PANAMA: Witnessing Youth Discover the Power of 5 – A Personal Perspective

By Michael McCabe, Chief of Party, Alcance Positivo Panama

February 20, 2013

Community partnerships play a significant role in youth engagement.

Rubén, 17, embodies for me the heart of USAID’s Alcance Positivo Youth Program in Panama, implemented by Creative. Rubén lives in the Nuevo Veranillo barrio, one of the most violent in Panama. After dropping out of school, he became one of the 126,000 youth known as a “ni-ni” (Spanish for “neither-nor”– youth neither in school nor working) in Panama. Rapidly growing gangs specifically target these at-risk youth for recruitment. However, the gangs’ success hinges on whether the youth have access to an alternative path. In Rubén’s case, he and 400 of his peers had access to one of 22 youth outreach centers funded by Alcance Positivo in Panama.

Suddenly, Rubén found himself with resources and opportunities that helped address risk factors and gave him access to 5 key protective factors we call the “Power of 5” (a caring mentor; a safe space with out of school time activities; educational support to help secure a job; information to make healthier decisions; and the opportunity to be an agent of change in one’s own community). I have seen firsthand how Rubén and 7,000 other youth have identified these assets in their lives and gained a sense of self-esteem and empowerment. In Rubén’s case, he went from being a beneficiary of the center’s classes and training to leading the new Jugando por la Paz (Playing for Peace) soccer for development program that Alcance started with the Fundación Morgan and San Francisco Fútbol Club, a leading professional team. When you witness a young person’s journey to discover his or her sense of self-worth and opportunity, you realize the long-term power and potential of positive youth development programs to transform communities.

I and many outreach center coordinators have “lost hair and sleep” in the difficult process to develop new programs in communities riddled with crime, apathy, and insecurity. However, when we experience the excitement and energy from the success of our efforts to mobilize leaders from the community, municipality, youth, and the private sector to work towards a common goal, we see the program take on a life of its own. This feeling is unique, motivating, and contagious.

As the 3-year Alcance Positivo program transitions into the close out phase, the network of outreach centers have developed private sector partnerships, municipal subsidies, and business plans to ensure financial sustainability, technical support from our key partner United Way of Panama, and ongoing volunteer recruitment through a web-based platform, (“Get Involved”). Our long-term goal is simple: for every youth to gain new opportunities and view him or herself as a resource for the greater community. The “Power of 5” has served as an invaluable tool in our efforts to accomplish this goal. Through Rubén and his peers, I have experienced how the “Power of 5” motivates and empowers youth to take an active role in creating a future they want.

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