A 27-year-old man stood in front of Southwestern Assemblies of God University's front lawn slate stone steps Thursday, preparing 30 children for his club's first 5K.
He tugged at a blue and silver South City Athletic Club ball cap, shading his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. Many of the parents that surrounded him in a semicircle knew who David Flores was.
Fewer knew the difficult road he had to take — or the decade of waiting he had to endure — to stand in front of them.
"Work hard. Run hard. Don't quit," he told the group of 5- to 15-year-old runners that had worked to hone their endurance enough to complete the 3-mile university course.
His words were simple but poignant. It was as if he said them to himself countless times before.
There are many that enter the United States undocumented. Few immediately find the land of prosperity they heard about in tales told by mothers, fathers and grandparents in less advantageous South and Central American countries like Cuba, Guatemala and Venezuela.
A contingent, to find those golden-paved streets, may have to escape dangerous cities, the fear of deportation or a combination of both. Some may jump through the hoops of the American legal system
Others run the gamut of them all.
So it was with Flores, a former El Salvadoran undocumented person, SAGU soccer player and coach, South City Athletic Club founder and current Dunaway Elementary School educator.
He immigrated from San Miguel, El Salvador in 2003, around the time the country was at a historical worst regarding homicide, gang crime and kidnapping. According to the U.S Department of State Bureau of Diplomacy Security (OSAC), El Salvador had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world — 36 per 100,000.
New York City, which had murder and crime rates that exceeded the national average, was 7 per 100,000 by comparison.
Flores said gangs preyed on children in the area, converting them from youth and teenage soccer players to pieces of the El Salvadoran crime system.
In 2003, gangs and professional criminal syndicates like the Mara Salvatrucha, otherwise known as MS-13, controlled the barrios with an iron fist. Skyrocketing murder rates were a critical concern in the eyes of both the U.S. and select pockets of the country's National Civil Police that weren't corrupted by the promise of illegal gains.
Flores didn't only seek an escape from the madness. He needed a way to turn the American dream into education that could be used to help repair his native home.
Navigating the American school system as an English as a Second Language student, too, carried a unique set of challenges.
"At the beginning, I was excited. I was coming to the America everybody talks about. Everybody wants to be here. But after I came to school — about three months — I guess the honeymoon was over for me," he said. "Everybody was nice to me and the teachers were helping me but after that it was hard," Flores said about coming to the U.S. at 13 years old. "Being the only El Salvadorian in the community of ESL students, I started being bullied. In the summer after my eighth-grade year, I was throwing up every morning and nervous to go to school."
He said high school, specifically his four years at R.L. Turner High School and the influx of El Salvadoran students enrolled, saved him. So did soccer which gave him a reason to bypass the fear and take school seriously, even though the general consensus from his friends was that education provided no future.
"My friends didn't see a future in education," Flores said. "They would get discouraged and ask, 'What's school for? We're going to graduate and not be able to go to college or get a job. We're always going to work construction. School doesn't matter.'"
That was where the American dream ended for many in his group.
Flores, with high school in his rear view and NCAA DI soccer destinations like Southern Methodist University on the horizon, saw it as a beginning.
SMU didn't offer a scholarship but a small National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics institution in Dayton, Tennessee did. And though Bryan College offered a path to the education he wanted, the threat of deportation and legal incursion closed it.
"I was recruited in front of my friends, which was a big deal for me. I came to find out from my attorneys an illegal alien can't go to Tennesse," he said. "I'd have to go to El Salvador and get a student visa. They told me that was the only way I could do it. They told me I had to hide under a rock until something happens and I can go to college. Otherwise, I was going to get deported."
While Bryan College didn't pan out for Flores, West Texas A&M, because of relaxed Lone Star State laws, allowed him to spend his freshman year as a Buffalo. He eventually landed on SAGU's doorstep and in its admissions office — not far from the stone steps that marked the beginning of South City's inaugural run.
South City Chairman Donny Lutrick said his journey, struggles and almost "God-fit" appearance on SAGU's campus almost mirrored the reason why the athletic club was created.
"It's about ministry through the hard times, not just the good ones," he continued. ".It wasn't easy for David to find his purpose and path. It took perseverance, determination and a strong foundation in God. It's spiritual strength. It's the same endurance you'd need to run a 5K or play a full soccer game."
Chris Baca, a first-year volunteer coach, said the program boomed from 7-10 children at the beginning of the summer training sessions to upwards of 20 near the end. Megan Ferguson, another volunteer coach, said the growth of the club is a blessing given where, how and why South City started.
Each connected that blessing to the man with the silver and blue cap and the Cheshire-like grin, as well as the philosophies he brought with him from San Miguel.
They were beliefs that helped spark the club's existence. The need to affect El Salvador positively, too, grew the fire. Flores said it took finding SAGU to light the match and added it was the best thing that could have happened to him.
"A month after getting my Green Card, my wife and I were off to El Salvador. It was the first time I had been back home in 10 years. That year, that mission trip was the year that started everything," Flores said.
He didn't obtain his legal residency until 2013, but he managed to graduate high school and college, as well as build a soccer club with his wife Kaylyn, Lutrick and Devin Ferguson during the 10 years in between. The newfound education and the newly-minted platform also allowed Flores to bring soccer to the barrios he escaped 10 years before.
"We started the 'Every Kid Deserves A Ball' project. We collected a bunch of soccer balls, soccer cones and equipment and money and donated them to kids in San Miguel. A year later we did it in San Miguel and Sonsonate," Flores continued. "We reached hundreds of kids and left soccer balls, cleats and equipment there."
Because of gang control in the areas in most need, their fundraisers and mission trips were short-term solution to a long-term problem. He said it was common for the children to return to gangs or crime to survive when they were gone.
And with that, the South City Athletic Club was created out of a decade of trials and tribulations and peaks and valleys and for hundreds of children outside American shores. Each year, the club donates portions of its monthly dues — between $65 and $100 — directly to El Salvadoran teams to buy uniforms and equipment and pay coaches and referees.
Those donations range from $4,000 to $5,000 annually, Flores said.
From El Salvador to Waxahachie and back to San Miguel, the basis of South City has been deeply rooted in bringing ministry to boys and girls, both on and off the field.
"I was a believer, but my life on the field and off of it was split. I could live a good testimony off the field but on it, I took no prisoners and won at all costs," Flores continued. "It started as a vision that Donny and I always had once we got the nonprofit established. We wanted to reach more of the community through sports — not only soccer. The journey and club taught me to truly believe After so many changes, I learned to use my passion on the field to teach people about Jesus."
---- Marcus S. Marion is the sports editor of the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror. He can be reached by phone at (469) 517-1456 or across social media platforms @MarcusSMarion.