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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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.

3 travel destinations to volunteer in Latin America

It might be time for you to plan your next vacation, but you want to do more than lie around on a beach sipping drinks. If you have wondered about volunteering abroad, it’s a great way to give back to communities who could use a helping hand.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke to Americans who have volunteered in Latin America, and they shared with us their life-changing experiences. You don’t need much time, or money. In as little as a day or two, and $50, you can make a difference in someone’s life.

Build Houses In Colombia

José Giron was born in Bogota and immigrated to the U.S. at age 5. Today, he’s a student at the University of Southern California. After hearing so much from family and friends about the good deeds Techo does in Latin America, he finally decided to volunteer with the non-profit organization and went to Medellin in June of 2013.

The project involved 15 U.S. volunteers and around 150 local volunteers, and its aim was to build 25 houses in a slum on the outskirts of Medellin. We asked José about his experience.

Sign-up process/requirements:

“It’s just a matter of sending an e-mail that you’re interested in helping in some way. Because Techo is basically volunteer-driven, we relied on our own fundraising to achieve our goals. Each volunteer had to pay something like $200 USD. If we didn’t come up with our goal amount for the trip, the central office in Chile would have to lend us the money that we have to pay back.”

Length of trip:

“I left on a Thursday night, and I was back Sunday afternoon, but I fundraised for a good four months for my plane ticket. Techo has teams that go months ahead of time to identify the groups of individuals or families that need the most help. The house costs about $2,000, and the family has to come up with about $200 (10 percent) in a couple of months. Techo volunteers also search the areas to see if the area is plausible given the terrain. You can volunteer for any part of the project.”

Where was the stay:

“In a school in Manantiales de Paz – 20-25 minutes from the city, but it’s the second largest slum of people displaced by violence. These people have been displaced because the military and guerrillas are fighting too close to their homes…There is no water – it is brought up by trucks. This makes water much more expensive.”

(Photo/SANTIAGO LOAIZA) A view of Manantiales De Paz.

What volunteers do:

“The first thing you do is get split into cuadrillas of 7 to 8 people. Each of these cuadrillas are assigned to build a house in the slum. We were assigned to this house that was up a steep hill. We had to carry all our equipment, because the trucks couldn’t even reach it. We had to carry like the entire front wall up the slope or the main beam up the slope. You work with the family that you are building the house for, and you really experience what it’s like to live there. We worked for three days building this house, from dusk until dawn.”

Life-changing moment:

“One of the nicer experiences is seeing how many people in the community helped us. There was a man who didn’t have an arm. He was helping us unload these extremely heavy beams and carrying them up the slopes, which were stairs made out of sandbags. At my particular house, there were these three neighborhood kids who were helping us – not more than 10-years-old. That was pretty moving.”

(Photo/SANTIAGO LOAIZA) Three neighborhood children who helped us build the house.

Visit Orphans In Mexico

Hilda Pacheco-Taylor, the founder of the Corazón de Vida Foundation, was an orphan in Baja, Mexico herself when she was a young girl. Today, she supports 15 orphanagesthroughout Mexico, housing more than 850 children. As they get older, she tries to teach the youths job and social skills with the help of the volunteers that visit.

Mariana Saori Wall, 26, from Venice Beach, CA, has been volunteering with Corazón de Vida for the past seven years. The focus of the trips, she says, is to spend time with the orphans and provide them much needed one-on-one attention. We asked Mariana about her trips:

(COURTESY OF MARIANA SAORI WALL) A volunteer comforts a child living in an orphanage, in Baja, Mexico.

Sign-up process/requirements:

“Volunteers can register on the Corazón de Vida website (www.corazondevida.org). The cost of the trip is $50 USD, and it includes the bus trip, lunch for the kids and volunteers, and a craft for the day. U.S. citizens must have a valid passport. Non-U.S. citizens must have a passport, visa and proper forms for re-entry. For minors under 18, parents must sign a consent form. Minors under 15 must be accompanied by a parent.”

How long does the trip take:

“Each month, a chartered bus with up to 55 volunteers departs from Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. From there, you’re at the orphanage in Tijuana in 20 minutes – arriving around 10am, and back home by 4pm. You can also go to one of the other orphanages in Mexico, like Baja for example, and you can have housing for a week, or a couple of nights. People come from as far as Germany.”

What you do:

“When you arrive, you’re greeted by all the kids. They know you’re coming that day, and they’re super excited. As soon as you get off the bus, they grab your hand and pull you inside. The first hour, you’re walking around and they’re showing you the place. They have an activity for you, making crafts, bracelets, and then you can volunteer to prep for lunch. Every volunteer picks a task for the day.”

Why it’s important:

“The orphanage in Tijuana is called “La Hacienda” and houses around 50 to 60 kids – the majority ages 3 to 12, a couple of teenagers…Tijuana is a big city and a lot of people are traveling in and out of there – a lot of prostitution, drugs, some places have more kids abandoned than others. I’m working on a documentary on these orphanages, which talks about the basic things the kids struggle with – getting paperwork ready for school, finding their birth mothers, so many struggles these kids are going through.”

Life-changing moment:

“Just seeing them (the children) be happy is what keeps me motivated to do my work with them. These kids are so happy. They are just so in love with the volunteers, so excited to see you. It’s so hard to leave. That’s the worst part, to have to go home. There is this one kid this past weekend. She’s about 3 or 4-years-old. She doesn’t speak. They are trying to evaluate her, because she doesn’t laugh or cry. One of the volunteers held her the entire four hours we were there. When we finally had to go, she gave the volunteer a kiss, and everyone was in shock. It is moments like those that you see these kids are getting better, and we are making a positive influence on their lives.

Clean Drinking Water in Ecuador

James Golden traveled to Muisne, a coastal town in northwestern Ecuador, during his summer vacation from Harvard University this past May through early July. He went with Water Ecuador, a nonprofit which provides new drinking water solutions to six developing towns in Ecuador using appropriate technology and business models according to the location.

Water Ecuador was created after Alex Harding traveled from the U.S. to volunteer in a small hospital in Muisne, Ecuador in 2006. He spent all summer watching children come through the hospital’s emergency room with illnesses caused by the lack of safe drinking water: diarrhea, vomiting and intestinal parasites. He quickly learned that being sick was almost a normal state of being in Muisne and decided to do something to stop the cycle. Golden told us about his experience.

Sign-up process/requirements:

“Water Ecuador does not charge any fees to their volunteers. They just ask that volunteers cover the cost of their travel and room and board. They prefer volunteers with significant experience in global health, or work in developing countries, and ask that volunteers come for a minimum of a month (sometimes doctors go for a week), but anyone is welcome to help. All is takes is filling out a short online application.”

Where do you stay:

“The accommodations depend on the site you’re staying at. There are four or five hostels to choose from. You have your own room with a bathroom, and sometimes you have WiFi. The cost is approximately $10 a night for a short-term stay, or $2 to $4 a night for an entire month. The main street of Muisne had a lot of hustle and bustle and store fronts, but as you got away from the main street, you could see poverty a little more evident and streets less paved.”

(Photo/JAMES GOLDEN) Muisne is pretty much always flooded during the rainy season (December through May).

What you do:

“I looked at the cost equality analysis of the 6 water treatment centers that Water Ecuador operates. I was planning on looking at the water quality of the handful of centers in Muisne, comparing it with the water we were distributing ourselves. What I found was that even though the water was adequately treated, they don’t do a good job at sanitizing their reusable water containers. They were contaminated and even had E. coli. That’s what Water Ecuador is currently looking at.”

Life-changing moment:

“The second week that I was in Muisne, I got a throat infection. I was trying to tough it out, but after three days of my throat swelling up, I realized I really couldn’t swallow anything. I ended up going to a private doctor, which cost me $10 and antibiotics cost me $4. I tested the water jug I was drinking out of and found E. coli on it. It was the most sick I’ve ever been, and I realized it was kind of routine for them. I experienced how debilitating it can be, but I could afford to go to the doctor. The locals can’t really afford to go to the doctor.”

(Photo/JAMES GOLDEN) Children in Muisne, Ecuador.
Originally published on NBCNews.com