In the foothills of the lush Western El Salvador mountains, clean natural springs cascaded down ridgelines and bypassed an enclave of families living in poverty who are unable to access the fresh water.
Here in rural San Julian is also the birthplace of Leonardo Britay Regalado, a former sponsored child who gained an unquenchable thirst for service and justice.
Across El Salvador, the 13-year civil war had unleashed unspeakable violence, tremendous loss, and the upheaval of its people during the 1980s. The conflict forced thousands, including Leonardo’s parents, from lucrative metropolitan areas into the secluded foothills for their family’s survival.
His father and namesake, Leonardo Sr., farmed tirelessly by growing corn and beans, modest and reliable crops needed to feed his family and for income. Dena, his mother, sold fruit from their trees. It often wasn’t enough for the parents of three. “Sometimes we had only a few tortillas and salt,” remembers Dena.
With no running water at home, they bought bottles of clean water from the nearby town for drinking and cooking, and they bathed in the local river, a waterway littered with trash.
Growing up, Leonardo was bothered that there were pristine springs in the nearby foothills, but government officials never piped the water consistently to his community.
He remembers how powerless he felt.
Fifteen years later, the kind and quiet Leonardo has grown formidable, becoming the leader he previously sought.
‘The biggest blessing’
At 7, Leonardo’s life changed through child sponsorship. “I thought it was good because it meant I could go to school,” he remembers. Because sponsorship funded his school supplies, shoes, and uniform, his family could spend their limited income on food and water, and he could attend school full time.
Sponsorship also provided Leonardo’s family with food, and his mother learned about child nutrition through World Vision programs.
“It was the biggest blessing,” his mom says. “It was a blessing from God that people cared so much to help us.”
It was a blessing from God that people cared so much to help us.—Dena Britay Regalado
Leonardo spent his time after school in the fields helping his dad. “He was always a hard worker,” remembers Dena. In his spare time, he also worked on other farms to support his family by picking bananas, oranges, mangoes, and corn.
Dena remembers the day her son returned home, bug-bitten and exhausted, with the resolution to have a professional career.
Leonardo’s formidable future
As he grew, he spent more of his days with World Vision. At age 14, he enrolled in World Vision’s community leadership training, a program that guides teens to identify community problems and find solutions.
As a teen, he served as president of the Child and Youth Board of San Julian. He taught other children to dream bigger for themselves and their communities and to take the practical steps to make it happen. He encouraged other kids to stay in school.
Leonardo is grateful for his sponsor. His sponsor’s sacrifice motivated him to invest in his own community. He says other children who were not sponsored often dropped out of school or migrated.
He’s lost friends to the gang violence that has gripped El Salvador, but the lessons and values he learned from World Vision have set a different path for him. Leonardo calls World Vision “his second school.” Their training taught him a culture of peace, service, and integrity — values essential to the person he is now. It’s what he teaches young people. It’s what he lives every day, he says.
In 2001, when Leonardo was 16, a massive earthquake struck the region. The family’s wood-and-tin home collapsed, so they lived under a plastic tarp under the trees. World Vision helped rebuild homes throughout the community, including theirs, out of sturdy concrete.
A year later, he volunteered with World Vision to monitor and evaluate their programs, working his way through high school and the university to gain his bachelor’s degree. He knew he wanted to become someone who could help his community in practical ways.
Now as the manager of the city water utility, Leonardo ensures that people throughout the region have clean water. As a civil servant, he is making the change he dreamed about as a child.
“For years before I got this job, I would ask the former water manager why they couldn’t fix my community’s pipes to access clean water.” He was told that they just didn’t have the budget. “‘No, we can’t’ is all I heard,” Leonardo says. “But I said, ‘Yes, we can.’”
Now, he has found efficiencies within the same budget to make sure pipes and the pumping station provide clean water to his community and many others. No one should have to go without clean water, he says.
“I learned from my mom how to be humble and strong,” Leonardo says.
Dena’s gratitude runs deep for her son’s sponsor. “I’m so grateful for people who help children around the world. I see God’s love through them. They love others like themselves and make sacrifices to help,” says Dena.
“Leonardo is the greatest gift from God,” says his mom. “It’s been my dream that my children would be respected and useful to society.” He’s recognized throughout San Julian for the work he’s done to make the community better.
As she reflects on how proud she is of her son, tears well up in her eyes and spills down her face. “These are tears of joy,” she says.
Leonardo’s dad has been unable to speak since a stroke 13 years ago. But as his mom speaks, a tear runs down his dad’s cheek. It speaks volumes of how proud he is of Leonardo.