The schoolyard rings with the laughter of children as volunteers pin a sign on the wall – “Don’t Trade your Backpack for a Baby,” it reads, the motto of a campaign against teen pregnancy.
Other volunteers lead the children in silly songs and dances, and from the perspective of the schoolyard it’s hard to tell that this community is one of the poorest, most violent, and most dangerous areas of Tegucigalpa.
Noe wears a laminated “volunteer” badge over his t-shirt and looks out watchfully over the dozens of children writing in notebooks or helping each other finish their crafts.
Only 20 years old, Noe is already a respected community leader. He was voted president of his neighborhood, and in that position he’s been instrumental in connecting his neighbors to electricity and even replacing the roof on the community center.
When his work in construction allows him, he loves to come and work with the same Youth Impact program that helped him not that many years ago. When he was 11, he said, he started attending AJS’s Youth Impact Clubs.
The weekly clubs partner children and teens with Christian mentors, social workers, and psychologists who teach them cooperation, respect, conflict-resolution methods, and self-esteem.
Noe contributes a lot of his accomplishments to what he learned in Impact Clubs. “I’m doing things I never thought I’d achieve, that I would never have dreamed about,” he said with a shy smile. “The clubs help us to be better. They change lives.”
More than 380 children attend Impact Clubs in four of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, and even more attend events and trainings like this one that Impact Clubs hold at local schools. In neighborhoods where the pull of drugs and gangs are strong, the clubs are designed to teach children that they have options — and that there is hope.
“There are a lot of good things and a lot of bad things in this world,” Noe shrugs, “we have to learn to choose.”
Impact Club volunteers silence the school children and launch into a skit that, in an age-appropriate way, shows a girl rebuffing the advances of an untrustworthy man.
“Get out of here!” the volunteer shouts, “You don’t respect me or my body.”
Stefany, the starring volunteer, is 19 and has already been leading a club for a year. It’s hard to believe that the enthusiastic, outgoing young woman used to be “in her own bubble,” as she said, not wanting to talk to anyone.
Stefany started going to an Impact Club when she was 14, and said it was the first time she felt she could step out of her shell: “I would get so excited when people would encourage me, when they said I was doing something well.”
When she was 18, Stefany stepped into a leadership role. It’s been a lot of responsibility, she said, but gratifying.
“These kids here think, ‘I’m poor. Why should I study? I’ll always be here, in this neighborhood.’ It’s so hard to change their minds.” But after a few years of encouragement, she says, “They have dreams. They say “I’m going to be a doctor, a nurse, an engineer.”
BUILDING HOPE – GROWING JUSTICE
AJS’s community work reaches hundreds of youth in communities where young people are most vulnerable to dropping out of school or being recruited by gangs. Many leaders themselves come from these communities, and are strong role models for children who wonder if they have choices for the future.
We dream of a building that will allow us to multiply this life-changing program in communities across Honduras.
Several organizations have expressed interest in adopting our methodology and spreading it through their own communities. AJS partners with some churches and organizations, but this partnership is limited by a lack of space to train others in the lessons AJS has learned.
Space in AJS’s current office is so limited that staff working in the communities gather in the lunch room for their weekly meetings. Volunteer trainings are held in churches or other borrowed spaces. The two small rooms that serve as office space for the fifteen employees are often so filled with craft supplies, school uniforms, or skit props that the doors hardly open.
AJS’s new office will have meeting spaces where AJS can share our work with others, training partners and volunteers to spread the message of hope and a future in the lives of hundreds more children .
Office and storage space will support AJS staff in this work, as they make a difference in the lives of youth like Noe and Stefany.
Far from the shy girl she used to be, Stefany embodies the dreams she inspires in others. “My goal is to graduate and to work with kids,” she says, and passion lights up her eyes. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”