Natural disasters kill people every year in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean nation that borders Haiti. But it wasn't a hurricane or an earthquake that put Yen Carlos Reyes Reyes at risk. At age 17, he was a street tough, a fighter headed for jail—or worse, he says. Then he found a program that is turning kids like him into the frontline of defense against deadly natural disasters. And in dedicating himself to the program, he may have saved his own life.
Yen Carlos, now 19, didn't have much interest in learning first aid and didn't know anything about evacuation plans. At first, it was just the trip to a hotel for orientation, and the outings kids in the program took, that caught his eye.
"It looked like fun, something to do," Yen Carlos says. "I had some friends doing it, and I joined mostly because of them."
Funded by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, the Catholic Relief Services-led program forms voluntary youth clubs known as Youth Emergency Action Committees. It puts young people to work preparing their communities for emergencies. Participants learn the basics: how to plan for and respond to earthquakes and hurricanes, administer first aid, map out an evacuation route, set up emergency shelters and work as a team.
Then, teams go into the community to determine the most vulnerable areas. They develop a plan of action to build resilience that includes replacing leaky roofs, cleaning clogged drains and gullies, and helping neighborhoods properly dispose of trash to keep drains from clogging during storms. They write skits, songs and dances, which they perform in schools and churches, to teach their neighbors about disaster preparation.
Along the way, they are becoming community-minded leaders with skills that can help them engage in other community development projects. And, as young people from neighboring areas start to work together, the barriers created by a culture of distrust are beginning to crumble.
When he first joined the program, Yen Carlos couldn't speak in front of the others without breaking into a sweat. He secretly wanted to beat them up.
Yen Carlos comes from a hardscrabble life. His father was a drug dealer in Los Minas, one of the toughest and poorest neighborhoods in the country. Rival gang members routinely raided the family home, sending family members out a back window to find cover from stray bullets. After his mother left him behind to start over in France, Yen Carlos bounced around from one relative's house to another. By the time he landed in Puerto Plata, a beachside town and popular tourist destination, he wasn't afraid to fight. And he did. Plenty.
But all of that changed when he joined one of the committees.
"Little by little, I started to see that I had value and that the other kids weren't judging me," he says. "And the work we did within the communities made me feel like I had something to offer, and I started to see that my neighbors were looking at me differently too."
'We're a Family'
All told, the 28 kids in Yen Carlos' committee, which they named "El Escuadrón," or "the squadron," built new homes for two neighboring families whose houses were too far gone to withstand a hurricane. They rehabilitated eight other houses and built latrines for two families. And they made the rounds of the community to clean drains and gullies.
The work brought them together. It made them feel useful. And it changed the way they're seen by adults in their neighborhoods.
"We're a family, and we have the same goal," says Yen Carlos. "Now, when people see us coming, they know we are here to help."
When heavy rains hit Puerto Plata as Hurricane Sandy made its way to the United States in 2012, El Escuadrón was ready. After a nearby river overflowed, the group went house to house to check the damage. They ultimately relocated 80 families to a three-story orphanage their committee had designated as an emergency shelter, and they scraped together clothes and mattresses for those families.
These days, Yen Carlos has a whole set of new goals, including going back to school. The last time he set foot in a classroom, he was expelled for hitting his teacher. But that—and knowing that he'll have to start over in the eighth grade—doesn't faze him.
He's already passed two tough tests: He's not dead and he's not in jail.
Robyn Fieser is the CRS regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. She is based in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.