Uplifting Salvadoran families by fostering a true sense of community
AHUACHAPÁN, El Salvador — It was six years ago that Fuller Center for Housing officials first visited an empty field in the community of Ahuachapán, where local officials wanted the affordable housing ministry to do for its hard-working residents what it had previously been able to do for 77 former slum-dwelling families in the Monsignor Romero neighborhood of Nuevo Cuscatlán — specifically, help those families not only have simple, decent places to live but also have ownership in those homes and in the entire community.
Though many of the families lived in flimsy shacks with little access to clean water or the most basic sanitation, they were at first a little wary of the concept. For most of them, the thought of owning a home never crossed their minds. Yet, here was an opportunity to own a safe homes on terms they could afford as they would repay the costs on zero-percent-interest mortgages with those proceeds helping others in the community get that very same hand-up.
It sounded just a little too good to be true.
But after 91 families turned an open field into a thriving community of safe homes and happy families, another 55 families jumped at the opportunity to own homes in a nearby follow-up community atop a nearby hill. Ahuachapán I and Ahuachapán II are both thriving examples of whole communities with safe power, clean water, sanitation and, most importantly, healthy and happy families.
“On my first trip six years ago, we were able to launch that community and bless it and be a part of it,” said Matt Gillette, who was among a team of Fuller Center and People Helping People Network supporters who visited Ahuachapan I and II early last month. “The first time we were there, it was just a construction site, and the second time people were moving into their homes. Coming back over the years and seeing the progression of the community that’s been formed there, it’s really unbelievable to go from the blank slate of the community of the kids and the safety and everybody out playing.
“It just felt so cozy,” he added. “You look at the kids and look at the families, they’re happy. There’s joy there.”
Even Fuller Center President David Snell, who has made multiple trips to El Salvador and seen several of these community transformations, was impressed.
“Folks here are learning to love one another and take care of one another,” he said. “But, my goodness, it’s changed since I was here last. They’ve added on, fixed their houses up, and put in plantings — it’s quite something what they’ve done.”
“It’s a great neighborhood,” said Karen Patricia, whose family sells over-the-counter medications and medical goods from their home. “Everybody takes in and embrace everyone, and everyone gets along great. I like the way everyone here takes care of one another. It’s just a nice community feel.”
Fuller Center homes have been going up in El Salvador since 2008, but the construction of large, multi-home communities has rapidly accelerated in recent years. Nuevo Cuscatlán I with its 99 homes was begun in 2016, and followed with Nuevo Cuscatlán II is wrapping up with 131 more. Juayuá I’s 14 homes were followed by Juayuá II’s 50 finished last month. Completed communities include El Espino with 64, La Bretaña’s 98 and La Herradura’s 30. Another 360 homes are under way in El Zonte, San Vicente and Ichanmichen, and 350 are planned soon for Apaneca, Santa Ana, Caluco and El Zonte II.
In other words, Fuller Center communities are multiplying so fast that it’s challenging The Fuller Center’s motto of “Building a better world, one house at a time.”
That is due partly to an influx of funding from supporters in the United States. But that just gets the ball rolling. It turns into a growing snowball — metaphorically, of course, in warm El Salvador — as partner families have embraced the concept of repaying the costs of their homes on terms they can afford into a fund to help others get the same hand-up. That fund simply keeps growing, allowing more families to be helped and more communities to spring up.
Iris Jacinto was a few days away from moving into one of the 131 new homes in Nuevo Cuscatlán II when we talked to her in December. She noted that it may sound like a lot of people in one community but that they are used to large numbers of families living in slums and other poverty areas. They are used to looking out for each other, but they are not used to having healthy homes.
“There are a lot of people, but we all know each other and we all get along,” Jacinto said.
Fuller Center Vice President of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola insists each community is still built one house at a time and takes shape one family at a time. The key, he says, is making each house whole with the very basics for safe and healthy living. When there are 131 whole homes in a place like Nuevo II, the community becomes exponentially more impressive than the house count alone.
“These might be things we take for granted in the U.S., but are not necessarily common around the world,” Iafigliola said.
It’s particularly reassuring for Dr. Michael Elmore, who has been volunteering in Central America and preaching the need for clean water and proper sanitation in communities.
“I’ve always said as a physician, if you get rid of the problems of the sewage contaminating water supplies and provide for them clean water, you can eliminate 90 percent of their medical problems,” Elmore said while walking down one of the streets in Ahuachapán I.
“You come here, and the people say, ‘I don’t live in a bario anymore; I live in a colonia,’” Elmore added. “It’s safe. They have electricity with lights at night. They have wells with decent water that they can actually drink. And they have a sewage system that takes their waste away.”
Many of the families in these communities have lived among each other in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and slums. They may be neighbors once again in the new Fuller Center homes, but the feeling is different as they each have real investment in the success of the communities as homeowners making affordable payments on their zero-percent-interest mortgages.
“It’s theirs, and they have to pay on a monthly basis, so they have some skin in the game,” supporter Jeff Raatz said during a break from touring the communities. “There’s a dignity that’s connected with this that really makes a difference. To bring these people up and out and make them part of the equation, to me, is incredible.”
“We don’t build just houses — we build dignity,” Elmore said. “That comes with the house. These people are very proud, and they feel very special that they’re going to own a home when before all they could do was rent. Having a home was never in the equation. So now they’re part of a community. They’re part of bigger than they are. They now have dignity.”
Also helping families retain their dignity is the fact that the houses in each community are similar. The only differences from house to house are usually paint colors, plants and decorations.
“It’s a big factor,” Snell said. “The houses are all the same. They’re all living in the same sort of place, so there’s no class system here. It’s all one group of people.”
The group made its way through the streets of Ahuachapán II as dusk fell on the final evening of the group’s December stay in El Salvador. Many were emotional after having visited both slums and thriving communities. In each, they had found joy. In each, they had been welcomed. This night, though, was exactly three weeks before Christmas Eve, and the holiday spirit was palpable.
Todd Scoggins, whose photography and video work in El Salvador has been seen by many who follow The Fuller Center for Housing and The People Helping People Network, lagged behind the group.
“The porches were adorned with Christmas lights, and they were blinking and flashing — it was just a beautiful, peaceful night,” Scoggins said. “It was dusk, and I was just walking by myself down the streets. I kept thinking about how peaceful it is here. What a sense of community there is. There were kids running and playing and laughing. Moms were holding their babies on their front porches and saying ‘hi’ to one another and to us as we walked by.
“I thought to myself, ‘I could live here, I could live in a community like this,’ because there was such a sense of peace and community,” he added. “And we hope for that. We pray for that. We pray that is the result for neighbors, especially with The Fuller Center for Housing with the neighborhoods The Fuller Center creates. We pray that not only is there safety and shelter — that basic need — but also the greater sense of community that develops from that. And then, from there, the Kingdom of God grows and thrives.”