But while immigration is a hot topic around the world today, Orphan Helpers’ Founder Greg Garrett is working to improve the lives of young people in Honduras and El Salvador, helping them to become the leaders that can ultimately improve the lives of their countrymen.
Orphan Helpers: Developing a heart for the fatherless
With four decades of experience in the real estate industry and countless accolades to his credit — including designation as the No. 1 agent on the Virginia Peninsula and throughout Hampton Roads, Virginia, as well as one of Realtor Magazine’s Top 50 Real Estate teams in the United States — Garrett has conquered the business world countless times over. But running a successful company was never enough.
In 2000, just 16 years after launching Greg Garrett Realty, Garrett convinced his wife to follow him to Central America. He’d felt for years that God was leading him to work with orphans; after landing in El Salvador and linking up with a local church, he was led to an orphanage with more than 250 children who desperately needed his help. Twenty years later, Garrett is still supporting needy children in El Salvador and nearby Honduras, but the scope of his organization’s services has changed dramatically.
“I had no idea of the severity of the gang problem and the murder rate in these countries,” Garrett says. “I knew, somewhat, about the orphans, and I thought that the main thing we would be doing was helping orphans.”
Both El Salvador and Honduras have been ravaged by gangs, and the two countries have the highest per capita murder rates in the world. As a result, there are thousands of children in those countries who are currently housed in public centers, including orphanages and detention centers. Some have been orphaned, certainly, but many others are being held for their own protection, or, more likely, because of crimes they’ve committed.
“The thing that people really do not understand about the incarcerated kids — which is really the largest population that we work with — is that these kids are mostly being raised in neighborhoods that are dominated by the gangs,” Garrett says. “And in those neighborhoods, the gangs are recruiting the kids into the gangs when they’re as young as eight and nine years old.”
These children are not voluntarily joining gangs; there’s simply no alternative. The murder rate and the number of men migrating to the United States and other countries to find work has left many children without fathers. Consequently, those children are left without any buffer between themselves and the gangs that control their communities.
“Gangs often tell young kids that if they don’t cooperate with the gang that they or their families will not be safe from gang violence,” Garrett explains. In turn, kids join gangs for safety — for themselves and their families — but joining a gang is often a death sentence. Those whose lives aren’t cut short by violence from rival gangs typically find themselves incarcerated for decades. It’s a no-win situation that only exacerbates the instability of these communities.
There is, however, a solution.
The alternative to gang life
Garrett says that there are only two possible ways out of Central American gangs: death, or religious transformation. Gangs tend not to harm a man or woman of God, and Garrett believes this escape hatch is the attempt of older gang members to prevent the younger generations — often comprised of their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews — from following in their footsteps.
With that in mind, Orphan Helpers launched its Success Academy three years ago and currently works with children in any of the public centers to help them turn their lives around. Thirty-five percent of all incarcerated children in El Salvador and Honduras are currently enrolled, and graduation rates have increased from 13 in the first year to 272 who completed the program in 2019.
“It’s a whole lot easier to build a fence at the top of a cliff where the children are playing than it is to build a hospital at the bottom of the cliff when they fall off.”— — Greg Garrett, Founder Orphan Helpers
Success Academy emphasizes four teaching areas: the Bible, life skills, character development and job readiness. In addition, the children who have completed the program are beginning to learn servant leadership — that is, leadership without violence or manipulation. This is key, as Garrett believes that Success Academy graduates are the most likely to be a catalyst for change in their communities.
“We believe that the solution for most any society is contained within that society,” he says. “Ideally, once the people who have caused the problem realize the severity of what they’ve done, and they turn their lives around, they’ll be the most fearless in solving the problem.”
When youth graduate from Success Academy, they remain incarcerated however, local judges track the kids who have gone through the program. Sometimes, if a kid has a place to live, a support network outside of the center, and, most importantly, a job, a judge may actually release them earlier. The problem, however, is that finding someone who will hire these kids is incredibly difficult.
Partnering for change: How business leaders can get involved
As with any nonprofit, fundraising is a constant priority for Orphan Helpers. But it is the lack of jobs for Success Academy graduates that Garrett considers most troubling. It’s also a challenge that he presents to other business leaders.
Garrett encourages businesses from other parts of the world to open factories in El Salvador or Honduras, or otherwise create jobs for Success Academy graduates who so desperately need them. Garrett is confident that his graduates, grateful for a second chance, will become hard-working, valuable employees of any company.
And for American business leaders concerned about illegal immigration, this influx of jobs would relieve tremendous pressure at America’s southern border. Not only would kids not have to turn to gangs for money and safety, but men would stay in their home countries because they would be able to take care of their families.
“We want people to understand this so that they will want to get on board to help us,
Garrett says. “It’s a whole lot easier to build a fence at the top of a cliff where the children are playing than it is to build a hospital at the bottom of the cliff when they fall off.”