Larry Parr, a Maryknoll lay missioner working in El Salvador, wanted to find a way to keep young people off the streets and out of the gang culture that is plaguing the small community of Las Delicias, where he has served for almost three years. This goal led to a soccer program called Playing for Peace—and a chance for kids from one of the poorest parts of the country to play in an international tournament. “There is a lot of violence in the community and this program gives kids a safe alternative to the street,” Parr says. “The youth join gangs because they want to belong to a group, so this program gives them a sense of belonging—but in a more positive environment.” Since Parr founded the program in May 2009, it has grown to include approximately 60 children and youths 8 to 18 years old. Most of the coaches are young men in the community who are working or in college. They provide positive role models for the children.
A highlight of the program was the participation this past December of 22 boys aged 12 to 16 in the International Soccer Cup in El Salvador sponsored by the mayor of the community of Soyapongo and the National Institute of Sports in El Salvador. The theme of the tournament was security and peace for youth, under the slogan “No to Violence, No to Drugs.” Participants included 12 girls’ teams and 57 boys’ teams from nine countries: El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil and the United States. The tournament lasted eight days with games played in various stadiums around El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. The opening ceremony featured a parade and talks by sports figures and politicians on the importance of youth activities to promote peace and avoid violence. “There were more than 1,000 young people from all over the Americas chanting ‘No’ to violence and drugs,” says Parr. “For me it was amazing to see so many youth together, ready to play soccer and denounce the violence that has taken over the streets of Central America.” Las Delicias was invited to send a team because the focus of its soccer program is on peace and non-violence. “The first day was such a great experience for our kids since none of them had ever
been to the major stadium, and to be a part of a big parade in downtown San Salvador was unbelievable for them,” says 26-year-old Parr, from Baltimore, Md.
Because of their poor diet, many players on the Delicias team were smaller than their counterparts. Their hand-me-down uniforms and arrival in the back of a pickup truck instead of a private bus were clear signs they lacked the resources of most of the other teams. Although they finished last in their group—which included one of the best youth teams from Honduras—the Las Delicias team played hard and ended up impressing not only the spectators but also those who competed against them. The U.S. team was so impressed that its members gave their shoes and equipment to the Las Delicias squad after the tournament. “I never imagined I would have the experience of playing against teams from the United States,” said 16-year- old Carlos Lopez, who after the tournament was offered a full scholarship to a Catholic school in El Salvador to play soccer. The televised games gave the whole team national exposure. “I am so proud of these boys, who had the chance to prove they belong with the best players in the Americas,” Parr says. “All of the players are studying and will have many opportunities.” Deborah Northern, a Maryknoll lay missioner from Richmond, Va., served in Tanzania and is now in El Salvador.