At-Risk Youth Lead Positive Change

November 28, 2012

4-224x300 Seven years in jail. Seven years of stolen potential. Seven years to become a hardened criminal. Seven years that Juan José can now contribute positively to society.

In Santa Ana, El Salvador, 17-year old Juan José shares that had a juvenile court found him guilty of drug trafficking, he would have faced a confinement period of at least seven years. Authorities arrested him carrying a briefcase filled with eight pounds of marijuana from one location to another for payment. Today though, rather than telling his story from behind bars, Juan José has re-integrated into the community. He volunteers at an Alianza Joven outreach center in the rural area Planes of El Ranchador run through the USAID-funded Central America Regional Youth Alliance, a partnership between the United States and the Central American Integration System (SICA).

Targeting at-risk youth, the program is known as Alianza Joven Regional USAID-SICA and was conceived as an affordable, transferable, and sustainable solution to prevent gang violence in the region’s most vulnerable communities. To achieve this objective, the program establishes community-based, public-private alliances, which recognize and engage all community members as stakeholders in the initiative.

“The centers are trying to reduce the risk factors that motivate young people to engage in violence. This risk goes in tandem with lack of identity and with guys who wander aimlessly, not knowing what they want,” says Program Director, Harold Sibaja. Through various workshops and games, communities that have established an outreach center have experienced a reduction in rates of homicide, theft, robbery, and rape, among other crimes.

At the Alianza Joven center in Planes of El Ranchador, Juan José credits the program for changing his perspective and goals for the future: “I’ve changed a lot, before no one stopped me, I would go to the streets. [At the center] I found how not to get bored,” said the minor, who is now learning computer science, English, and music and participating in various activities that throughout the center and greater community.

Values such as companionship and unity have resurfaced among youth of this rural area, historically regarded by authorities as one of the most dangerous of Santa Ana due to the high presence of gangs. Juan José and his 200+ peers are the face of this change.

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