When my beautiful daughter Kennedy was born 18 year ago, July 8, 1997, I had no idea that I would be with her in prison on her 18th birthday. You will be happy to know that she is not doing any time! On the day of the quinceanera we had the incredible opportunity to visit the teen girls prison here in San Salvador to visit with 8 very special young women. These teens from ages 13-18 have been incarcerated for various crimes that vary from assault, extortion or even murder. As we entered the gates heavily guarded by men with machine guns, my heart was pounding – I was wide-eyed and a bit fearful of meeting what I expected to be some very dark and angry girls.
No jewelry, no phones – just ourselves and our passport identification, we entered the premises and were patted down. Armed men unlocked the heavy iron door and led us down a dreary concrete hallway and up the stairs to a private room that had the curtains drawn. We waited with anticipation as to who was going to walk through that door. We brought with us a detailed inventory of 37 dresses, 27 pairs of shoes, 10 nail files and 20 colors of nail polish. We were there to bless these 8 young women who were chosen by the prison to receive the gift of joining us in the quinceanera that same evening.
The teen prison has 3 different areas: One section is for the girls from the M18 gang. M stands for mara which means “gang.” The second section is for the girls from the M13 gang and the third section was the “uncommitted” girls; those girls that haven’t committed to a gang. These 3 areas are kept very separate because these girls cannot interact due to their hatred for each other. We expected that the 8 girls that we knew were chosen were from 1 of these gangs. As we waited anxiously, the door opened abruptly and in walked 5 very stoic, straight-faced girls; only 5 girls.Where were the other 3? They lined them up in front of us. We learned they were from M18. We awkwardly smiled and looked at each other - nervously saying “Hola….Buenos Dias” with a smile. We waited and waited for our translators and leaders to guide us. Within about 15 minutes, another 3 girls entered. As they entered, the 5th girl on the end of the line stiffened up, her body language was tense. These 3 girls were from M13 and the prison directors had decided to Inter-MIX THE TWO GANGS! We were a bit concerned but smiled and welcomed them.
As the girls were lined up, Kenia, our translator, explained to the girls that because of their good behavior in the prison, they had been chosen to join us at the special quinceanera. They were princesses in God’s eyes. As they heard the news their eyes, they had cautious smiles and a few offered hugs – all but one. I had my eye on her! She refused to break that angry look on her face. She did not seem happy. But that would change.
As we paired up to meet our special girl from M13, I wondered what she had done to be serving time. With my broken Spanish and help from our translator, we perused the room to choose a few dresses for her to try on. The temperment in the room was changing. It was a hub bub of activity and laughter. Our girl from M13 had a beautiful smile and the most precious dimples. She was just like any other teenage girl, longing to be loved and feel beautiful. Her 15th birthday was just the following week and it couldn’t have been better timing to celebrate. We were on strict orders NOT to mention the date of the quinceanera but we would see them that very evening at the Holiday Inn.
When the evening arrived, the prison girls came in with multiple armed guards to keep an eye on them. They had their hair and makeup done by the Young Women of Vision girls and they were gorgeous. They chose earrings, bracelets and a necklace to compliment their dress and were showered with unconditional Christ-like love.
They were escorted in by name on the arm of a handsome chaperone and were “presented” with much applause. Live music and entertainment, a beautiful meal and explanation that THEY were so important - loved by us and loved by the Lord. There was so much laughter amongst them at their table.
Only a few girls prisoners were allowed to dance and boy, did they dance! It was a blast to see them forget about their everyday life for awhile, laugh and let go.
The night flew by and the dance floor was completely packed! It was unforgettable and our Lord in Heaven was smiling. As the girls left in their groups, to board the busses and head back to the various orphanages, the prison girls were brought out last – escorted by multiple armed guards with machine guns. We lined them up and cheered as they came out of the ballroom. The smiles and hugs were endless. We handed them each a makeup/toiletry bag as a gift and we hated to see them go. We were all a bit nervous about the armed guards with their black masks the tears flowed as they were hand-cuffed and were put back in their van to go back behind bars; a harsh reality. They called from the windows of the van to come touch their hands once again and they blew kisses to us as they pulled out quickly, followed by a truck filled with masked policemen. The power of touch, unconditional love, a beautiful celebration and the message of Christ transformed us all on my daughter’s 18th birthday!