Outreach Centers Enable Youth to Learn New Skills

June 8, 2009


Back in the 1990s, Pastor Carlos Artiga called himself “Flash,” after a TV superhero who confronted villains with super-human powers. But Artiga, a member of the notorious 18th Street gang at the time, was no hero.

Today, however, he is helping society as Pastor of the Abba Patter Evangelical Ministry and director of an Outreach Center which serves young people whom he understands all too well – youth-at-risk in San Salvador’s Lourdes barrio. The center called “Por Mi Barrio” or For My Neighborhood, serves 280 youth daily, many of whom come at Artiga’s invitation.

The Lourdes Por Mi Barrio is one of 14 such centers established in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by Creative Associates International, Inc. of Washington, D.C. with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and donors including the Rotary Club and IBIS, among others.

These centers have been established through the Youth Challenge Alliance Program of USAID/Guatemala and the Regional Youth Alliance USAID-SICA programs. The programs are based on a Creative methodology that seeks to help reduce the level of gang activity in Central America by engaging youth in skills-building and vocational training.

“Creative Associates has developed a new philosophy with the Outreach Centers,” said Harold Sibaja, Chief of Party of Creative’s Youth Challenge Alliance program in Guatemala. “The beneficiaries who come to the Centers learn about computers, arts, sports or just to meet other youth, get trained in leadership, conflict management and community service.

“Our intent is to develop a new leadership that promotes a culture of life in contrast to the culture of death and fear that reigns in many of these communities,” Sibaja said. “Next month Guatemala will open 10 new Outreach Centers.  By December 2009, there will be 37 Centers in operation in the three countries. With these additional Centers we expect to serve a population of more than 9,000 youth.”

Salvador Stadthagen, based in El Salvador, director for the Regional Youth Alliance USAID-SICA, said  the Centers are emerging as low-cost sustainable alternatives that rely heavily on community volunteers who engage at-risk youth in productive activities. More than 4,000 young people and 300 volunteers are already part of the Outreach Center effort in the three countries.

Orphaned at age 11 and without family or guidance, Artiga fit the profile of youth who are vulnerable to gang recruitment. He joined 18th Street at age 17 in 1993 in search of security and a surrogate family. But gang life failed to fill the void. Artiga felt alone and betrayed by friends. “I was addicted to crack, and ended up with lots of gunshot wounds,” Artiga said.

Through a chance encounter, he met a stranger who told him about Jesus and redemption. Artiga joined the church and found a way out of gang life and a way to do good for society and himself.

“The role of the church was huge in my ability to reform,” Artiga said. “The church enabled me to take theology classes, helped me find a job, became my family, my community and support.”

Heidi Moran, a coordinator at the Santa Caterina Pinula Por Mi Barrio center in Guatemala, arrived at  the center in May 2007 and says, “I joined the center because I fell in love with the idea that youth have somewhere to go everyday, see the same people and have a routine.

“The youth must understand that coming to the outreach center requires them to change certain aspects of their lives,” Moran said. “Their outlook is often limited to 25 years of age. If they join a gang, their lifespan will be cut short, so we try to have them establish long-term goals.”

—Alexandra Pratt and Linda Adami

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