It’s a word that we hear thrown around in conversation.
“Don’t risk it.”
“Take a risk.”
“At your own risk.”
Sometimes the thought of a risk seems thrilling, exciting, on the edge. Other times it seems foolish and like something best avoided. We do a lot of things to take the risk factor right out of our lives. We live in homes with doors that lock, and drive cars with airbags and seat belts. We make choices about our health, our bodies, and what we put into them. We wear sunblock, and floss our teeth to lower our risks, to extend our lives, and to avoid sickness and pain.
But what if you were born “at risk?” What if you stepped out of a warm, safe place and in to a world completely at odds with your survival? What if you had to fight from day one to make it to day two? What if you had seen death before you could walk? Or feared for your life before you learned to throw a ball? What if that warm, safe place you left was the only time in your life when you ever felt warm and safe?
This is reality for kids who are “at risk,” who live on the edge of violence, poverty, abuse, and even death every day of their lives.
“Kids at risk” is a description used in the non-profit world, the missionary world, and the arenas of education, social justice, and crime prevention. Kids are at risk all over our world today. Children, babies even, are suffering and alone and their very existence is risky because it hangs on a thread.
I see them everyday..those kids who are at risk here in El Salvador. Sometimes they sleep on the sidewalk in front of our office, they race between cars in their bare feet and worn-out pants. I see 30 year old faces staring back at me from 10 year old bodies. I see the glaze of glue-sniffing, and the tough exterior that hides a desperate heart. I see gang recruiters, drug dealers, pimps and traffickers walk silently and thoughtfully through these fields ripe for picking.
They live on the streets. They sleep there. In warehouses, under bridges, and around dark corners. Some of them have families but those families are so broken that they can’t find their way back together at night. Others of them have never known a family beyond the adults on the street who manipulate and abuse them.
The facts stacking up against kids in El Salvador are startling. Kids are at risk, and the risk is rising up and up. Last year, UNICEF reported that El Salvador has the highest rate in the world of homicides committed against children and teenagers. Number one in all of the world. The most likely murder victim in El Salvador is a teenage boy. This video was recently released to bring awareness of the violence and bloodshed against children in El Salvador.
The consequences of such epidemic violence are devastating. Kids miss school because they are too afraid to go, they desperately try to head north to escape the violence, and poor kids stay in poverty because there is no chance to get out from under the stifling violence that affects every area of their lives. This picture from a local paper is headlined by a story of children unable to get their school supplies because the gangs are extorting those providing them. This is a mind-blowing tragedy.
Our family and our staff know some of these kids at risk. Some have been victims of sex trafficking, some are sitting down the corner from our center right now getting high on a bag of glue, some live in communities completely controlled by gangs, some are already in gangs, and some are simply looking for a place to sleep tonight. Our hearts are breaking. We see the women who have suffered through exploitation, and we work with adult addicts at the Lighthouse Project each week. Our hearts are stirring…this cycle must be stopped.
Is anyone in the world more vulnerable than a child alone on the streets? There are approximately 300 kids on the street in El Salvador today, with the overwhelming majority of them struggling for survival right here in San Salvador. They are on the streets in a country with the highest rate of violence against children. Their chances for survival are slim.
There are no easy answers here, and we know it. But we also know that we need to do something. Our mission is to reach the streets, and we cannot overlook the children on those streets. There are logistics to work out, staffing needs, fundraising that needs to happen, and lots and lots of prayer. Friends, we ask you to pray with us.
Opening our hearts and ministry wide to these children is a small dream that is growing in our hearts to something bigger. Maybe God can use us to stem this rising tide of violence sweeping the children of El Salvador away. Maybe He wants to use you too.
In the days and months we will be exploring what this looks like. We are small and we can only hope to change our little community. But our prayer is that communities would change all around this beautiful land. We believe that a way can be made in the darkness through churches, through non-profits, through businesses, and through a collective outcry that enough is just enough.
Please God, no more death, no more violence, no more children at risk.