Called to Heal

How lifelong connections to El Salvador led to the creation of Nueva Esperanza, an organization built in, by and for a community suffering trauma.

Author: Allie Griffith ’17, ’19M.Ed.

Jenna Knapp’s relationship with El Salvador began when she was 5 — her Indianapolis grade school, St. Pius X, had a sister community there. Later, as a student at Brebeuf Jesuit High School, she participated in immersion trips in El Salvador to learn about U.S. foreign policy abroad, including American involvement in the Salvadoran civil war. During those trips, Knapp ’10, ’16M.A., witnessed the vibrancy and sense of community in El Salvador despite the country’s ongoing trials.

Knapp spent summers in El Salvador as a Notre Dame student, learning about the structural violence that prevented young people from thriving in their own country. As a junior, she spent a semester there through a Santa Clara University program called la Casa de la Solidaridad. She became involved in a youth group led by Mercedes Ramos Jones and her husband, Rick, in Mercedes’ community outside San Salvador, the capital.

The NGO Knapp would eventually found, Nueva Esperanza, exists within that community today, and builds on the work Mercedes and Rick began.

“It was really just amazing to be a part of watching how community organizing at the local level was supporting folks in the community in situations of ongoing violence . . . having these spaces of refuge and for people to work on their personal and interpersonal healing could still happen,” Knapp says. 

Returning to Notre Dame for her senior year, Knapp applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to return to El Salvador after graduation. She ended up staying four years, living in the community that had received her during her study abroad experience.

During those years, Knapp spent most of her time doing trauma healing work with incarcerated youth, and on nights and weekends she helped lead the youth groups she had worked with while in college. Considering a return to Notre Dame to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies, Knapp grappled with how to continue supporting the groups’ organizing efforts in her absence.

For many, those groups were valuable, even essential to survival — opening pathways to belonging outside of gang involvement, which is commonplace in the surrounding neighborhoods. However, since most community members worked in sweatshops or other exploitative jobs demanding most of their time and energy, it was difficult for them to sustain such efforts.

Nueva Esperanza was born to respond to this challenge.

“I had that longing,” Knapp says of her desire to support local organizers. “The value of these spaces was clear.”

Jenna Knapp Featured 1
“I’ve had to question . . . what it means to accompany and partner with and be peer collaborators rather than having the assumption that I know better,” Knapp says of her work in El Salvador.

The program began when founding sponsors, Scott and JoAnn Haner, offered to create a scholarship fund for youth leaders in the community. Knapp saw this as an opportunity for sustained support — not only would the students earn a college degree to pursue a vocation of their choosing; they would also have more time to lead the community groups as a component of the scholarship program.

After the first cohort of students started college in 2013, it became clear that they required additional socio-emotional support to fulfill both their studies and their roles in the community groups. While supporting the healing of peers in the youth group, they were each navigating their own complex, intergenerational trauma as well, given that each of their families was internally displaced during the civil war. Further, as students from underrepresented communities in higher education, some had gaps in their formal education and experienced imposter syndrome. The scholarship program alone was not enough to address the underlying challenges.

With these barriers, Knapp had a decision to make — should the program continue?

In 2020, Knapp, who had returned to El Salvador after her master’s program, had a conversation with Magda Quintanilla, her friend from the community who was a gifted youth organizer. Quintanilla was frustrated by the structural barriers in her job with an international NGO that left her unable to do the meaningful community-rooted work she longed to do. Knapp wanted Quintanilla to coordinate Nueva Esperanza’s efforts full-time, since she was best equipped to expand its focus toward community-wide trauma healing.

Knapp decided to ask a group of her fellow Notre Dame alumni friends (Laura Camarata, Bridget Mullins, Betsy Grace, Erin Jelm, Kelsey Whiting Jones, and Annie DeMott) if they would form a circle of support to fund a “rebirth” of the program under Quintanilla’s leadership. They agreed, and together formed the Sisterhood Support Network.

“We wanted to figure out a way we could support the group, but also not get in the way of the work,” Knapp says, “and make sure it was based in relationships and sourced from the wisdom of the community itself.”

Knapp, Quintanilla and co-coordinator Xenia Velis restructured the program to center the work of healing intergenerational trauma. Eight new women scholars — now called “community healers” — receive healing, leadership and conflict-resolution training, skills often ignored in their college courses. The goal is for the healers to apply these skills as youth group and women’s group leaders, throughout the course of their six-year college degrees, thus building practical and theoretical skill sets side by side. The team also raised money to purchase a home, Casa Mercedes, which serves as a community oasis and hub for formation and group activities.

“For me, it feels exciting because it’s relational on all levels,” Knapp says.

The U.S.-based Sisterhood Support Network members, as well as Knapp, receive no compensation. All program funds are used directly for expenses at the community level, like group and individual therapeutic support, university fees, leadership capacity-building instruction, and group excursions, as well as paying Quintanilla and Velis, which allows them to dedicate themselves to this work.

For Knapp, Nueva Esperanza also feels different.

“[In other NGOs] the people who are doing the project are the same people who are hustling to raise the funds, and often bending over backwards to meet external agendas that might not match actual community needs,” Knapp says. “Our leaders aren’t caught up in that and can spend their time doing the community work they find most important, and investing time and energy in their own healing.”

In March 2022, the president of El Salvador ordered a “State of Exception,” which has resulted in the incarceration of over 64,000 people and droves of unreported, systematic murders. In prisons, many are dying of dehydration, kidney failure, malnutrition and murder — and human rights workers are not permitted inside. Among the newly incarcerated are anti-mining activists and community organizers whose work conflicts with the goals of the current government.

In February 2023, the government opened the largest prison in all of the Americas, though the country is no larger than the state of Massachusetts. Two out of every 100 El Salvadoran adults are now incarcerated. This time of acute despair and fear has caused, as Knapp puts it, “a dysregulation of the collective nervous system, in communities targeted by police repression,” which has made the need for trauma healing even more urgent. While gang-related violence has declined, thousands of families are dealing with the impact of unfounded arrests and the agonizing uncertainty of whether their loved ones will ever be released, or if they will die in detention awaiting trial. Further, those who have been working in violence prevention, trauma healing, peacebuilding and human rights now face the added stress of possible incarceration, in addition to secondary trauma that is a hazard of their work.

Since October, Knapp and her partners have organized a sister project to Nueva Esperanza with a national focus. It pairs 34 therapists from Spain and the Americas with 47 peacebuilders and community leaders in El Salvador, who receive four months of weekly therapy and training. The goal is to set up long-term, mutual support groups. While Nueva Esperanza remains a local initiative, Knapp hopes that expanding access to the tools of trauma healing can have a ripple effect throughout the country.

“There’s a lot of hopelessness,” Knapp says. “Nueva Esperanza is a tiny entity that is trying things out that we hope to expand to other people in the country . . . to help them figure out how to keep functioning when they feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them.”

Knapp considers Nueva Esperanza a “living organization” that responds to feedback, inviting others into the process and honoring the agency of those in the community. In its beginnings, Knapp felt pressure to do everything herself. Now, the organization has reached a point where she can step back and allow it to exist without her direct involvement, other than fundraising and providing training when needed.

“I’m still in the process of unlearning many things — especially around issues of race, class and privilege,” Knapp says. “I’ve had to question my own identity and what it means to accompany and partner with and be peer collaborators rather than having the assumption that I know better.”

Allie Griffith is the alumni editor of this magazine.