by Monica Planas, Regional Communications Manager, ChildFund Americas
During a recent visit to Bolivia, I met an amazing group of ChildFund youth group leaders from the Obispo Anaya Educational Unit in Cochabamba.
From the moment we met, it was impossible not to sense their positive vibe and energizing personalities.
Like many other developing countries, Bolivia is demographically young, with more than 44 percent of the population (4.1million) under age 17. One of ChildFund’s top priorities in Bolivia is helping this young population organize in a constructive way and explore the issues that affect them each day. Issues like violence, addiction, discrimination and a polluted environment are top concerns.
Through leadership clubs like the one in Cochabamba, youth are discovering peer-support networks and developing leadership skills to help themselves and their communities.
I wanted to hear how the youth group began and why it caught on with these young men and women. “At first,” explains Juan Elvis, 15, “I was a bit curious. On different occasions I saw the group having so much fun I decided to try it out. In my community, youth spend their time on the streets chatting or spending money playing video games — nothing productive. This free time sometimes leads to bad habits like alcoholism and gangs.”
So I asked him what he has learned since joining the group.
“Since the beginning,” Juan Elvis tells me, “we’ve been taught that leaders need to be physically, mentally and spiritually prepared. This is why we live following and practicing a group of principles that help reflect the ways of leaders. Individually, we have our favorites or feel identified with some of them more than others. For example, my favorite is ‘If we were seeds and landed on rocks instead of fertile soil, we will bloom.’ This means we should never quit, never give up or feel defeated, no matter what happens. We are convinced that no matter the circumstances, our preparation will allow us to overcome any difficulty we might encounter.”
How about you? I ask Daysi, who is also 15. “My favorite” she says, “is [that] we’re all different, but at the same time, exactly the same. In my experience here, that specific principle has allowed us all to work toward common goals.”
She explains that the youth coordinate the Communications Corners for younger children, with supervision from ChildFund’s sponsorship coordinator. The youth hold weekly meetings to plan activities they will implement with children, including creativity workshops to teach younger children how to write more colorful and detailed letters to their sponsors.
“We organize and lead lots of things around here, so you might think it’s difficult to come to an agreement,” Daysi continues. “Well, it isn’t. We’re all entitled to our opinions and ideas. We share and discuss, and following this principle has allowed us to reach important decisions and accomplish great things.”
“Very true” agrees Juan Javier, 15, “We’ve accomplished a lot and seen great changes. When I arrived at the center I was shy and quiet, I didn’t know much. After the trainings I’ve received I’m now much more secure and a great spokesperson. This has also allowed me to do better in school,” he says.
He adds that his relationships with his parents and teachers have also improved. “At first our opinions were not valid. Now adults see us in a different way, as allies in important decision making. We’re seen as important supporters,” he explains.
At the ChildFund office, Juan Javier likes to help out in the Communications Corners. “I support younger children when they write to their sponsors. I share with them techniques on how to be more creative and original with their letters.”
In addition, he and other youth leaders have embraced more challenging roles. “Only last year we were presenting to an important group of executives who wanted us to form part of a social responsibility project,” Juan Javier says.
The youth presented a sustainable gardening project at the company’s booth at the international fair, presenting visitors with an explanation of the project and its contribution to the environment.
After talking with these exuberant youth, I’m extremely excited by their level of motivation and leadership skills. They already show so much potential and promise to do great things.