COAR was founded by Father Ken Myers in 1980. Father Ken was a member of the Cleveland Latin American Mission team working in la Libertad during the war years. Ken was primarily living in the parish of Zaragoza which is on the outskirts of San Salvador on the road to the Port of La Libertad, one of El Salvador’s largest ports. As the war ravaged the countryside, women and children refugees streamed into the areas around the capital in search of safety, shelter, and food. Following Romero’s death in 1980, Father Ken realized that there were so many war orphans in the area, he had to build an orphanage to offer shelter, food and protection.
We read in Jean Donovan’s journal that in August, Ken was meeting to establish this orphanage. Only a few montly after writing this entry, Jean and her 3 colleagues (Kazel, Clarke and Ford) would be murdered by the Salvadoran military. However, the murdered women had been working with the same sort of children refugees and orphans that shortly would call COAR home.
Father Ken was a member of CLAM but the Cleveland Mission Team had its own agenda and priorities. COAR was not to be part of the CLAM mission but an independent mission itself. Being the natural entrepreneur, Father Ken returned to Cleveland, his home, to seek funds to build this children’s home in El Salvador. Ken traveled across Ohio speaking at parishes and Catholic schools. Ken was an excellent spokesman for the plight of the children and the Catholic community in Northeast Ohio was very generous. COAR Children’s Village was born out of Ken’s passion and commitment but made reality through the empathy and love of the Catholic community in the US.
However, within just a few years of establishing COAR, Ken wanted to shift his attention to his long time dream of founding a Catholic Seminary in El Salvador. Ken and the entire CLAM team were in El Salvador in response to the Pope’s call for Catholic-rich North America to send priests and religious to Latin America where there was an incredible shortage of priests. Thus, it was logical to Ken that if he and his team were in El Salvador to help support the Catholic Church, this would be the place for him to found a seminary which could eventually populate the country with native, Salvadoran priests. And, thus, having established a 401 (C) 3 to raise money to support the Children’s Village, he needed to find a congregation to live at COAR, manage its daily functions and take over the administration so that he would be free to continue his regular assignments as Parish priest while focusing on his building his seminary.
Just as God guided Ken to Zaragoza to help the poor and refugee children, so too did he bring a wonderful and generous congregation to COAR to carry on that mission and to actually lead COAR to grow into what would one day be a parish school serving over 900 kids, a local Church clinic and one of the most respected childcare facilities in the country.
By 1982, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, located in Houston, Texas, had agreed to send a delegation to Zaragoza to run COAR. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word operated hospitals around the world. Many of the original sisters were Irish and brought with them a typical Irish passion and energy. It would certainly not have been uncommon to hear a Sister lead the kids in song while she strummed her guitar. Their congregation may have felt a special connection to Ken’s mission since their own congregation had lost 10 Sisters and 90 children (orphans) during one of the worst hurricanes to hit Texas – the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Although COAR was the vision of Father Ken, it was only made a reality thanks to the dedication and commitment of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word.
In 1985, Ken established a 501 (c) 3 in Cleveland (COAR Peace Mission) with the purpose of raising money in the US to fund the Salvadoran Children’s Village and for educating the US Catholic Community about the plight of the Salvadoran people and the effects of the US financed Salvadoran Civil War. By 1991, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word had taken over the official management of COAR for the Archdiocese of San Salvador. From 1991 until 2009, the Sisters ran COAR Children’s Village and COAR Peace Mission simply financed the enterprise.
COAR was built upon a coffee plantation owned by a Belgian family. Knowing that the guerillas might confiscate the land, the family sold their property to Father Ken for the Children’s Village and returned to Europe. What began as a simple collection of cement structures to house refugee children, turned into a wonderful complex providing 10 residences (family style living: 1 housemother living with 10 children: 2 bedrooms, 1 kitchen, 1 dining/living room and bathroom facilities); an administration building, a health clinic that would provide a doctor, dentist and laboratory services to not only the COAR kids but also the surrounding community. The greatest commitment to the area was the construction of a Complejo Educativo Catolico or Catholic elementary-high school facility that would not only educate our COAR war orphans but in later years, educate over 900 local community children.
Being a congregation that was primarily focused on health care, the Sisters decided to step aside in 2009 and turn the management of COAR back to the Archdiocese of San Salvador who had always, technically, been the titular responsible party. Under the leadership and dedication of the Sisters of the Encarnate Word, COAR had become a reality. It had sheltered and protected children during the war years (1980s-1992). Throughout the post war years, COAR would continue to grow and reach out to Zaragoza and the surrounding area. The Sisters brought health care services to the community. They built a school and offered scholarships to the poor children of the area – providing them with an education and a chance for a better future. Finally, as the war ended, the Sisters continued to communicate with parishes across the area, offering COAR as the sanctuary for poor and abandoned children. For almost 25 years, priests, relatives and community leaders could literally drop off desperate children at our gates and the Sisters would welcome them into the COAR family: providing shelter, food, education and health care.