said he’s most proud that he’s making his mother proud.

“She came to the U.S., worked the jobs nobody wanted to work,” said Levy. “My brothers joined the military, and I went to college. [Los Amates] is where my mom comes from, the school she went to still has the bullet holes from the civil war.”

“With the academy,” said Levy, “I want to build a sustainable model to be able to use soccer as a vehicle for social change.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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‘Home Truth’ Shows a Mother’s Fight for Justice After Her Husband Killed Their 3 Daughters

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Jessica Lenahan, 52, the subject of the new documentary “Home Truth.” (Courtesy Adequate Images)

Jessica Lenahan has gone through a mother’s worst nightmare, and it all took place on one night in June 1999. A new documentary portrays her ordeal.

The Castle Rock, Colorado, mother of four had successfully obtained a permanent restraining order against her emotionally abusive husband, Simon Gonzales, earlier that month, requiring him to remain at least 100 yards from her and her four children, except during specified visitation time. Despite that, he took his three daughters in violation of the restraining order. Lenahan frantically called the police for hours; they told her there was nothing they could do and to let them know if the girls did not come home.

In the early morning hours, Gonzales drove to the police station and started shooting; the police shot back. They found he had killed his three daughters; the bodies of Rebecca, 10, Katheryn, 9, and Leslie, 7, were found in his van.

Filmed over the course of nine years of Lenahan’s life after the tragedy, the documentary “Home Truth,” directed by Katia Maguire and April Hayes and co-produced by Latino Public Broadcasting, captures an intimate portrait of the lives of Lenahan, her surviving son, Jessie, and how the trauma from domestic violence is difficult to extinguish, no matter how much time passes.

The film documents Lenahan’s relentless pursuit of justice to change the ways police and towns respond to domestic violence situations and includes interviews with members of her legal team, such as attorney Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, a former Obama adviser on violence against women.

In time for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the film premieres Wednesday on the World Channel at 7p.m ET, as well as additional PBS stations throughout October (check local listings), and will be available for streaming on pbs.org beginning Wednesday as well.

The directors of the film heard about Lenahan’s story from someone at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2008. At that point, Lenahan, who is of Native American and Latino descent, had already been fighting her case for nine years and had endured a long and emotionally strenuous journey. She had filed a lawsuit against the Castle Rock police for failing to enforce her restraining order right after the incident, and in 2004, her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Image: Jessica Lenahan, Children

Jessica Lenahan, 52, the subject of the new documentary HOME TRUTH, and her four children. (Courtesy Adequate Images)

When it was ruled, 7-2, that she had no constitutional right to the enforcement of her restraining order and that police departments could not be sued for improper enforcement of such orders, Lenahan and her legal team, including the ACLU and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, filed a case against the U.S. government with the help of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

With this case, Lenahan became the first individual domestic violence survivor to bring a case against the United States before an international board. In a 2011 landmark decision, the commission found the U.S. was responsible for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased children.

Maguire, an Emmy-nominated Latina filmmaker, said they first saw Lenahan speak at an event.

“What struck us the most is that she is able to talk about the horrific things that happened to her over and over again,” said Maguire. “We thought, ‘How does telling her story affect her? How does she do that? We understood that the story had historic significance but being filmmakers, we wanted to look deeper into her story.”

“We really started telling the story from before the girls were killed,” Maguire told NBC News. They had footage of the girls as well, because their father had a habit of filming them — and Jessica —frequently.

Though it took nearly a decade to make the film, Maguire said they learned a lot about the judicial process and the lasting effects of domestic violence on families.

“The skeleton was Jessica’s case, but the other part was her relationship with her son, Jesse,” Maguire said. “The ripples go on far and wide. It’s a problem we have to look at from a public health perspective as well.”

Jesse was 13 when his sisters were killed, and he mentions in the documentary that when the girls died, so did the nurturing side of his mom that he loved so much. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress took a toll on their relationship — and to this day they remain emotionally and physically distant.

“Everyone is in a different place in their lives,” explained Maguire. “Different family members need to step away to take care of themselves, and we thought that was a very powerful part in the story.”

She added that she is proud of Jessica, who continues to fight for justice and against her fatigue. Although Jessica has made some strides, even winning awards from the U.S. Human Rights Network, among other groups, she told NBC News she still has lots more work to do.

Lenahan is currently a visiting scholar at the Dorothea S. Clarke Program in Feminist Jurisprudence at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y. She said it’s been a 20-year battle regarding her case, but she wants an outcome that recognizes the legal rights of domestic violence victims not just in the U.S. but in other countries as well.

Author Junot Díaz Says Dark Times Demand Action: ‘I’m still going to fight’

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Junot Diaz (Courtesy “American Creed”)

Junot Díaz doesn’t remember a time when he’s ever felt completely at home in the United States — the country he’s lived in for more than four decades and where he has found a home as an award-winning writer.

“I grew up in the margins of society — I assumed everyone, when they were 6 years old, was pulled up out of their home country and placed in another place where you had to learn English,” he told NBC News.

Díaz immigrated from the Dominican Republic with his family in 1974, settling in a low-income area in central New Jersey, an ethnically diverse enclave a few miles from Manhattan.

Now 49, he became an American citizen in his early 20s, and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and receive a MacArthur Genius Award in 2012.

Díaz didn’t mince words when asked about a recent decision by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to no longer describe America as “a nation of immigrants” in its mission statement.

“I’m not surprised that a president who is a white supremacist would push for that kind of alteration,” Díaz said.

Reflecting on his naturalization ceremony, Díaz said, “what was most astonishing about it was that very few of us come into contact with the engine that produces so much genius and so much of what is extraordinary with this country.”

That powerful American moment “is something that these white supremacists fear and despise — disavowing the contributions of people of color,” he said.

Clearly concerned that the U.S. is becoming more and more fractured, he said people these days are “consumed by irrational hate.”

“We are living in very strange times,” Díaz said. “It’s a challenging time to be a person of color.”

But to him, now is the time for people to decide whether they are going to resist. “I believe in true democracy, inclusion and reparation,” he said. “If it’s dark out, I’m still going to fight.”

Díaz is one of 11 Americans, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and award-winning historian David M. Kennedy, who spoke about their lives, what it means to be an American and what can bind us together in troubled times in the documentary film, “American Creed,” which aired Tuesday (Feb. 27) on PBS (check local listings).

When asked, “What does being American mean to you?” Díaz responded that he didn’t know the answer but that he didn’t believe he has ever been “accepted” as an American.

Díaz, whose new children’s book, “Islandborn,” is due to be released next month, credits his childhood school librarian, Mrs. Crowell, with treating all students equally. She even believed a Spanish-speaking immigrant would one day write the next great American novel. That support helped solidify his identity in an unstable world, and he realizes how important that is to maintain for those coming after him.

“Libraries and the public school system are underfunded,” Díaz said. “We have to have a thousand fights in a thousand places.”

Díaz saw the contributions of immigrants firsthand in his working-class New Jersey neighborhood.

“We were like some strange United Nations experiment. My upstairs neighbor was African-American, my best friend was Cuban, my other friend was Egyptian,” he said. “It structured a lot of my thinking, a lot of my art. But in a nation as large as the U.S., it’s difficult to achieve consensus.”

He does not think issues like immigration or gay marriage are tearing our country apart; the “enemy,” Díaz said, is what he calls the economic elite and “mass media manipulation.”

“We’ve been very unfortunate in our leadership, and in our economic beliefs. The folks that have money and power have done much damage in this country,” he said. “When your only goal is to expand your profit, you’re not thinking about the civic, altruism, the well-being of the majority.”

“In the long-term,” Díaz said, “that’s going to leave us with a profoundly damaged planet.”

“We are very fortunate that we have many people that believe in civic justice,” he added. “Otherwise we’d be in much worse shape.”

What Díaz is doing, and what he urges others to do, is to get involved, through volunteering or other activities, and contribute to our “shared” world.

“I don’t approach our civic society as a writer or author, but as a member of it, regardless of my profession,” Díaz said. “I think everyone owes — everyone takes more from this society that they put back in. We all need to take a little time to pay back the interest, to pay back the debt that is ours.”

Being a part of the documentary, he said, is an attempt to open up a dialogue at a time when we are told there should not be a dialogue.

The documentary includes an account of two politically opposed activists who are working to find common ground. Joan Blades, the co-founder of the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org, founded Living Room Conversations in 2011. She is working with Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, as well as others on the right, to create meaningful dialogue between people of opposing views.

“We need to fight to make society better, to make it more accountable, make it safer, to leave it better for the generation that comes,” Díaz said. “Will we win this fight? I’m fighting because it’s the right thing to do.”

“I will take the humble devotion of the average person that believes in justice,” he added, “and I believe we are going to win.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

In Houston, Latino Volunteers Roll Up Their Sleeves to Help Hurricane Harvey Victims

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Houston attorney and resident Beto Cardenas, and fellow volunteer, Karen Penner, have been helping out at Houston’s convention center. (Courtesy Beto Cardenas)

Hurricane Harvey has caused massive destruction and displacement, but it has also brought out the kindness and energy of volunteers like Beto Cárdenas.

A fifth-generation Texan born in Laredo, Cárdenas, 44, has lived in Houston for the past decade. As an attorney, he often does pro bono work and outreach for the Hispanic community; more than 40 percent of the residents in the nation’s fourth largest city are Latino.

This week, Cárdenas has been volunteering at the George R. Brown Convention Center as it houses thousands of people. “It’s about seven blocks from where I live. I happen to have friends from the UK — Manchester — visiting, and they’re helping too.”

The downtown area where Cárdenas lives is a little higher in elevation, so it wasn’t as affected in terms of flooding.

“My wife [Norma Bustamante Cárdenas] is a registered nurse and has been taking multiple shifts at Texas Medical Center, the largest hospital in Houston, making sure the staffing levels are intact, because people are having trouble getting out of their homes,” Cárdenas explained.

Registered nurse Norma Bustamante Cardenas is working extra shifts at Houston’s Texas Medical Center as her husband Beto Cardenas volunteers at the George W. Brown Convention Center. (Courtesy Beto Cardenas)

 

He said he’s been helping get medical supplies to the convention center and helping unload contributions — everything from diapers to clothing to board games.

“You see the force of nature, and that’s something that strikes you — then you see the force of the humanity, and you are obviously going to be moved by it,” Cárdenas said. “There is something to be said about Texas. It’s about rescue and recovery and looking out for each other —all the discussion about what could have been done better, that’s secondary.”

Cárdenas said there is a need for medical supplies such as sickness bags, urinals, bed pans, oximeters, gloves, masks, catheters, chucks, saline, saniwipes and bandages. Houston’s food banks are also collecting donations.

Marc Martinez, 51, is an Army veteran who retired in 2014 after serving 22 years. In 2012, he joined the non-profit Team Rubicon, which unites the skills of military veterans and first responders to form rapid response teams in emergency situations; Martinez volunteers there six to eight hours a week, while working at the Department of Defense in the U.S. Army full-time as a civilian conducting environmental health inspections in Fort Carson, Colorado – where he resides.

Team Rubicon is collecting donations for Harvey and lending a hand.

“They called me on Sunday evening,” said Martinez. “Luckily I have great bosses, and I was able to take a seven-day leave.”

He’s currently serving as the second in command in the disaster area as the deputy incident commander.

He is still in shock at the magnitude of the storm saying it is about three times more rain than Hurricane Katrina. He’s also grateful for the amount of volunteers at hand.

“The Cajun Navy showed up, and pretty much everyone with a boat showed up,” said Martinez. “The number of people helping complete strangers is outstanding. They dropped what they were doing and came to help. It’s nice to see people actually have a good side – especially after the incidents recently at Charlottesville.”

He said one of their biggest challenges have been the flooded roads, but the boat crews have successfully conducted over 41 rescues.

 A view from a rescue boat from Team Rubicon, where Marc Martinez is volunteering.  (Courtesy Team Rubicon)

According to Martinez, military veterans thrive in chaos.

“Most of us have been deployed multiple times, so sleeping two nights in a hammock I have no problem with,” Martinez said. “I’m used to not eating for multiple hours. Our brains are focused on the job at hand.”

What he has seen people in need of is diapers and formula. “Without diapers, it puts stress on the child and family members.”

Regina Garcia resides in Corpus Christi, where she was born and raised, and she suffered minimal damage to her home there. Hurricane Harvey started on Friday, the 25th, the day of her 46th birthday.

She is an employee at H-E-B Grocery Stores, a Texas supermarket chain, and has been spearheading a mobile kitchen effort serving free meals to hurricane victims since Tuesday evening.

 Volunteers from the H-E-B Grocery Stores, including Regina Garcia, working to get donated supplies to families in need.  (Courtesy Regina Garcia)

“Last night we served over 1,000 meals,” said Garcia on Wednesday, from where she and the rest of the team are currently based in Rockport. “We are using social media outlets to get the word out.”

She said they served 1,200 meals for breakfast, another 1,200 for lunch, and they were getting ready for dinner. They were giving away ice water and bread, and they setting up a pharmacy.

The area was still under strict curfew from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. “We are here to help out as much as we can. Everyone’s worried about each other.”

Richard Garza was born and raised in Laredo and moved to Houston in 1986. For the past 11 years, he has been the director of Houston Gateway Schools — three open-enrollment charter schools serving 2,400 students. Affiliated with UnidosUS, the charter schools also provide a myriad of community services like ESL classes, immigration services, citizenship classes, and home buyer education classes. Ninety-eight percent of the students are Latino and 92 percent are low-income, at risk students.

“We have 200 employees, and 31 staff members were rescued,” said Garza on Wednesday. “Where the three schools are, it was all flooded within a 10-mile radius…I have not been able to go to the other two campuses because the streets are impassable…To put a dollar amount it’s quite a bit. Maybe $300,000 – including computers.”

The past few days he’s been making sure to keep in constant contact with his staff and families.

“I’ve been telling everyone to apply to FEMA — I tell them to do that first, then to follow up with their insurance and to let me know where they are short, so I can try to help,” said Garza, who was preparing to meet with the staff on Friday.

“I want to make sure we are going to be ready before Tuesday and make sure we have food for the kids,” he said. “I want to make sure our facilities are ready for breakfast lunch and dinner. The sooner I can help my staff return to work, the sooner the kids can have a normal day-to-day life.”

He’s also reaching out to extra counselors for his students, as he only has three on staff.

“If adults get stressed out and get anxiety attacks, I can only imagine how children feel,” said Garza. “On Tuesday, I want to hear from the kids and parents and see how I can help them.”

Pastor Hernán Castaño is the senior pastor of Ríos De Aceite Church, which is part of the U.S. Pastor Council. He has two Hispanic congregations — one in Houston, made up of 900 members, and one in Katy, made up of 150 members. He has served the local community as a pastor for more than 15 years, helping counsel individuals and families in everyday issues.

“We are already coordinating efforts to gather donations at our church building, cooking food for the homeless and hungry and distributing all donations to those that have lost everything,” said Castaño on Wednesday. “Working with other churches, we will give 100 percent of ourselves to save lives, help people, and rebuild this city.”

On Friday, Sept. 1st, the church is planning to open its doors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to receive donations of clothing and shoes in good condition for both adults and children, baby wipes, baby formula and food, new blankets and pillows, water, nonperishable food, towels, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and shaving cream.

The pastor said it was “noticeable” that amid political divisions and controversy, including the issue of the SB4 immigration law, “many Latinos are out there helping regardless of color, race, immigration status and background.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Entrepreneur Creates a Bilingual Platform to Make Retirement Saving Easy

Within minutes of meeting financial entrepreneur Carlos García, you feel like you’ve known him for years, and suddenly, you’re discussing how to solve Americans’ lack of retirement savings.

“It is possible,” said the 37-year-old about one of America’s biggest challenges, “if you have the passion for it.”

This past February, García launched a startup aiming to do just that. Finhabits is a bilingual digital platform that gives investment advice and teaches and encourages individuals how to invest and save for retirement.

This, he explained, came from his realization that he grew up knowing very little about building wealth and saving, something he learned while working at his first job at Merrill Lynch in NYC.

“I never opened my 401K packet from H.R., and after three years, my colleague said, ‘I already have $30,000 saved for my retirement and the company matched it,’ and I said, ‘What?’ All these terms I didn’t know, and then I thought about all the people I know, and maybe their parents didn’t teach them either.”

García said that while his parents instilled in him an ethic of hard work, they were not familiar with long-term financial planning.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, this is indeed a common occurrence among Latinos. Only 26 percent of Hispanic families had retirement savings in 2013, compared to 41 percent of black families and 65 percent of white families.

“I got frustrated when I looked at my Merrill Lynch plan, but then I thought about the people who don’t work for a corporation and don’t have a pension,” said García. As fewer Americans work for big companies with 401Ks and pension plans, it’s even more imperative, say experts, that individuals know how to chart out their own savings.

Research by the National Institute on Retirement Security confirms that only 38 percent of Latinos, versus 62 percent of whites, have access to a retirement plan through their employer.

“Most people don’t contribute money to their retirement —what is going to happen when we reach 80? I thought to myself, “This is a Latino problem.”

García designed Finhabits as a platform that helps people who have never invested, develop the habit to do it. “If I can make saving for retirement more accessible and cheaper, it’s a winner — it’s just like going to the gym,” he said. “We text you to give you a nudge to contribute on a weekly basis.”

So far, Finhabits has been highly active in Texas, Florida and California. Most clients are new investors in their 30’s and saving for retirement using Roth IRA’s, contributing an average of $40 a week.

“We want to be in as many Hispanic-driven places as possible,” said García. “Any citizen or permanent resident can open an account. Eighty-five percent of our clients have never invested or had a retirement account before. Ninety-five percent of our users are mobile audience.”

What differentiates Finhabits from other digital financial apps, said García, is that it’s focused on long-term financial habits. The digital platform charges $1 per month for accounts under $2,500 and 0.5 percent per year for accounts that pass that amount.

“Many Latinos don’t retire and keep working, because they have to, but what happens if you get a health issue?” said García. “And there’s a difference between having a savings account and investing…Ideally, I want everyone to put 5 percent of their income away annually.”

García said that no matter how much one puts away, it’s best to just do it and not to put off saving.

García is no stranger to solving problems. He spent his formative years alternating between living in El Paso, Texas where he was born, and Juárez, Mexico, the birthplace of his parents —studying in both countries and speaking both languages. He left the U.S.-Mexico border when he got accepted into MIT, one of the world’s most prestigious universities —to study electrical engineering and computer science.

“I was an electrical engineer first, and electrical engineering teaches you how to solve problems,” said García. He later switched to a finance career in risk and asset management.

Though he has navigated in the high-stakes and lucrative world of finance, García sees his mission as helping support underserved communities, beginning with Latinos.

In 2010, after nearly a decade in Wall Street, García and a few friends from Mexico saw a need to help children affected by drug-related violence in Juarez. They formed Project Paz, a non-profit that partners with artists and socially-conscious brands to host fundraising events. The proceeds fund after-school art programs in Juarez. In the past seven years, more the 6,000 children have benefited from the program.

Apart from his philanthropic work, García is focused on helping propel what he thinks is a bright future for Hispanics.

“Latinos are the only group who has had income growth since 2008– so there is a huge potential that we are going to be the next wealthy class.”

However, García says saving money for retirement and building a nest egg has to be every individual’s own priority.

“It’s important that you take care of yourself, because the government is not and your employer is probably not,” said García. “If you spend an hour per year thinking about what you do with your money, you can double your wealth in retirement.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Ecuador Photographer Brings Food and Hope to Earthquake Victims

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Ever since Manuel Avilés was a teenager in his native Guayaquil, Ecuador, he was known in his high school as the one to help out whenever there was a need. By 17, he was committed to the idea of becoming a Catholic priest, but after volunteering one and a half years as a missionary in the Amazon rain forest and seeing how lonely the way of life can be, he opted to pursue another new found passion – photography.

Avilés had gone on his high school senior class trip to the Galápagos Islands with the new camera his aunt had gifted him. He immediately fell in love with capturing images of the lush landscapes of his beloved country. At 41, he is now a renowned professional photographer in Ecuador – spending his days touring the country for various projects.

Although many years have passed since his time as a missionary, Avilés’ innate desire to help people never left him. Ever since the devastating 7.8 magnitude Ecuador earthquake on April 16, which killed more than 650 and displaced nearly 73,000, he has devoted all of his waking hours traveling city to city along his country’s coast – from Manta to Portoviejo – bringing food, supplies and good cheer to the devastated people there.

Avilés says many of the victims are still sleeping outside where their houses once stood to take care of their belongings.

His photos, which you can find on his Facebook page, pretty much speak for themselves, and they have garnered supporters all the way from the U.S., such as this guy – Oakley Walker (featured below, left, with Avilés, right) who found out about Avilés’ cause and flew down from Florida to the small town of Canoa, Manabi to volunteer for three days.

Originally published on The Huffington Post – where you can see more photos.

The Lives of Migrant Farmerworkers’ Children Focus of ‘East of Salinas’

When we think about where our food comes from, we don’t often think about what our farm workers go through on a daily basis, let alone their children.

Award-winning filmmaker Laura Pacheco thought about it for the first time after reading a New York Times article in 2011. The story was about Oscar Ramos, a third grade teacher in Salinas, California, who came from a migrant family. Ramos teaches in Sherwood Elementary School, where half of his class is made up of children of migrant farmworker families. Often these children have to move several times a year to follow the harvest and have to wake up at 3am to go to a babysitter, before school, so their parents can go work in the fields.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Pacheco. “He knows what’s missing in these kids’ lives,” said Pacheco about Ramos.

There are more than 2 million farmworkers in the U.S., and their median wage is a little over $9 an hour. Immigrant farmworkers (approximately 75 percent are coming from Mexico) often leave their home countries to seek a better life for their families. However, the average migrant child may attend as many as three different schools in one year, often making it difficult for a child to advance to the next grade level.

'East of Salinas' producer/director Laura Pacheco  (Courtesy ITVS)

‘East of Salinas’ producer/director Laura Pacheco (Courtesy ITVS)

Pacheco was so intrigued by these figures that she wrote Mr. Ramos and told him she’d like to meet and talk to him about making a film. Together with co-director Jackie Mow, they decided to focus on one family, and one boy in particular, José Anzaldo.

“We decided to follow one to get an intimate look of what a migrant family is like in America,” says Pacheco.

After three years of filming, their film, “East of Salinas” will be premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, December 28th. (10pET, see PBS for local listings).

Jose’s mother, Maria, is from Mexicali. She used to work in a clothing factory, but she couldn’t support herself and her children. Jose’s stepfather is from El Salvador, where he also did agricultural work, but he says, “You can live there, but you were always hungry.”

Coming to the U.S., the family still often goes to bed hungry, but not as much. José loves school, especially math, but he is one of two million undocumented children living in the U.S. today. He is María’s only son who was not born in the U.S. – so she worries about his undocumented status and what that portends for his future.

Pacheco and Mow were able to follow José around since the 3rd grade. He’s already attended more than five schools and is now in 7th grade. He’s continuing to do really well in school, said Pacheco.

“In the beginning, he’s a little naive about his situation, and at the end he becomes more aware,” said Pacheco. “It’s really hard to see someone’s potential, and then leave and not know if he’s going to have food the next day – Oscar (his teacher) still goes to see them and takes the boys to the movies.”

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the 'East of Salinas' documentary.  (Courtesy ITVS)

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the ‘East of Salinas’ documentary. (Courtesy ITVS)

His teacher Oscar Ramos sees the little boy’s promise and wants to help him get ahead. The question is, what opportunities will be available for children like José, a bright student who is undocumented?

Pacheco hopes viewers take away certain things from watching the film such as what education is like for farmworker children and where our food is coming from.

“But if I had to say one thing, I hope José lives in people’s hearts,” says Pacheco. “Immigration is a hot topic right now. It gets so polarized. People feel so righteous on both sides of the debate, but you can see who the kids are that are going to make America great and should be given an opportunity.”

“These are the families who are picking food for America,” says Pacheco. “We should know what their lives are like.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.