Raquel Romero, a project worker at the Springs of the Desert Student Center, says she often feels like a mother to the many neglected children she ministers to each day.
SAN VICENTE, EL SALVADOR The sky is still gray when Raquel Romero sees 6-year-old Katy walking down the dusty street in San Vicente. The little girl stares down at her worn shoes, and her school uniform hangs loosely on her small frame.
"Hello beautiful girl," Raquel calls from the doorway of the Springs of the Desert Student Center. Katy looks up with a grin and steps eagerly into Raquel's outstretched arms. "Did you have breakfast this morning?" Raquel asks as she brushes the wrinkles out of Katy's uniform. Katy shakes her head no. "Mama said I would have to wait until lunch at the project," she says simply.
Raquel takes Katy's hand and leads her into the noisy kitchen, where she sits down at a crowded table with other children who also arrived at the child development center hungry. But now, because of the faithfulness of sponsors and project workers, hungry stomachs are filled and children are loved, not ignored.
Issues of Neglect
"Neglect is common in our community," says Raquel, a project worker at the Compassion-assisted child development center. "When Katy came here a year ago, she was seriously undernourished. Thanks to Compassion's nutrition program, we have helped her and little by little she is recovering."
Unfortunately, neglect is a reality for many of the 2.2 million children in El Salvador. At the Benjamin Bloom National Hospital for Children, the only pediatric hospital in the country, more than half of the medical issues are direct results of neglect.
While Compassion-assisted child development centers in El Salvador offer parenting classes for the guardians of registered children, child neglect affects children on many levels and can take years to reverse. In the meantime, project workers like Raquel and Compassion sponsors spend much of their time standing in the gap.
In San Vicente, 70 percent of adults are unemployed, and those who do find work make less than U.S.$2 a day. Extreme poverty like this causes many families to choose between survival for their families and health care for a sick child.
Raquel recalls staying in the hospital with sick children whose parents had lost hope, like the mother of 9-year-old Maria. "Maria was in the hospital because of a kidney disease," remembers Raquel. "The project was helping Maria by providing the medical services she needed, but her mother could not understand that she did not have to make a choice between food on her table and health care for Maria. She believed her only choice was to buy a coffin for her daughter's funeral."
While Raquel was eventually able to convince Maria's mother of the benefits of medical care, there are many times when she must step in as a guardian for neglected children.
"So many of their parents are like this because they didn't receive love or an education," says Raquel. "If we don't take care of these children, they are going to treat their own children the same way in the future."
A Prayer for Safety
As the after-school activities at the Compassion-assisted center come to a close, Raquel waits for the last dawdling student to leave. She stands in the doorway of the center and watches the children as they walk down the dusty street toward home. And she lifts up a silent prayer that each one will return safely the next day.
"I care about them very much," says Raquel. "I can't see what is happening to them and pretend it is not my business."