Sam Hawkins opened a shoe factory to give ex-cons a second chance

A shoe factory located just outside a prison in El Salvador is an act of love, a way to help former convicts stay out of prison.

Oscar Leiva/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Sam Hawkins, cofounder of Love Link and the Metamorfosis project in El Salvador, holds a pair of high-quality shoes made by ex-convicts.

Sam Hawkins delicately shifts a cardboard shoebox back and forth between his wrinkled hands. It is a subtle shade of pink and almost entirely covered in red and black text.

"In the name of those who produced these shoes with so much dedication, we thank you for your support," one section reads.

When Mr. Hawkins drove south in his Volkswagen from Fort Worth, Texas, through Mexico and Guatemala to El Salvador nearly 30 years ago, he didn't envision a future filled with platform sandals or hand-stitched leather shoes.

And he certainly didn't picture making footwear in a room full of former gang members and convicted murderers, and thieves.

But today he's the founder of a fledgling shoe factory and job-training center that employs around 40 men and a handful of women who are in jail, on parole, or recently released from prison. Employees work from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with breaks, five days a week. They learn the ins and outs of shoe production – and much more.

It's a vital endeavor in a country plagued by violence and an overcrowded prison system, and struggling to maintain a precarious gang truce in effect since March 2012.

"If you teach these guys a skill and they work at it, they become good at it. Then they're going somewhere," says Hawkins, who wears glasses and a bright blue, button-down shirt with Metamorfosis, his program's name, printed on the chest pocket.

"Who says they can't do well? They haven't been given a chance," he says. Providing a second chance "is our vision."

Hawkins and his wife, Julie, came to El Salvador in 1986, a time when most people were trying to get out. It was the height of this Central American country's devastating civil war, which claimed an estimated 75,000 lives and ended in a 1992 peace accord.

"We didn't talk Spanish, and we didn't know anybody down here," Hawkins says, sitting next to his wife at a long wooden table in the offices of their first nonprofit, Love Link, which rehabilitates malnourished babies and is now almost 27 years old. "We came to [El Salvador] because we felt the call of God."

Today, about 40 miles west of San Salvador, in the city of Santa Ana, a small house hums with the sounds of sewing machines and buzzing hand drills. It's the headquarters for Metamorfosis, and it's just a short walk down a gradually sloping hill from the bright yellow exterior walls and menacing razor-wire fences of the Apanteos prison.

The prison system in El Salvador is bursting at the seams, with some 27,000 inmates held in structures meant to house closer to 8,000, according to the 2012 US State Department Human Rights report.

Metamorfosis is a play on words – highlighting the extreme change many of its participants undergo here. The written version emphasizes the second and third syllables of the word in red: "amor" or love.

Love is key to how Metamorfosis began.

Back in 2007, a prison riot that killed 21 people rocked El Salvador. It wasn't the first riot, nor the worst in the country's history, but the newspaper coverage spoke to Hawkins.

"There were photos of grieving grandmothers and children on the front pages," he says. "They were all crying." Newspaper headlines shouted "Massacre!"

"I saw that, and my heart just grieved for those poor people.… I said out loud, 'Lord, this has got to stop! But what can I do? I just change baby diapers, that's all,'" Hawkins says, referring to the work he was doing with Love Link.

Almost nine months later he had an opportunity to go into Apanteos as part of a team of evangelical preachers. (Hawkins is a devout Christian, but he and his wife do not belong to any specific denomination.)

When he arrived at the prison in Santa Ana, 350 inmates were sitting on the concrete floor in one section of the jail, and another 300 prisoners were waiting nearby.

"I heard the gate close behind me and watched as the guard walked away," he recalls. "We were utterly alone in a sea of convicted killers and criminals."

Hawkins made a bold choice. He was the last one to enter, and on his left, he says, were "three of the ugliest, most horrific-looking gangsters I'd ever seen. They had tattoos all over their bodies. Their eyes were black. They looked mean, like they would kill most anyone."

He walked up, stood face to face with the first man, and said, "I love you"; he held his gaze until the prisoner turned away. He proceeded to do this with the other two men. "I learned there is no defense against love. Genuine love."

Hawkins says he understood in that moment that "it wasn't God's purpose for these men and women to be behind razor-wire fences. Their purpose wasn't to carry guns and to kill." That's what Hawkins told them in his informal sermon as he preached about his relationship with God.

"Afterward they all said, 'You have to come back. Please come back.' They never said please to anybody," Hawkins says.

Two weeks later one of the men who had preached with him at the prison called him. The man said he'd met a woman at church who wanted to donate her home – just blocks from the Apanteos prison – to a group working with delinquents.

It took him and executive director René Rosales, a member of the small group that had preached with him in prison, a while to figure out what kind of program to start.

They selected shoemaking, in part, because it was practical.

"With these skills, [the workers] are going somewhere," Hawkins says. "Everyone is proud of our work. We have zero defects." One of the largest shoe companies in Central America, ADOC, purchases and sells some of their products now, he notes.

Hawkins's work is valuable in El Salvador, where jobs are scarce and underemployment is near 43 percent, says Roberto Rubio, executive director of the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE), a leading think tank here.

"There are no job-training programs like this funded by the government," Mr. Rubio says, noting that there are a number of smaller projects – mostly bakeries – run by churches.

Offering employment to ex-convicts and former gang members is important because of the deep fear of gangs in Salvadoran society, which makes it difficult for ex-convicts to find legitimate work, Rubio notes. It's something that can perpetuate a cycle of crime.

"No one wants to hire you if you've been in jail," says one worker who asked not to be named. "They just won't trust you."

Hawkins wants to change the outlook of the ex-convicts. "Over time they realize 'I'm somebody. I'm really somebody' and their self-esteem comes up," Hawkins says.

Fostering self-esteem is vital before these men and women can successfully reenter society. "They have to know that whatever comes against them they can withstand it," he says.

Back on the shop floor, Oscar (his last name is withheld for his safety) is taking a break from working at his sewing machine. He went through a six-month apprenticeship to learn his craft. "I've come to understand that we're all born with skills, that nobody is unable to do something," says the former gang member, who spent the bulk of his 20s behind bars.

Hawkins's focus now is on expanding the reach of the program. Earlier this year he teamed up with FUNDE to apply for a grant from the European Union. Metamorfosis was selected out of more than 15 applicants.

The hope is to move out of this small house, where he can only employ a few dozen people and produce between 240 and 300 pairs of shoes each day, to a larger factory with more sophisticated machinery.

"I want to see 220 people working in that new factory … I want to see lives changed," Hawkins says. "I want to see this country change."

• Whitney Eulich's reporting in El Salvador was made possible by a fellowship from The International Center for Journalists.

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