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April 1, 2005
-- A Tattoo news exclusive --
Shelter 'mom' took care of children like family
The Tattoo goes behind the scenes with woman sought by cops after baby's death
By Oscar Ramirez
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Ana Lara said recently she sees herself as “a single mother” to the 24 children from troubled backgrounds who lived with her in a shelter she started because she wanted to help them avoid the abuse she experienced growing up on the streets.
Some of the older children said this month they chose to live in Lara’s small, average-looking home to escape bad situations in their own families.
Now, though, Lara is sought by police after a 7-month-old baby died under mysterious circumstances in her shelter. Neighbors told police that Lara fled in a van with the other children.
Oscar Ramirez/ The Tattoo
From L to R: Douglas Siguenza, shelter operator Ana Lara, Eduardo Barahona with an unidentified child at the San Salvador shelter.
Officers guarding the house Saturday said they planned to stay until detectives closed the investigation.
The officers at the house said they heard “the kid fell and got hit on the head” and that the baby’s mother initially supported Lara, telling her to “leave so the police don’t catch you.”
But, they said, they are not privy to details of the investigation that’s been underway since the March 29 death of the baby.
Though Lara has vanished, The Tattoo can provide an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at her life and the shelter she operated.
Three weeks before Lara landed in the news, she and several of the children living in her illegal shelter spoke with a reporter for The Tattoo working on a story about the troubled teens.
The shelter, located in the colonia Flor Blanca for the past four months but previously based near downtown, operates under the name “Fundación Infantil Hebrón.”
It served as home for approximately 24 children, some of whom escaped from troubled households where they were victims of physical or emotional abuse. Others were exploited as child labor.
The children in the shelter ranged from babies to teenagers as old as 18.
Ana Judith Lara de Constancia, normally called Ana Lara, said she started the shelter with the help of her local church because she wanted to prevent children from getting exposed to the hazards of the streets, a world that introduces many to drugs, alcohol and prostitution.
“I lived in the streets when I was a kid,” Lara said. “I suffered the abuse of the people that lived there.”
“By the age of 11, I already had been sexually abused, and began to consume toxic substances like ‘pastas’ (a street name for pills), beer and alcohol,” she said.
After joining a church in Guatemala, where her nomadic teen years brought her, she said she came up with the idea of opening a shelter for needy youngsters.
“I don’t want them to go through the same things I went through,” Lara said.
Lara said the funding of the shelter happens by “faith.”
She said that when she needs something, she can call some of the pastors at the churches that help her, and present the receipts for what she bought.
Some churches and schools performing community services, like the “Colegio Pan de Vida” in San Salvador, regularly visit the shelter to play with and teach the younger children.
Oscar Ramirez/ The Tattoo
Police officer guarding Lara's shelter.
Before she turned the house into a shelter, Lara said it was used as a church.
The small house had a kitchen and a common living room where the children, especially the younger ones, would gather to watch television and play.
Further inside, a long common room had several bunk beds positioned in rows for the older children to sleep.
They were two other rooms next to the living room. One of them had several cribs that were used by the babies, and the other room served as a small office.
Toys were scattered all over the house, and a lot of them were put in the back of the big room where the older children slept.
Lara's bedroom was opposite the babies’ room.
Overall, the house looked pretty messy and perhaps even dirty. Lara did most of the housework, sometimes helped by the young people.
A woman she referred to as "Mirna" also helped her sometimes with the chores around the house, she said.
She said that she could sometimes get help from volunteers from a school or church, who would help her clean windows and floors and also make the beds.
Around the children, Lara was patient. She would change them, feed them and be around them frequently. Even when the babies cried, Lara did not appear to become angry or distressed.
During the interviews, she always had a kid beside her. They were very close to her and some even called her mom.
Lara said that she was in the midst of the process necessary to make her shelter legal so that the kids would be safely under her protection by law.
Douglas Sigüenza, 17, said he got to the shelter six years ago after becoming friends with some of the kids that already lived there.
“I was like nine when I ran away for a week,” he said, and found that his mother and stepfather “didn’t look for me.”
“I used to leave the house because my stepfather mistreated me too much,” he said.
Sigüenza said he lived in a printing office before coming to Lara’s shelter.
“In that printing office, I also worked every day from Monday to Saturday, sometimes until night,” said Sigüenza.
“The printing office didn’t pay me anything; they just gave me where to live and work,” Sigüenza said. So he moved into the shelter.
An eighth grade student, Eduardo Barahona, said he grew up in the shelter and was raised by Lara, his aunt. He said he has always lived with her and the rest of the kids.
He said his father died, though his mother is still alive. But he chooses to stay in the shelter.
“I can’t live with my mom,” said Barahona, 15. “I don’t like being with her. It’s better here with my aunt and the rest.”
Ana María Pérez, 18, is the oldest teen who lived in the shelter. “I have approximately nine years of living here,” she said.
Pérez said she that she used to live with her mother and stepfather, but after her mom died, “everything changed. He became very violent.”
She said that Lara “wouldn’t allow him to mistreat me.”
Two of her five brothers live with a family that adopted them, Pérez said. She said she lived for a time with the family that adopted her brothers, but moved out after getting pregnant.
“Eduardo is my baby,” she said, pointing at a toddler nearby.
Pérez said she went through her entire pregnancy at a friend’s house, a friend that had been through a teen pregnancy herself.
Pérez came back to the shelter after having her baby, and she said that Lara – her “aunt” – was very supportive.
“Sometimes it’s easier to find comfort in the people that have been through the same; you feel more at ease,” Pérez said.
Lara said that the kids at the shelter have a routine similar to what any child with a mother and father would have.
“In the morning we all have breakfast, and then they leave for school,” she said.
One of the rules for living in the shelter is that youngsters have to go to school, Lara said.
On a normal day, the younger children study with Lara at the shelter while the older ones study at a public school nearby, said Lara.
The philosophy of the shelter revolves around religious and moral values, she said
Lara said that it is a custom for all of them to thank the Lord for the food they have. She also said they always have a small devotional before going to bed.
Another rule in the shelter is that children can’t wear baggy clothes because they would look like gang members, the boys said.
“I can’t wear earrings, or use baggy pants, like a gang member dresses,” Barahona said.
Barahona said he would prefer to dress more stylishly.
“I can’t dress the way I want,” he said, because of Lara’s rules. But, he said, he willingly accepts the rules, which also mandate that youngsters are in by 8 p.m.
Lara said that it is easier to take care of the younger boys, because they listen.
“We are like eight young people, ages 12 to 18,” said Pérez.
“The older ones always want to follow their own will. They want to say bad words and don’t want to be corrected. They like being out until late at night and don’t want anyone to tell them anything,” said Lara.
Living with 24 children is not a difficult thing to do, the youths said.
“At first you feel uncomfortable being with so many people. But then you get used to it and it becomes a normal thing. Sometimes you even miss being surrounded with the bunch of people,” Pérez said.
Sigüenza said the only bad thing about living in the shelter is that “the little kids are always going through my stuff.”
Sigüenza said it is difficult to have privacy sometimes and that it would be good to have his own bedroom.
The youths also said that heated discussions between them are normal, but nothing major.
“The fights are mostly because of the lack of respect some have,” Pérez said.
Lara said that most of the children living in the shelter have a mother, father or some kind of close relative alive, but the truth is that the relatives don’t have time for the children.
Pérez said she hasn’t spoken to her stepfather since the age of 13 and Barahona said he rarely visits or gets visits from her mother.
“My mother is alive, but sometimes I wish I wouldn’t know anything about her,” Sigüenza said.
Pérez said that she sees all of the children and youths at the shelter as family.
Oscar Ramirez/ The Tattoo
From L to R: Ana Lara holding a child at the San Salvador shelter, Douglas Siguenza and Eduardo Barahona.
“This is a family,” she said. “It’s just more numerous, but one feels good. It’s like having a mom and a lot of cousins and brothers.”
Sigüenza said he also believes it is nice to live at the shelter.
“It’s good to be like this. At least I escaped from the problems I had with my family,” Sigüenza said.
They said they have grown fond of each other and of Lara through the years.
Lara said that sometimes kids that know the ones living in the shelter come and spend the night.
“There was a kid the other day called Jonathan that came because his mother had kicked him out of home,” she said.
Yet, she points out, it is important for the kids to feel they have a home.
“For me it is something fundamental that they have the security that this place is exclusively their home and that they have to take care of it,” Lara said.
Despite the differences some of the people in the shelter may have, they all agree that street gangs present a key social issue affecting Salvadoran youth.
Sigüenza said “the drugs and the gangs” are big problems.
Pérez said that “looking at so many gang members” is the toughest issue teens face nowadays.
“I think that it is not that much their fault to be like that, because there was never someone there to pay them attention and be like ‘come over here,’” she said. “So then gangs serve to them as refuge.”
Barahona said that some gang members actually attend the same school he does.
“Some are my friends, but just to like show off,” Barahona said.
Lara said she is very cautious and advices her wards to choose their friends wisely so they are not exposed to danger.
Many of the youths in the “Fundación Infantil Hebrón” and the founder herself have aspirations for the future.
“I want to study engineering when I finish high school,” Sigüenza said.
Barahona said he would like to obtain a technical degree in high school. He said that mechanics is so far the only field that interests him.
Unlike Eduardo and Douglas, Pérez does not attend school at the moment.
“I want to study next year,” Pérez said. “I want to study and get a technical diploma in computers. That is my greatest expectation; it’s my goal in this life,” she said.
Lara said that her greatest hope is to get a bigger house for the kids.
“I ask the Lord to give me a bigger place, so that they can have a better school in here and live a more normal life,” Lara said.
“I want them to marry one day so that they have their own home,” she said.
Opening a shelter for the elderly is also one her dreams, Lara said.
Lara said her religious values and her faith in God have helped her continue with her task day by day.
“People should dare to help other people in need, especially children” she said.
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