Linda Smith, News Editor
Among the beneficiaries of Charity Week 2012—and certainly not least in its worthiness—was The Least Among Us, a service organization run by University of Dallas alumnus Johnny Nelson ’06. Founded in 2001 by Nelson’s older brother, Leonard, and a priest of the Diocese of Raleigh, Fr. Patrick Keane, The Least Among Us has since been dedicated to improving educational opportunities in El Salvador through infrastructure improvements and scholarships for secondary education—and has done so in part through UD’s help.
As a sophomore in college, Nelson took the reins of the organization, and, along with Leonard (in an advisory role), Fr. Keane and field officer and native Salvadoran Walter Martin Ulloa, has run the organization ever since.
Upon his first visit to El Salvador as a high school student, Nelson grew especially close to a boy named Salvador. Nelson described him as “barefoot” and “rambunctious” and someone possessing “a great sense of humor.” Nelson and Salvador would wander to the waterfall, where Salvador would amaze Nelson with “acrobatic flips off the rocks and his uncanny ability to hit beehives way up in the canopy with a rock on his first try.”
After beginning medical school, Nelson found it more difficult to travel to El Salvador. Years later, in a phone call with Walter Martin Ulloa, he found out that “the spunkiest little boy [he] knew” had fallen out of favor with a local gang and was shot in the back, and now had to resort to using a plastic chair outfitted with bicycle tires to get around. Salvador, who was “once so full of life,” now “felt too ashamed to leave his home,” and his case is not unique.
In response to situations such as this, The Least Among Us adopts a motto of “helping people help themselves.” The organization’s approach to projects is to provide Salvadoran people with “a step-up in the form of raw materials and capital that a poor agrarian community can’t afford.” According to Nelson, the families, schools and communities that stand to benefit must in return contribute to project planning, resource solicitation and the actual building of structures.
“In order to combat poverty, crime and delinquency, we must start by combating despair itself,” Nelson said. “It goes without saying that the Christian faith lived well and the frequent reception of the sacraments are essential to fighting this fight and giving one hope in the future, but [Fr. Keane] also understood the value of an education … providing structure, character formation and a simple day-to-day hopeful outlook that most of us take for granted. So Leonard and Fr. Keane decided to found a non-profit organization …not simply to improve material conditions, but to bring true happiness through hope and a sense of purpose.”
In addition, the group also provides scholarships to deserving students, called becados in Spanish. According to Nelson, these becados are chosen from the parochial school in Santo Domingo de Guzman based on need, academic performance, character and desire to enter workfields that will improve their families and communities. Students make a solemn promise before God and their community that they will spend their lives giving to others just as they received from The Least Among Us, and must maintain a certain grade point average and “continue to demonstrate solid character and conduct, not only in their everyday behavior but also through public works of charity.” Nelson also noted that dozens of students have obtained degrees and gone on to successful careers.
“You see, the contributions of the University of Dallas do more than just improve material conditions,” Nelson said. “If used in the right way, they can transform an entire village from the inside out, moving children away from the traps that plague impoverished societies and into pursuits and environments that will forever change their lives.”
According to Nelson, the group has thus far built 34 classrooms; purchased many books, desks and school supplies; and built basic computing centers, security walls, covered play areas to shelter students from the equatorial sun, water towers and clean bathroom facilities with flush- toilets. With the $8,941.78 it has received from UD Charity Week 2012, The Least Among Us will construct an entire classroom at the Centro Escolar Pablo VI school in Nahuizalco, Sonsonate, El Salvador. Upon completion, the classroom will be outfitted with a plaque commemorating the students of the University of Dallas. Nelson encourages anyone visiting the area to drop by for a photo op, and to tag The Least Among Us in the picture!
“I think it’s great for the students to see some real tangible returns on their generosity, not to mention the value of raising poverty awareness amongst those of us in developed nations,” Nelson said. “And it also means a little help from the students at the University of Dallas goes a long way in bringing hope to those who need it.”