The Lord said, ‘This is where you’re going to be’
Editor’s Note: Sam doesn’t have to tell us he is from Fort Worth, Texas. His snakeskin cowboy boots betray those roots as he strides across his office warmly greeting us with a larger-than-life Texan presence. Sam Hawkins’ trusting persona is not what one expects to meet in downtown San Salvador, especially caring for malnourished babies. Choosing to serve as missionaries in Central America during the height of El Salvador’s civil war in their late forties is remarkable in and of itself some thirty years ago, but that is where Sam and his wife Julie’s story begins for us today. Hearing Sam’s crediting God for bringing him here to save these abandoned infants after losing all his money in the States, I’m reminded of these excerpts of the Maya Angelou poem.
“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow . . . . . I’ve learned that making a living is not the same as making a life. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.”
Sam and Julie made the unwavering decision to serve two distinctly different, but equally needy, deserving, and vulnerable populations in El Salvador — the baby program mentioned as well as a plan for prison inmates who need rehabilitation and jobs. Both groups have the matching commonality – malnutrition- physical and spiritual. That brings me to a second quote which seems apropos to them:
“Always judge a person by the way he treats somebody who can be of no use to him.” Anonymous
The first words out of Sam’s mouth are “God brought us here.”
Sam and his wife felt called to be of service to this small child and many other children in El Salvador.
Prior to leaving for Guatemala to study Spanish, I invested substantial cash in an investment that promised a great return over a period of years. It came highly recommended to me. I wasn’t a good Spanish student during my three months in Guatemala. I decided to come to El Salvador to see what it was like, and the Lord spoke to my heart and said, “This is where you’re going to be.” When I returned to Antigua, Guatemala, I called Julie on Monday to tell her and she responded, “Well, that’s wonderful. When are we going to get started?” I said I guessed right away, knowing we had plenty of financial resources to support our mission work. While on the phone, we made a commitment, a vow to serve the Lord in El Salvador. Five days later on Friday morning I got a call from Julie. For some reason I became apprehensive. She broke the news that we had lost all our money. Our investments were tied up in a scam that had been highly recommended by professional people, and we lost it all. That is when I began to realize that God wants you to rely on HIM. It’s called trust. I was devastated for three days. My head was swimming and I lived in a state of confusion. Then on Sunday I had my own resurrection day. I asked God to forgive me for being so proud thinking that I could do everything on my own. His Word says that He will provide. Julie and I were to act on faith and believe in things that had not yet been revealed. God had us exactly where He wanted us to be. After I had gotten excited and God forgave me, I realized this is where God wants us to be. I got the monkey off my back. I called Julie back and reminded her of the commitment or vow we had made together the week before. She acknowledged it as well. The decision we made to go forward was a turning point in our lives. For the next year and a half we earned enough money to pay back all our bills. On February 3, 1986, we departed Fort Worth, Texas, in a used Volkswagen bus with $3,000 and our belief in God. After four days and three nights of travel we arrived in San Salvador at 9 PM greeted by the sounds of explosions. Six years of this continued in the country’s civil war.
For a year and a half we didn’t know what our mission would be. Then the Ministry of Justice called asking us to take care of a baby named Karla. Her doctor said she she was too far gone and would not live through the night. Karla weighed nine pounds and was 14 months old. She had several diseases. As Christians we rebuked that grim prognosis. By the third day she was still alive. We were NOT baby people, but God MADE us baby people through caring for Karla. Julie stayed at Karla’s bedside, refusing to leave her. After two and a half weeks, Karla was showing some improvement, and I convinced Julie to go home for a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. The time in the hospital was taking a toll on both of us. At midnight in our apartment we received a phone call from the pediatric hospital that Karla had died. We both grieved. The doctor said Karla had three diseases and any one of them could have killed her. But still we questioned why. Although we did not know it at the time, Karla’s purpose on this earth had been accomplished. This was during the country’s 12-year civil war, we could hear bombs exploding outside the house at any hour of the day or night.
A small child and his family waiting for care.
Again the Ministry of Justice asked us to take a second baby whose name was Jose Vidal Cruz. We didn’t want to take him because we were still grieving the loss of Karla. Nonetheless, we took this sick baby with 104 temperature. Again several doctors were pessimistic that he would live but prescribed powerful antibiotic shots twice a day. His legs were the size of fingers and he cried nonstop. Jose had infected kidneys caused by a urine reflux. The doctor told us that only surgery would correct his problem. Jose thrived and after 14 months was adopted into a wonderful family in Maine, USA. Eric, who was found abandoned in a sugar cane field and discovered by an old farmer, was fortunate that he ended up in our care. He weighed six pounds at four months of age. After three months he showed considerable improvement. We began a clinic to care for these malnourished and dehydrated babies up to the age of two. If we decide they are too sick to admit to our nutritional clinic, we often do accept them and then immediately take them to the local hospital not entirely convinced the mothers would do so on their own.
In 1987 we established Fundacion Vinculo de Amor and the Love Links, Inc. in the USA to provide temporary medical and nutritional care for these babies as well as resources and training for their parents to promote the children’s future growth and development. Referrals for our clinic come from not only the Ministry of Justice but also from the Benjamin David Bloom Nacional Pediatric Hospital and other hospitals as well as from word of mouth and our TV commercials. Like a funnel these kids end up here, and we nourish and re-hydrate them.
We have treated up to 25 babies at a time depending on our staffing, but our numbers are usually between ten and fifteen which is more comfortable for us. In the early years of our ministry, we worked with a $900 monthly income and paying $500 a month rent. We watched our expenses very closely. Today, out of habit, I still walk around turning off lights. We have thirteen nineras caring for the babies. With these wonderful ladies we have over 115 years of devoted, experienced service. As the babies improve, we re-unite them with their families. Once a week those babies who have been dismissed return for check-ups we refer to as “control.” After two months, if the baby has continued to gain weight, shown improvement, and the mom is happy and has good self-esteem, we close the case. If the baby is NOT gaining weight, often the Mom will say, “The baby has been sick.” In that case, the baby returns here to the clinic for further observation. If the mom again returns and the baby is still losing weight, it is a sign of abuse in the form of neglect because when we discharge a baby to his mother, we always send along food. In those cases we need to call child protection authorities and they will conduct a social study on the home and evaluate the baby’s surroundings. We hope it doesn’t get to that point.
Since our beginnings we have cared for 1,450 severely malnourished babies. The pediatric medical establishments including six directors of the national hospital, pediatricians, and doctors working within the pediatric hospitals have all agreed over the years that from 80 to 85% of all babies we have attended would have died or led a very low quality of life. That would include a minimum of 1,160 babies. Since 1987 we have lost only 26 babies and half of them died in the hospital. This is half of our story. READ ON . . . .
MetAMORphosis (Metamorfosis) is a project we began five years ago for those at social risk. It is located in Santa Ana across from a Penal Apanteos. By definition, those at social risk are ex-gang members, single parent mothers, men and women released from prison to include common and ex-gang members. Our philosophy is based on Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . . ” The impetus for this foundation is to rehabilitate, educate, reinsert, and create jobs. Since the years of preaching began so long ago in half the prisons in the country, we have established ourselves as people who really love those in prisons and young people walking aimlessly through the streets.
Employment needs in this country are huge. El Salvador is still a poor country. It ranks last among the Central American countries in terms of investments. Employment for ex-convicts and former gang members is even more difficult for them but vital in order to break the cycle of poverty.
In this country most gang members who tend to end up in the prison system are deportees of the U.S. Many guys went to the U.S. during the war because they had two options: fight or leave the country. When they left, they ended up in Texas or California; in California it was generally in Los Angeles where they were recruited by gangs. They had no family and no money, and gang life was attractive. The same is true here for the kids who lost family from the war. They have no money; they have nothing; the gang IS a family to them.
The crux of this program is to get these guys out of jail and CREATE –not FIND-jobs for them so they can go back and be husbands to their wives and fathers to their children. This is a ministry to support inmates. We are not going to get rich providing this service.
We are following a command from the Old Testament prophet Malachi4:6, “Return the hearts of the fathers to the children lest I strike this country with a curse.” El Salvador has curses of poverty, murder, crime; but it has good people.
The Salvadoran government does not provide job-training. Some churches set up small training facilities such as bakeries to provide employment. We saw this need going unmet and felt a tug from God to fill it.
We have been 100% successful in bringing these guys out of prison, and they are 100% rehabilitated. We have established strict qualification guidelines for participation. The inmates must be at the half-way point of their prison term. They must have good behavior. They are released under a trustee program. This program not only helps the individual, but it also helps the economy of the prison system, which is terribly over-crowded. There are 30,000 people in jail. It costs $2 a day to feed each of them which, over a year means $21,900,000 for food alone.
Our questions then had to be answered. How do we get started? What do the people need? We prayed and received an answer about an unexpected source. We began a simple shop making shoes.
Metamorphosis started as a small factory in 2007. After major planning and construction of a small factory, we opened our doors in 2010 producing good quality shoes. These guys, and some women, want to work and work well! The factory’s production rate and high quality have not gone unnoticed by the largest shoe company in Central America so we are making shoes for them now. By 2013, Metamorphosis has employed over a hundred former inmates who are now husbands to their wives and fathers to their children. Not all have elected to remain with Metamorphosis, but for a year they have remained with us. They received a steady input of the Bible which has transformed their lives. Our factory is self -sustainable. We will use the profits to invest in other self-sustainable ideas to support our jobs program. There is no limit to the scope of this ministry.
The European Union has taken notice. In 2013 they asked us to write a paper and to participate in a large grant designate for El Salvador. The Fundacion Vinculo de Amor won 300,000 euros. We are placing brand new machinery in our new factory today enabling us to provide jobs to those coming out of prisons. Our production rate has grown from 300 pairs of shoes to 1,100 pairs daily. The EU is writing a manual on our progress for possible inclusion into their work in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.
We continue to have visions for something else this size to include other types of manufacturing in the future. Metamorphosis means to change from a cocoon into a butterfly. That is what we do for the men and women we care for. We can create other jobs for people who are at social risk also. People’s lives will change positively and they will never return to that cocoon. It is all about changing the heart of the men and women in prisons and walking the streets and creating jobs and do not exist today. We see no limitations. God provides.
I’ve been going into the prisons in Sonsonate since 1995. I’ve never found them to be dangerous. In September 2007 several of us went into a prison as part of an evangelical team to prevent an imminent riot similar to the riot nine months previous whereby 23 men died. Speaking first, a pastor of an Assembly of God Church, approached the several hundred guys sitting within the fenced area. His background had been as a leader in the gangs. Next a local Santa Ana businessman, spoke. He too had been a founder of the 18th Street gang in Santa Ana 22 years ago and held the respect of many of the inmates. He preached the Word of God and many were saved. A co-founder of Metamorphosis was the third man to preach. Up to this time 200 men sat on the concrete floor for two hours. Then it was my turn. I was armed only with God’s love. These guys responded to us; in fact, they asked us to return. We witnessed not rebellion but despair. Many found an alternative to violence by turning to God. In fact, a two-year Bible Institute from New York opened here, and many of our guys have become interested and enrolled in it to become pastors. (Tongue in cheek Sam laughs that they are getting worried at the factory that they may lose some of their best workers to God. He actually sees this positive change as a second chance and an outgrowth of Metamorphosis). Inside five hours, we spoke to an estimated 600 gang members located in two sections of 300 each. There was no riot. God works in mysterious ways.
Rene and I went into the prison system to offer training to these guys on sewing machines in the shoe factory. One of the inmates from California was a leader inside who had been in prison four times. He thought he would remain in jail for life. He had been deported from the U.S., and when he returned here to El Salvador, Roberto asked his aunt if he could live with her. She agreed under one condition – he had to attend church with her. He now is a deacon and an adult Bible class teacher. His desire is to become a pastor in his own church and to minister to the men and women who come from the gangs.
I have often said that these guys are this country’s greatest deterrent against crime. These guys were once takers, but now are givers by ministering the Word of God.
Editor’s Note: Julie arrives at the end of our interview. A certain calm grace fills the room as she enters. Sam’s description of Julie’s unhesitating acceptance of his call to come to this foreign place without knowing where it was on the map while leaving behind family, friends, community, and all security she knew sounds like a biblical response, “Well, that’s wonderful. When can we get started?” She is actively involved in this ministry and was recognized for it by Avon as their Woman of the Year when she received a Social Humanitarian Award in 2006. Both Julie and Sam received Angeles Voluntarios (Volunteer Angels) awards from the Universidad Jose Matias Delgado. The Attorney General for Human Rights of El Salvador presented Love Links with an award for their dedicated work for Salvadoran children. (Sam mentioned nothing about these awards, but I have my sources.)
Toward the end of our interview Sam takes us to his computer to show us two professionally produced videos with Steve Green singing emotional tunes in the background of each, documenting his baby (Vinculo de Amor Love Link) and prisoner (MetAMORphosis) projects. “I still cry very time I watch these,” he confesses. He can name every baby, his before-and-after age and weight down to the ounce; name every prisoner in the over-crowded jails. Sam shows amazing vision and energy for his seventy-five years. He and Julie have adult children in the States whom he visits annually. Julie visits more frequently. But Sam has a new life here in his adopted country where God says he needs to be.
Circumstances have changed since this interview and story was written. The MetAMORphosis project is no longer active. However, we wanted our readers to be aware of the scope of Sam and Julie’s involvement in their adopted country of El Salvador. The Love Links (“baby program”) continues to function at another location than we visited serving a smaller population of failure to thrive babies.