Veronica Flores Van Leeuwen has a radical response to illegal immigration — radical in that it goes to the source of the human river, that stream of people flowing from Latin America into the United States:

Help people rebuild their own communities, so they don't have to come north looking for decent jobs and schools.

Van Leeuwen and fellow Salvadorans and friends are forming an alliance around the idea.

"It's not that I don't want immigrants here" in the United States, she said. "I just think opportunities should be there for them, there, in El Salvador."

This month she'll begin to see the groundwork laid for those opportunities. In a former refugee camp called Habitat Confien, where some 6,000 Salvadorans have come to live since the 1986 earthquake, a community center is to be built. HELP International, a Provo-based nonprofit organization, has collected $15,000 in donations to supplement the Salvadoran government's contribution of $45,000 toward construction.

A community center, with space for classes, all kinds of church services, boys' and girls' club activities and town meetings, built for $60,000?

A municipal planning department in the United States would quadruple such an estimate.

The figure is reasonable, Van Leeuwen said, since residents of Habitat Confien will do the building themselves. They also envisioned the center themselves, as a building block for community and economic development.

HELP International programs director Jay Porter added that the Salvadoran people, well-known for their work ethic, impressed him by having their plans already in place when they sought the HELP grant.

"What attracted us was how well-organized this community is," Porter said.

Maria Dolores Ochoa, a wife, mother and member of the Habitat Confien Development Committee, is among the local leaders who have worked with Porter for the past year.

Porter, 25, and Van Leeuwen are well-acquainted with El Salvador and its trials. Porter was an LDS missionary there from 1997-99, and Van Leeuwen, 43, is a native daughter of the small Central American nation. They've spent time in Habitat Confien and have seen its makeshift sheet-metal community center. Porter said it's not a safe place for people to gather and worries that another earthquake will rip it down.

"It's like being inside a microwave," added Van Leeuwen.

Starting this week they will lay the foundation for a stronger structure, and will continue HELP International's seeding of other community projects. The projects are simple but transform the residents' outlook. HELP volunteers teach square-foot intensive gardening; they provide basic business training and micro loans; they garner funds for goats, hardy animals that supply nutritious milk.

HELP's approach, Porter said, is not to swoop in with emergency kits and then depart, only to return for the next humanitarian crisis.

"We partner with a local organization and we ask them, 'What do you need?' And let us provide the resources," he said. "Our goal is to help the community organize itself, so it can confront further challenges. Our philosophy is, 'You can solve your own problems, rather than us coming in with our 'solutions.' "

Van Leeuwen and her husband have considered moving to El Salvador when all three of their daughters have finished college in the states. For now, she serves as honorary Salvadoran consul for Utah, a volunteer post. As a liaison between expatriates and Salvadorans still living in their native country, she gathers contributions to the Habitat Confien project and promotes solidarity between the two Salvadoran communities, here and there.

Porter spent part of his childhood in El Salvador while his father worked at the U.S. Embassy there. It was during the country's devastating civil war, and once he got a transfer to another post, Porter's father never wanted to return. It was a fluke that Porter was then sent on his mission to El Salvador. When he returned to his home in Sandy, he felt drawn back to the beleaguered part of the world. Last year he spent several months working in Habitat Confien, and this summer his wife, Edgemont Elementary School teacher Erin Porter, is eager to return with him. He said he suggested taking a vacation to Washington, D.C., this summer, but she chose El Salvador instead.

HELP International opened another new program in Fortaleza, Brazil, last month. As with its efforts in El Salvador and five other Latin American nations, HELP sends volunteers to work with residents, following their agenda. "We recognize that for a community to develop, it has to be an internal change, wrought by local leaders," reads HELP's brochure.

Community leaders such as those of Habitat Confien are trying to raise the quality of life so that some day, fewer Latin Americans will take the perilous step of paying a smuggler to take them north illegally.

"Right now, for a lot of people, there's only one choice: to come to the United States," Porter said. With HELP's volunteers and donors in this country backing him, Porter represents a new generation of ambassadors.

For information about HELP's projects, visit www.help-international.org or call 801-374-0556.


E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com