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Growing Out of Gangs

By Lisa Beyl

2009 was a difficult year for Honduras but a great year for Nelson. In the midst of Honduras' political uncertainty, curfews, large-scale protests and economic depression, 17-year-old Nelson turned his life around with the help of a CRS-funded project that provides at-risk youth with training and hope.

Nelson receiving his diploma

Nelson, 17, receives his diploma from Luis Escoto, the director of Caritas Comayagua. The project helps youth at risk of joining gangs develop life skills, offering them an alternative to violence. Photo by Lisa Beyl/CRS

A tall young man with a firm handshake and an unmistakable light in his eyes, Nelson had given up on himself the year before. He spent most of his time on the rough streets of his gang- and drug-filled neighborhood. "I saw no future for myself. I thought that I would die on the streets," he says, "I didn't expect anything of life. I considered myself to be 'of the streets.' "

But all of that changed when a cousin encouraged him to enroll in the Youth Builds project, which is supported by Catholic Relief Services. This intensive program combines training in technical skills, community service, an internship, self-esteem workshops, and basic education in reading and math to help youth at risk find consistent employment or start their own businesses.

Honduran Youths Build Their Futures

Modeled after a similar program of the same name pioneered in the United States, this program addresses the growing problem of youth violence and gang presence in Central America. According to a recent report by the United Nations Development Program, homicide rates in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are triple that of the worldwide average.

Poverty, low educational levels, disintegrating families and limited job opportunities for teens create conditions for growing gang and drug presence in many urban Honduran neighborhoods. Steady employment is difficult to find, yet many teens leave school out of economic necessity. The Jóvenes Constructores or Youth Builds program provides these young people with the opportunity to contribute to their communities in a meaningful way.

Nelson's easy smile betrays no hint that he grew up poor in a rough neighborhood of Comayagua. Raised by a single mother with a second-grade education who brought home barely enough to feed her nine children, he dropped out of school to support his family. However, most days there was no work for an unskilled laborer. In frustration, he turned to the street.

Dramatic Changes

Although he initially didn't believe that he could leave the street behind, with the help of dedicated teachers and the warm and nurturing Caritas staff who marveled at the dramatic change in his attitude and behavior, he excelled and graduated at the top of his class. Bright and hard-working, Nelson was selected to receive a small loan and additional training to start his own business producing and laying cobblestone. The revitalization of Comayagua's downtown has created a high demand for Nelson's skills. Even before his graduation, he already had work as a contractor.

Dressed in a formal button-down shirt and black dress pants on his graduation day, he beams as he outlines his future plans.

"Thanks to CRS, I know that I have talent, that I am smart and that I can do something with my life. Now, when I think of my future, I am happy. Before, I thought that life wasn't worth living," he says. "But now I know what I want. I have dreams. I want to grow my business so that I can help my mother and return to school to become an architect. I never imagined my future the way I see it now. I am happy and grateful."

'Now I Have a Future'

Tailored for teens like Nelson, the project teaches conflict resolution and personal transformation.

"The project saved me," he says. "Before, I carried my gun with me everywhere and was angry. But now I have changed. Now I avoid conflict. Now I have a future and I don't want to lose what I have achieved."

As we return to the capital after the graduation, I reflect upon Nelson's talent and kind spirit and I feel overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to be part of this project. It was through the mentorship and love of CRS partner Caritas Comayagua that Nelson was able to unlock his enormous potential and focus his abundant energy on making positive contributions to his family and to his community. Those days on the street seem far away for the eager and ambitious teen who radiates confidence.

Lisa Beyl is an international development program fellow stationed in Tegucigalpa.

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