What do you do when you lose the person who inspired your dreams, just as you were reaching for the next step in that dream? What do you do when you doubt if your gifts and talents are valid? How do you stay inspired in the midst of a global pandemic?

All this and more are things that 10-year-old Suleyma in El Salvador has had to grapple with and overcome in the past several months.

One year into the pandemic, Suleyma was experiencing what many kids around the world were experiencing: schools were still closed, restrictions were still in place and the only people she was able to interact with in-person were her immediate family members.

Suleyma (in the back) is wearing jeans with a colorfully patterned shirt. She is outside her home with her family. In front of them are hula hoops.

Suleyma with her mom and siblings.

Compassion El Salvador wanted to find ways to meet children and families in the midst of these realities in order to help them stay physically active and learning at home. They wanted to bring laughter and joy into the homes of Compassion children across the country and help families cope with the immense stress of these challenging times.

One initiative they launched was the “Compassion Winners” contest: a virtual talent show for kids across the country to discover their hidden talents.

In the rural community of Armeina, Suleyma heard about the talent show and immediately reached for the hula hoop that her grandfather had made for her.

“My grandfather was the first person that made me a hula hoop and I started playing non-stop with them. When he found out I had registered in a talent contest, he encouraged me to be persistent,” said Suleyma.

Suleyma is wearing jeans with a colorfully patterned shirt. She is standing outside her home and is playing with her hula hoops.

Suleyma’s family couldn’t afford to buy more hula hoops for her to practice, so her mother, Amparo, sent Suleyma’s older brother to find plastic tubes to make more. But as Suleyma practiced, she began to doubt if spinning a hoop could even be considered a talent. That’s when Elsy, her tutor at her Compassion centre, called. Elsy encouraged Suleyma to show her talent in the contest, and the centre even bought Suleyma new hula hoops to use in her contest video application.

“Elsy always motivated me to work hard for what I like to do,” says Suleyma.

With the support and encouragement of her family and Elsy, Suleyma submitted her application video. Then began the wait to see if she would be selected as one of the 10 finalists who would perform their talent at the Compassion El Salvador national office, with the talent show being livestreamed online.

WATCH: Suleyma practices with her hula hoops at her home in El Salvador.

Sadly, in the midst of the waiting, news came that Suleyma’s grandfather had passed away. Suleyma had lost one of her first and biggest cheerleaders. Through her sadness and grief, practicing the talent that her grandfather had first inspired with his gift of a homemade hula hoop brought Suleyma comfort.

“I felt sad to lose my grandfather. Being able to practice with the hoops helped me to forget the sadness because hoops make me feel happy,” Suleyma says.

Her family continued to cheer her on. Amparo encouraged her as she learned new tricks. Her seven siblings practiced with her. Then came the exciting news: Suleyma had been selected as one of the 10 finalists!

Suleyma is wearing jeans with a colorfully patterned shirt. She is standing in front of her home and is holding three hula hoops above her head. Her home is blue and the door is made of corrugated metal.

Suleyma practiced and prepared for the finals. Days before, she managed to get up to 12 hula hoops twirling around her waist at once!

On the day of the finals, Suleyma showed up and performed her best. At the end of the live broadcast, she and her family received the thrilling news that she had won the contest!

Suleyma is wearing her spinning uniform, a pink and white outfit, and a face mask. She is standing in a Compassion office preparing to give a performance. She has her hands on her hips and behind her there are stars on the wall and a sign that says Compassion Winners.

“This experience from the beginning has only brought joy to my family,” says Amparo. “Suleyma makes us believe that anything is possible. Now she has more confidence and challenges herself more. She always believes that she can do anything.”

Amparo reflects on how the contest brought the family together during a very challenging time. “This contest is wonderful because it opened a space for us to be close to our children and encourage their talents and skills.”

Suleyma is wearing jeans with a colorfully patterned shirt. She is standing outside her home with her mother, wearing a navy and white shirt. They are both holding up hula hoops.

Amparo and Suleyma at their home in rural El Salvador.

Suleyma’s win also included a cash prize. In such challenging times, she chose to bless her family with necessities like clothes and groceries. But she was also able to set aside some money to buy something for herself: her very own bed.

“Now I can move around when I sleep without disturbing my little sister,” she says. “I don’t need to share a bed anymore.”

Looking to the future, things are bright for this talented 10-year-old. Her Compassion centre has granted her a scholarship to give her the opportunity to learn rhythmic gymnastics. Most importantly, the resilience, determination and dedication she is building in herself through initiatives like this talent show will carry her forward into the future with newfound confidence and tenacity.

Suleyma is wearing her spinning uniform, a pink and white outfit, and a face mask. She is standing in front of a Compassion office where she is gettign ready to perform. She is holidng a hulu hoop over her head.

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Photos and field reporting by Alejandra Zuniga.

Written by: Alyssa Esparaz

Alyssa works in the role of Content and Communications Specialist at Compassion Canada, telling stories that inspire and equip the Church to live compassionate lifestyles. She is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, where she studied International Development.