Sister Elisa Martinez has spent the last thirty years working to provide high-risk youth and their families with alternatives to gangs, drugs and violence. Her work has taken her through dangerous streets, fractured homes, and recently, to El Salvador where she and her colleague Father Stan Bosch have been journeying with Catholic Charity Caritas staff to provide healing in the gang-afflicted country.
El Salvador’s gang crisis emerged in the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992) in which half the country’s population fled the violence, many to the Los Angeles area. Numerous youth, often seeking a stable community, became involved in gangs. When the gang members ran into the law and were deported, they established the gangs back in El Salvador. Now there are an estimated 25,000 gang members in the country.
“It has been a privilege to go there and journey with the community there,” says Sister Elisa. “We have also visited a prison. Many women are serving a sentence of twenty, thirty, forty years and some of their families are in LA. I can only imagine how isolated they feel and alone.”
Sister Elisa and Father Stan also co-direct a mental health program at Soledad Enrichment Agency (SEA) in Los Angeles that was founded by a group of mothers whose sons had been killed by gang violence. SEA’s mission is to give at-risk youth an opportunity to succeed. Sister Elisa, who holds a Master of Social Work, is Directress of Programs and supervises nine social work interns from three local colleges — Cal State Los Angeles, Cal State Long Beach, and University of Southern California — who provide therapy and case management across the SEA’s many locations in the Los Angeles area.
The internship helps train social workers to be effective in assisting in gang-afflicted communities. One intern wrote, “This internship provided me with insights I was not familiar with. For instance, I know that youth that are involved in gangs are not necessarily ‘bad’ or dangerous like society and the media portrays them to be. I learned that the students are very receptive and open to help. They just need someone to support them and journey with them along the way.”
Sister Elisa first learned about SEA in 1975 while she was directing the Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Boise. She met a religious brother who was the director of SEA, then in its third year and he shared stories of the young people and families affected by the culture of violence and drugs in Los Angeles, and about SEA. Intrigued, Sister Elisa connected with the brother each time she visited her mother and sister in southern California. He took her to the neighborhoods and she began to know the people there. She was offered a job.
“When I came on board,” said Sister Elisa, “I found that I had a lot to learn about the gang culture and the families who live in these neighborhoods.” She began her work by visiting families during the day and going to the streets in the evenings. “I would go out and find a gathering of gang-involved youth and begin visiting with them,” she said. At first, they were suspicious of her actions. “They looked at me like I was some kind of crazy woman or a narc.” Despite their reluctance to accept her, Sister Elisa kept going back.
Her involvement with gang members has given her a deeper understanding of the conditions faced by those who live there. “I discovered mothers who were ashamed because the community criticized them for having a son or daughter affiliated with a gang.” These mothers feel alone and trapped. Many of them raise their children alone and work long hours for less than minimum wage to pay rent and feed and clothe their families and the children. Their unsupervised youth are searching for love, family and respect “and they create it in the only way they know how – through their ‘homies,’” she said.
For this reason, one of the goals of SEA is to work with parents to strengthen the family unit and build parenting skills through education. Soledad Enrichment Agency includes SEA Charter School, a California public charter high school for at-risk youth, whose students have dropped out of or been expelled from traditional schools. They come from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods with heavily entrenched gang activity and tend to perform at a lower academic level than their peers. Their families may suffer from alcohol and drug addiction, poverty, teen pregnancy, unemployment, and domestic violence. When students enter SEA Charter School, they know that it could be their last chance to lift themselves from the surrounding culture.
SEA Charter school has 15 school sites located throughout LA County. They are strategically located in neighborhoods to assure that students can attend without having to “watch their back.” While some students are able to catch up with their peers and re-enter the public school system, others complete their education and graduate from SEA. Many former students return to work as staff at SEA. “If one person cares they never forget it,” explains Sister Elisa. “That caring can come in the smallest ways…you smiled at me, you listened to me. We don’t tend to listen, we tend to advise.”
Last year Sister Elisa celebrated her Golden Jubilee (50 years) as a Benedictine sister. She finds opportunities to express the Monastery’s core values of healing hospitality, grateful simplicity and creative peacemaking in her work with the youth and their families. Although SEA is not affiliated with a religious institution, it is Sister Elisa’s experience that these values are essential to the success of the program’s purpose.
Sister Elisa has been honored with SEA’s Heart of Gold Award and St. Michael’s Parish Guardian Angel Award. Father Stan, who works alongside her, said, “Sister Elisa is a very deliberate and public peacemaker, a woman of great leadership who is present all over the city working with intervention counselors, interns, and others to change lives in the midst of gang wars. From a profound interior compassion she can be tough on the exterior in order to motivate and inspire people to better life choices and become leaders by example for each other.”
“The families here have taught me the resilience of faith,” reflects Sister Elisa. “Regardless of shootings they may have witnessed or been victims of, despite the poverty they are experiencing, the tragedy they are involved in, they inevitably express their trust in God – that he will lead them to better times.”