Bernard van Leer Foundation Historical Cases

We commissioned narrative case studies of several countries in which we previously had a long-term presence. Though making the transition to scale was not then an explicit aim, we wanted to see what we could learn from these experiences to inform our scale-focused partnerships today.

Photo: CINDE - Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation


It was in the late 1980s that the Bernard van Leer Foundation began to explore working in El Salvador, primarily as part of our broader Latin American approach to build the capacity of local organisations to reach more children with preschools although also involving work with an NGO which focused primarily on housing. We phased out of the country in 2008.

In one of two stories on El Salvador in our historical cases series, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky visits our erstwhile partners FUNDASAL and CINDE to discuss how their approach to child development – based around play and community involvement – was new to the country at the time, and to what extent they have been able to sustain and spread their activities since our departure.

Alongside a high degree of freedom to chart their own course, partners in El Salvador seem especially to have appreciated the Foundation’s ability to connect them with others doing similar work elsewhere in the region for exchange of ideas and mutual support.

I am most grateful to Ms Marisa de Martínez (CINDE) and Claudia Blanco (FUNDASAL) for their generosity in giving their time and logistical support to Jean Friedman-Rudovsky. And to our programme officer at the time, Marc Mataheru, for his valuable guidance and recollections. My own learning questions after reading this piece are shared at the end.

Michael Feigelson, Executive Director, Bernard van Leer Foundation, August 2018

El Salvador

  • Period:1992-2008
  • Total Bernard van Leer Foundation investment in El Salvador: EUR 2,000,000 – EUR 111,000/year

Photo: FUNDASAL - Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation


Iliana Renderos had just finished setting up half a dozen low, octagonal tables when the train of little people appeared from around the side of the pavilion. Ten kids, ranging in age from 3 to 12 and sporting brightly coloured backpacks, followed their teenaged leader up onto the concrete platform. ‘Welcome!’ said Renderos, as the children filed in. ‘How is everyone this morning?’ A few belted out: ‘Good! How are you?’, before breaking from the pack to run around. As they worked off some energy, Renderos, 22, approached each one with a more personal good morning, alternating between high fives, head rubs and hugs.

A few minutes later, around 9 a.m., she announced that class was starting. Before sitting down, however, they played a game. Renderos asked the children to form pairs, then called out body parts and they had to touch their partner at that exact spot. (There was some giggling at the ‘cheek’ instruction.) Once the exercise was over, the kids plonked themselves down onto the child-size chairs around the tables; the littlest ones perched on their knees. Renderos and her small team handed out a yellowed sheet of construction paper with an outline of a woman in a cape, alongside large letters reading ‘SUPERMAMA DIPLOMA’. In the centre of the tables were well-worn markers, crayons, glue, glitter and other decorations. ‘What day is coming up?’ asked Gerardo, Renderos’s partner that morning for the weekly Saturday kids group. ‘Mother’s Day!’ the kids screeched, as tiny hands converged on the art supplies in front of them.

Gerardo, Iliana and the three other young adult volunteers are part of El Sauce Integral Youth (Juventud Integral El Sauce, JIES), an organisation of neighbourhood young people who work to strengthen the values of kids and adolescents by encouraging participation and leadership through education and shared living. (El Sauce is the name of the neighbourhood). Every Saturday, for about two hours, kids from the neighbourhood come to play, learn, and get help with their homework. The Saturday I visited, Renderos – who has thick, wavy hair and round, oversized glasses – kept the lesson going as the colouring got underway: ‘I’d like us to make a list. For Mother’s Day, it’s important we talk about how we can support our mothers. We should do this not just on Mother’s Day but every day. So, let’s discuss: How can we help our mothers at home?’ Voices called out from around the room: ‘Wash the dishes!’, ‘Help with the laundry!’, ‘Cook!’. ‘Good ideas,’ she responded, as she wrote the responses on a large pad of paper on an easel.

Photo: FUNDASAL – Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation

Beyond the pavilion lay an outhouse, a pair of crumbling sheds, and across the nearest street, a sprawling, brightly painted mural that welcomes visitors to the neighbourhood known as El Sauce. Located in the municipality of Sonsonate, less than 40 miles from the capital of San Salvador, El Sauce is an affordable housing development of 1700 homes, purpose-built in 1998 by FUNDASAL (Fundación Salvadoreña de Desarrollo y Vivienda Mínima), a large non-profit organisation that seeks to create and strengthen sustainable living spaces for the nation’s most vulnerable. El Sauce’s residents are low-income families from villages and towns around the country, who had no other options for buying a home. From 2003 to 2008, the Bernard van Leer Foundation invested just over USD 300,000 in FUNDASAL to support its vision and programming relating to young people. As part of that, FUNDASAL created an after-school and Saturday morning programme in El Sauce that occupied the smaller kids and the young people, as leaders, at the same time.

Renderos has been part of the programme since its early years. She moved to El Sauce in 2004, when she was 9 years old. At first, only her older brother attended the educational centre groups; Iliana would beg him to take her too, but he had no interest in his little sis tagging along. Then, when Renderos was 11, her father passed away and her mother started working what seemed to be all hours of the day. She told Iliana’s brother he no longer had a choice – he had to take his sister with him. From her first day, Renderos said, she was hooked. ‘For the first time, I felt like I was being useful,’ she said. Also, she felt safe. ‘I considered it an escape from my home and family problems,’ Renderos recalled, adding: ‘A lot of the other kids felt the same way. They came seeking a place of refuge. They still do.’

Safety is an elusive concept in El Salvador. In 2015, the small Central American nation had 6656 homicides, an average of 18.2 murders per day. That’s 70% up from 2014, and the highest murder rate for any country not in a state of declared war. The violence is mainly attributed to gang conflict: last year, a truce between the powerful Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs started to fall apart, and blood was spilled in the streets.

The bulk of the fighting affects young people – Renderos’s peers, who are lured or forced into joining gangs. Sometimes it starts as young as the kids I saw colouring Mother’s Day cards in El Sauce. Even if children aren’t drawn into the conflict directly, child advocates say that the violence seeps into their lives regardless. In San Salvador, often referred to as one of the western hemisphere’s most dangerous cities, even 2 year olds are said to respect the gangs’ territorial boundaries that divide neighbourhoods, understanding which signposts or pavements not to venture beyond. It affects families: El Salvador’s rates of domestic violence are among the highest in the world. Teachers and childcare providers say they see the effects of this in the children’s aggressive relationships with one another.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation supported FUNDASAL and CINDE’s work with San Salvador’s most vulnerable populations.

All over the country, children’s programmes strive to counteract the aggressive tendencies bred by the wider environment. The Bernard van Leer Foundation was at the root of this effort, not only through its guidance and support of FUNDASAL, but also through its work for almost 30 years with an organisation named CINDE (Centros Infantiles de Desarrollo), which operates two childcare centres for San Salvador’s most vulnerable populations. CINDE was among the first holistic early childhood development centres in the country; their founder, Marisa de Martínez, is one of El Salvador’s most knowledgeable and committed people in the sphere. In the case of both organisations, the Foundation’s work – not only funding, but also providing vision and guidance – left a lasting impact by bolstering their capacity to address the issue of the impact of violence on children and young people. That may, in the long run, help to interrupt the cycles of violence for the future.

Photo: FUNDASAL - Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation


From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador was caught up in a brutal civil war between Marxist guerrillas and the nation’s conservative government. The rebels, with strong support throughout the countryside, sought to close El Salvador’s entrenched gap between rich and poor, between those who wielded power and those who had none. The conflict was not a particularly balanced one. The US government, considering El Salvador’s war to be a proxy for its own crusade against the threat of global communism, trained and armed Salvadoran government death squads. These groups waged a vicious assault on the rebels and anyone suspected of sympathising with them. Over the course of 12 years, more than 75,000 people died.

Peace accords, signed in 1992, ended the formal fighting and attempted to provide the country with a clean slate: the agreement dissolved counter-insurgency groups and dismissed the entire National Guard, Interior Ministry and National Police Force. The nation’s first Human Rights Office was established.

But a sense of injustice lingered. In 1993, in a political compromise engineered during the peace talks, a law was passed granting amnesty to anyone accused of committing crimes against humanity during the war. This is widely seen as having generated not only resentment, but also a culture of impunity – a particularly dangerous situation, when combined with a new generation of young adults who had come of age during a time of state-sanctioned violence. In the late 1990s, El Salvador became a crucial stop along the South American drugs trade pathway to the USA, and the country began its steady descent into the violence that still prevails today.

Currently, more than a third of El Salvadoreans live below the poverty line; coupled with violence, this has fuelled a migratory crisis: it is estimated that more than 700 people per week – many of them under the age of 18 – leave El Salvador to attempt an exceedingly dangerous journey to the USA. Most will be deported; some will die. For the last 15 years, researchers at San Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) have asked migrants their reasons for wanting to leave El Salvador. In the beginning, the most common answer was: ‘to be reunited with my family.’ Over time, it became: ‘for a better economic future.’ In the last three years, however, the most frequent response is: ‘I go to survive. If I stay I will be killed.’ Street gangs feed off forced recruitment, especially among pre-teens and teens. Migrants are leaving to escape this reality.

Currently, more than a third of El Salvadoreans live below the poverty line; coupled with violence, this has fuelled a migratory crisis: it is estimated that more than 700 people per week – many of them under the age of 18 – leave El Salvador to attempt an exceedingly dangerous journey to the USA.

It is against this almost 40-year backdrop, says CINDE’s Marisa de Martínez, that early childhood development advocates were forced to compete for attention, from funders, from politicians and from society at large. ‘At first, there was war, and that was all that mattered,’ Martínez told me on our first afternoon during my visit to San Salvador in May 2017. Anyone trying to advance a political or human rights agenda that wasn’t directly related to the conflict was told ‘now is not the time’, she explained. ‘Then there was the post-war period and we had to reconstruct the state,’ she added. Throughout the 1990s, she said, whenever she brought up her ideas for government support for early childhood learning centres, for example, people told her ‘Not yet, Marisa.’ But the immediate post-war period soon gave way to El Salvador’s security crisis. The government became increasingly focused on quelling gang violence, and young people – because of their prominence in gang structures – became public enemy number one. ‘The state decided to take a hard-line, tough-on-crime approach, especially with the youth,’ she said, which only made things worse for people working in the broader children’s sector.

In the absence of government leadership or funding in the area, the Bernard van Leer Foundation filled a void, said Martínez. She first connected with the Foundation in 1988, when they sent staff to explore investment opportunities in Central America. At the time, Martínez was arguably one of few people in the country who were thinking about early childhood learning in a systematic way: although she was not working with children in her day job, she had started planning a child development centre as a side-project. Nearly a decade into the war, she had become increasingly concerned about the conditions faced by children of the women who worked in the markets or on the streets of the poorer neighbourhoods of the capital city. Every day, she would see kids ‘tied to their mother’s backs, tagging along at their feet, and running along the side of the road, because they had no other place to be’. Many of these women, she explained, were refugees displaced from the countryside by the conflict, with little or no extended family support network in the city to take care of their children during the daytime. Most spent their days in ‘extremely unhygienic and unsafe [situations]. Sometimes there would be shoot-outs between the police and rebels and the kids were right there!’ Her design envisaged a child development centre in close proximity to one of the sprawling outdoor markets: a place where young children would not only be safe, well fed and looked after, but would also be given the opportunity to play and learn, to develop as any child should.

It is against this almost 40-year backdrop that early childhood development advocates were forced to compete for attention, from funders, from politicians and from society at large. At first, there was war, and that was all that mattered. Anyone trying to advance a political or human rights agenda that wasn’t directly related to the conflict was told ‘now is not the time. — Marisa de Martínez

Within weeks of Martínez meeting representatives of the Bernard van Leer Foundation in August 1988, the Foundation agreed to provide a small grant to get her centre off the ground. Over the following six months, Martínez found a financial sponsor, recruited four educators and a cook, made lesson plans, convinced a local church to provide the space, and secured additional funding from the Australian embassy to contract a carpenter to make cribs and cots. She also took to the streets, conversing with the mothers in the market, explaining that soon there would be a place for them to leave their children where they would be well looked after.

However, when CINDE opened its doors, on 3 April 1989, only six children turned up. Martínez wasn’t totally surprised. As she made her recruitment rounds, she had encountered significant scepticism. ‘The women would say to me: ‘What? Someone I don’t know is going to watch my kids? No. Better they are here with us’.’ Martínez said that the women did not like what they had heard about guarderías – the Spanish word for daycare is also the word for ‘keeping’ or ‘safeguarding’ animals or inanimate objects, reflecting how the traditional model of daycare involved kids being watched over but not necessarily stimulated or cared for with love and attention.

CINDE survived because of the experiences of those first few children: ‘Women gained confidence as they saw their kids and others’ kids happy,’ said Martínez. Word that there was a place with people who cared well for your children spread like wildfire. By mid-May, less than six weeks after its opening, CINDE was filled to capacity with 75 girls and boys.

Photo: CINDE – Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation

Like all of the Foundation’s child development and preschool programmes in Central America, CINDE was based on the fundamentals of encouraging learning through play, supporting health and nutritional development, and community involvement. Mothers paid a nominal few cents per week per child for tuition and took turns assisting on site, washing laundry and diapers, approximately once every two months.

From very early on, what made CINDE different, said Martínez, was the realisation that her childcare programme needed to become a violence-prevention tool. The first sign was the scarring: kids would regularly arrive bruised from a lash with a belt or, it seemed, from whatever a parent happened to have nearby. ‘I had no idea that in this country we have very violent ways of raising our children,’ she told me. She soon understood that physical abuse was not the full extent of the mistreatment: ‘It’s not just beatings. It’s also humiliation,’ she said. ‘We were used to treating our children with very little respect.’ This, she said, affected the children’s treatment of each other. They were rough with one another, verbally and physically, mimicking what they saw at home and in the streets.

One part of the solution, she knew right away, was to try to instil alternative modes of behaviour in the kids directly. But she soon realised that if the home environment stayed unchanged any progress made during the day would be undone overnight. She discussed the situation with staff from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Together, they hypothesised that CINDE employees could play a role in adult education. With funding from the Foundation, CINDE started to train community educators to make home visits and assess the children’s living environment.

What made CINDE different was the realisation that her childcare programme needed to become a violence-prevention tool. -Marisa de Martínez

But Martínez went further. She recalled what she had learned from the writings of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire: let people share and discuss their own experiences, and let them arrive at their own conclusions and solutions. She started monthly ‘parents’ groups’ (in practice, mums’ groups, now known as ‘family circles’) to give parents the opportunity to talk about how they were raised and what they were facing in their own lives, and to hear from experts and others about alternative child-rearing options and explore non-violent methods of discipline. Parents who wanted to send their children to CINDE had to commit to attending.

As the years went by, CINDE grew. By 2003, Martínez had three centres in the lowest-income neighbourhoods of San Salvador, each operating six days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Her staff was continually kept up to date through academic and support training. She hired a psychologist to assist with the most difficult cases.

CINDE’s growth paralleled an evolution in the early childhood development sector nationally. Starting in the mid-1990s and continuing into the following decade, several other organisations were established with centres similar to CINDE, and working groups and advocacy networks began to advance a child-friendly agenda in the country. This effort was bolstered by an international consensus that brought the rights of children to the fore, including the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which started to gain real traction during the 1990s in the developing world.

In 1996, the National Infancy, Childhood and Adolescence Network was formed in El Salvador to do direct advocacy work, which ended up securing the passage of the Childhood and Adolescence Protection Act. The group pushed Ministry of Education officials to take early childhood into account in their work, and pressed for the establishment of guidelines in the sector. Martínez was invited to be a member of the Network at an early stage. ‘Little by little, some change was achieved,’ she said, through the Network’s advocacy. But political change was never her main focus. She was, and continues to be, a hands-on leader, spending much of her time in the centres themselves, talking with staff, and putting out whatever fires seemed to spark on a daily basis.

CINDE is a tiny organisation in comparison to other Foundation grantees in Central America, and there was no larger structure to support advocacy work. ‘I admit that we were lacking in the area of communication and in publicising our work, to put us on the national radar,’ said Martínez. According to others in the field, CINDE is known on a local level, particularly in the neighbourhood where they work, but not beyond that. ‘I was always involved in the day-to-day work of managing, securing financing and improving our programmes,’ she said.

Photo: FUNDASAL - Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation


In 2003, the Bernard van Leer Foundation began working with FUNDASAL. The El Salvadoran organisation had sporadically worked in children’s programming in past projects and wanted to solidify this work, forming an alliance with the Foundation for community support and care for children.

The work took place in three areas: Los Manantiales and Las Palmas, neighbourhoods in San Salvador, and El Sauce in Sonsonate. In Los Manantiales, the programme was mainly made up of volunteer children, young people and adults. A youth group was formed to take care of younger kids on Saturdays, those from 4 to 12 years old. The idea was to try to counteract school truanting, which was on the rise in that area. Older teens worked with the children on lessons such as basic maths, writing and reading. Across eight different communities in Los Manantiales, groups like these formed and visited one another to share experiences. Adults I met during my visit who had watched the group do its work noted how incredible it was to see teens taking this sort of responsibility for the youngest in their community, and how it provided a great outlet for them while also helping with the real need to look after younger children.

Photo: FUNDASAL – Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation

In Las Palmas, a local cultural committee decided to set up a similar youth group, and to train them in childcare and after-school service and support. Adults did the training but it was young people who took the lead afterwards. City Hall and local neighbourhood leaders took an interest in the project, and offered the group transport to sports fields and for other activities. This project struggled at one point, as Las Palmas became a hub for gang activity, and parents were afraid to send their children out in public parks where shootings could occur. But, through home visits, participation was reactivated and became meaningful for those involved.

El Sauce, however, is the golden child of the work started with the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Similar to the San Salvador projects, JIES was a project driven by young people, but which gained a lot of support throughout the community – from kids to parents to local leaders. On the ground, all of these projects were similar in that the youth groups engaged with children through play, and encouraged teaching about social issues through activities rather than learning by rote.

I got to see some of that up-close on the day I visited the Saturday-morning session. Before the class started, Iliana Renderos explained to me: ‘In general, we begin with a methodology that is totally distinct from school. This is not about sitting down and listening to an adult. This is about participation. We say to the kids, if you have a thought, we want to hear it. Talk, raise your hand, ask anything you want, whenever a question arises, and we will give an explanation,’ she said. She also sees her role as different from that of standard teachers. ‘In contrast to the vertical learning of a school, in which the teacher is the one who knows things and the students learn, here we learn from each other,’ she explained. Renderos says she sees the difference that it makes in children. Within a few sessions in which older people treat them differently, she says, kids who arrive hyper-aggressive and disrespectful typically grow calmer and more interested in learning. This astute pedagogical perspective did not emerge spontaneously: Renderos and others went through a long process of training, initiated by FUNDASAL and the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Elena, who worked with FUNDASAL during the years when the Foundation supported it, said that the Foundation ‘were the experts in pedagogy and with this expertise and knowledge they developed a comprehensive training programme for these youth leaders to work with kids.’

But what’s remarkable about El Sauce and JIES is what came after 2008, when the Foundation ended its financial investment in Central America. That Saturday I visited, after Renderos and her team had finished the kids group for the day at around 11 a.m., I was led into a small room attached to the pavilion. It is the makeshift JIES office, a dark, small space with brick walls, an ageing desktop computer and extra supplies for the kids group. Standing in front of a poster reading ‘Young person: Express yourself with strength!’, Renderos said to me: ‘We are very proud to present what we’ve accomplished over the year and also our vision for the future.’

In contrast to the vertical learning of a school, in which the teacher is the one who knows things and the students learn, here we learn from each other.– Iliana Renderos

Renderos began a PowerPoint presentation, starting with statistics on Sonsonate municipality and features of the El Sauce neighbourhood: unemployment, key health indicators, violence. Then she moved on to the organisation’s history. What is today known as JIES was founded in 2003, the presentation explained, an initiative of FUNDASAL in coordination with the grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. At the beginning it was a group of young people who gathered in El Sauce’s educational centre to do social work on behalf of the community, including leading a kids group to provide academic after-school support, along with building character and values. This was no casual undertaking: there was a board of directors and a leadership team, and the group engaged in a diagnostic analysis to understand the needs of their community as they moved their work forward.

In 2006, they decided on the name JIES, and in 2007 they expanded their work from leading programmes for children to include adolescents too. From that adolescent group, they began to identify ‘junior leaders’ who could be given responsibilities with the younger kids, little by little, eventually incorporating them into JIES itself as they got older.

When the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s involvement came to an end in 2008, Renderos said, the group had no doubt that they wanted to continue organising and participating in leadership training work. They continued meeting, wholly on their own initiative and with no direct financial support, keeping the bonds they had established and trying to forge a way forward. FUNDASAL never lost touch, counselling the group and offering support where they could. That persistence paid off: in 2011, JIES was included in a nationwide ‘Protagonist Child Project’ (Niño Protagonista), which aimed to work with young people across the country on social benefit projects and to train them in the skills needed to become leaders in the social sector when they grew older. ‘This is probably one of our greatest accomplishments to date,’ said Renderos. ‘This project gave us a lot of direction and helped us consolidate our participatory model within the group.’ During the two-year duration of the Protagonist Project, Renderos and other JIES members studied and attended workshops and training sessions on pedagogy, political advocacy and lobbying work. ‘Thanks to that project, we were given the tools to know how to make our own decisions, and advocate for policy and actions that benefit children and young people locally and nationally,’ she said.

Photo: FUNDASAL – Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation

In 2013, FUNDASAL helped the group to systematise their ten years of experience working on youth development. The resulting 40-page document brings together their vision, methodology and practices. FUNDASAL had also started connecting JIES leaders to other projects throughout the country, where the organisation had become involved in facilitating the creation of similar youth groups. Renderos and others travelled throughout El Salvador, giving presentations on youth organising. ‘You wouldn’t believe it but JIES, this little group from this small municipality, is actually well known,’ Renderos said, smiling. Realising the wealth of understanding and expertise they had established, JIES decided they needed to form their own non-profit organisation, in order to be able to solicit and receive funding directly. In 2014 they started the paperwork to become a legal entity and they have just finalised that process.

Since 2008, the group had not been able to provide a service for children in their neighbourhood. In 2015, JIES managed to secure enough funding to re-establish the Saturday sessions. Renderos said that while the gap in providing that service was a shame, all the internal work the group had done to strengthen the organisation and become better youth service providers paid off: ‘We returned to the work with the kids with new methodologies,’ she said.

Regardless of what they achieve in the future, said Renderos, the impact JIES has had already is tangible. ‘One of the little girls wrote us a letter recently,’ she told me, that Saturday we met. ‘She said that when she grows up she wants to be just like us. She wants to help other kids and lead these programmes.’ Reading the letter made Renderos reflect on her own experience at that age: ‘We see the facilitator and we think we want to be like them. And then at some point there is this shift and we become them. And then we are able to look back and realise that these kids are the future.’

Photo: FUNDASAL - Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation


Back in the offices of FUNDASAL, a sprawling complex with ample green space in between one-storey offices, Claudia Blanco, FUNDASAL’s executive director, explained her organisation’s philosophy: ‘FUNDASAL’s methodology is to improve living spaces, wherever they are found and for everyone in them. This obligates us to think about programmes and interventions to address problems that affect everyone living there, including and most especially children and young people.’

Blanco explained that the impact of their experience with the Bernard van Leer Foundation went far beyond the exemplary work of JIES: while FUNDASAL always had children in mind as they worked, it pushed children’s issues to the forefront. ‘Every project that we do now looks to have an impact on or address the issue of kids,’ said Blanco; ‘the extent of this focus depends on the resources available, but it’s always there.’

In front of me lay the evidence. Blanco and several other FUNDASAL staff who had gathered to meet with me had placed a stack of FUNDASAL documents on the table: three thick booklets, one printed study, a handful of pamphlets and a CD. These materials are just a sample of how FUNDASAL has gone about systematising the lessons learned during their time working with the Foundation, to provide a basis for keeping alive the focus on kids within their own organisation, and also to create easily sharable references for others.

Every project that we do now looks to have an impact on or address the issue of kids; the extent of this focus depends on the resources available, but it’s always there.
– Claudia Blanco

Two booklets, approximately 100 pages each, serve as step-by-step manuals setting out how FUNDASAL incorporates children and youth development issues within a broader organisational context. The first, FUNDASAL’s methodological techniques for its work with kids and youth (Técnicas metodológicas de FUNDASAL en el trabajo con la niñez y la juventud), demonstrates how to incorporate kids programming into community or neighbourhood development projects over short- (one month), medium- (one to three months) and long-term (more than three months) projects. In each stage there are concrete ideas for straightforward, low-cost ways to get children involved in the community and spend their time productively: from sports activities to story-telling times, from fairs about gathering items for recycling to compiling testimonies about life experiences, and holding youth-led camps and actual training programmes for young people.

The second booklet, Strengthening of social development among youth (Promoción del fortalecimiento del desarrollo social de la juventud), is part of a larger series on the training of community educators (the other three topics are ‘organisation, relationships and communal management’, ‘community participation’, and ‘strengthening social development around gender equity’). This manual takes educators through key learning stages by providing information related to, for example, the psychological development of the teenage mind, identity construction during adolescence, and violence prevention, as well as important facts and analysis on sexual education and alcohol use.

Photo: FUNDASAL – Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation

The third booklet was FUNDASAL’s Community Education Guide (Guía para la educación comunitaria), for use with families, containing sketches and cartoons that walk people through the process of better understanding young people. Issues addressed range from ‘adolescence and youth as developmental steps’ to ‘distinct ways to understand youth’, ‘gender equality among young people’, and ‘teen pregnancy’.

These manuals, said Roxanna, provide guidance on how to integrate a focus on childhood and youth into other work, and can be expanded on if there is funding for more robust programmes. She helped establish the El Sauce programme, and – in our meeting with Blanco – she said that FUNDASAL now whenever possible seeks financing to sustain programmes that relate to children and young people: ‘We have seen the great benefit of projects that have been connected to youth. It would seem like this doesn’t make sense for a housing organisation – to focus on kids – but, actually, why not? Families are the ones who make a living space sustainable and improved over time. Work with kids has become very important for us.’

‘Here,’ interjected Blanco, handling the materials in front of me, ‘there are answers – answers that work in the long term. But we must extrapolate from them so that others can learn, not just here but throughout Central America.’

Blanco said they put the time, effort and resources into setting out these methodologies because ‘we know how [to do this work] and we almost have a guilty conscience if we don’t transfer this knowledge to others. It can’t be that we know it is possible to transform lives through programmes like this, and not share that knowledge. We know it’s possible, through this work, to save young people from going to jail or from being murdered.’ Blanco said she believes the work that started with the Foundation has probably saved hundreds of lives: ‘Funding is one thing. But what we learned from our time with Bernard van Leer is that this is possible. Our organisation is turning 50 years old. We have permanency here in El Salvador and we want this all to continue, for as long as possible. We will continue seeing the fruits of this work and depositing these seeds of knowledge in every project we have.’

Photo: CINDE - Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation


At CINDE, Marisa de Martínez works out of a small, sparsely decorated office in the Soyapango municipality of San Salvador. There is one window, behind her desk, and alongside it she has hung a framed portrait of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop and liberation fighter whose murder sparked the beginning of El Salvador’s civil war. Romero was a close personal friend of Martínez and her husband, and Martínez says his absence is still palpable today. As if to remind herself daily of why she is here, at the entrance to her office there is a large photograph of a woman selling fruit on the pavement, with her toddler son sitting next to her.

The Foundation’s exit from Central America hit Martínez harder than any other grantee in the region. ‘Van Leer was here for 20 years, covering 60% of our expenses in three infant centres,’ she told me, including ‘salaries for the educators, a large portion of the food and teaching materials for the kids.’ CINDE did not have a larger structure to fall back on and, unlike in Nicaragua, the government seemed to have no interest in supporting the work she was doing.

Since 2008, she has been able to keep two of her centres open through alternative financing from abroad. We visited them both. The centres are humble buildings in need of upkeep. As we walked through, Martínez pointed out all the things she would like to fix (stairs, roofs, paintwork), but doesn’t yet have the budget. But the 2 and 3 year olds, gleefully playing, and their clearly capable and kind teachers, did not seem to mind in the least.

Photo: CINDE – Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation

While there is no way of knowing if there is a direct connection, it seems likely that CINDE and Martínez did influence current political policy – if not through outright lobbying, then by setting an example and establishing best practice. For example, her work with parents, or what she calls el trabajo integral. This means, she said, ‘not seeing the child as a separate entity from their parents. I have always insisted on this. We cannot work with kids without working on their home environment.’ Recently the government announced its intention to start ‘family circles’ for all its schools. ‘Of course, the government does it badly,’ says Martínez. The state is looking to require that parents attend weekly four-hour sessions, for workshops on nutrition, parenting, discipline and more. ‘What are they thinking?’ Martínez exclaimed. ‘If you and I would have a hard time fitting that into our schedules, imagine the parents who are working in the markets or elsewhere. It’s impossible.’ She said that while this is not something she thinks about, it is possible that her work had something to do with this policy: ‘Sure, probably some of the things that I talked about in the Network’s working groups formed the basis of what the government is trying to do today.’

In one way, Martínez has expanded her work since 2008: upwards. Like FUNDASAL, Martínez realised that given her country’s larger social context, it would be counter-productive to let the children who graduate from her daycare centres disappear from the radar. She realised that the kids who left her centres yearned to continue the connection to each other – and longed for a place to go to escape violence. ‘We couldn’t not do follow-up,’ said Martínez. ‘Now when the kids turn 6 or 7, they go to school but then they come to us in the afternoons. This is real long-term work. It’s not a question of caring for kids for a year or two and thinking there are going to be significant lasting results.’

While there is no way of knowing if there is a direct connection, it seems likely that CINDE and Martínez did influence current political policy – if not through outright lobbying, then by setting an example and establishing best practice.

One day, I accompanied her to visit CINDE’s after-school programme. Most of the students were out playing soccer, but a handful had stayed behind: they were from a neighbourhood controlled by a gang that was at war with the gang in control of the neighbourhood where the game was to be played. They wouldn’t be safe on the soccer field. So they worked on their homework and listened to pop songs from the USA on a boombox on the table. The two I sat down with had been at CINDE when they were little and were happy to have a safe space to come to in the afternoons.

Photo: CINDE – Jon Spaull/Bernard van Leer Foundation

Martínez realises that providing a space where they can do homework and see friends, outside of a gang environment, is only half the battle. ‘Kids as young as 9 and 10 admire the gang members – because they are the ones that have money, because they extort it from others.’ She said that, in addition to having an alternative space, she tries to talk with the teens about El Salvador’s history, about why the country has a high rate of impoverishment, and she encourages them to think critically about their future. Sometimes, she said, they ask her why they should even continue studying. ‘”What for?”, they say to me. “Where will that even lead?” We at CINDE always say that education is important because it’s the key to opening a door that you don’t even know exists yet.’

She said that while she can’t point to changes in policy or wider institutions, as shown in other countries or with the work of FUNDASAL, she nonetheless sees the long-term impact of her work everywhere: ‘I see it in the desire of these kids to keep studying and to keep learning. I see it in the simple fact that they have not yet jumped ship to join a gang because that is what is expected of them. I see it in the young people who have continued developing to their full potential, in studies or art or music,’ she said.

One afternoon, while Martínez drove the two of us through San Salvador’s midday heat, we came to a red light. Our windows were down; the air conditioning in her old pick-up barely works any more. All of a sudden, we heard ‘Senya! Senya!’ – the nickname that many in the CINDE world call Marisa, short for señora – coming from right next to us, a young man on a motorcycle. Martínez was startled. ‘Senya, it’s me,’ the man said, struggling to quickly remove his helmet so she could see his face. ‘It’s me, Bryan!’ His face broke into a huge smile. ‘You were my teacher! I haven’t seen you in so long!’ ‘Bryan!’ she responded. ‘Oh my god, of course I remember you. How wonderful to see you!’ Bryan was visibly ecstatic to have run into his preschool teacher, but the light turned green before the two were able to converse more. We started driving away as Martínez leaned out the window to give an enthusiastic wave. I got the distinct feeling that both were happy not only to have seen each other, but simply to know that the other was still alive.

About the author

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist based in Philadelphia. She is a Vice Magazine contributing editor and has been published in The New York Times, Time Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Bloomberg Businessweek, among others. From 2006 to 2015, she was a foreign correspondent whose work primarily focused on women’s rights, and economic and environmental justice. She is currently the director of the Philadelphia Solutions Journalism Collaborative, a news initiative among local media to produce high-impact reporting on issues of critical importance.
Learning Questions

We commissioned these historical studies in part to identify questions we should ask ourselves as we plan future work. Learning questions raised for us by this story include:

  • The partners express appreciation for connections to others in the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s network in different countries. Foundations often have a unique view of the landscape in a field funding similar types of partners in different parts of the world. What can foundations do to use this to add value more actively? What are the staffing implications for foundations to do this well?
  • The partners in this story – as in many others – are grateful for the flexibility of the Foundation and the autonomy they experienced in the funding relationship. When – if ever – might this turn out to be a bad thing? How can this balance best be managed?

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