Growing up, I never really realized the impact that mentoring makes in the lives of kids. It wasn’t until I came to Guatemala that first time that I saw how important positive role models are. The country is filled with a great beauty but also great need. Currently less than 50% of the population is above the age of 18 and violence is common.

The Red Zones

Starting in 1976, Guatemala City began growing at a nearly incontrollable rate. As a result of this growth, a 36 year civil war, lack of social programs and a series of natural disasters, those in poverty remained in poverty and the ‘red zone’ started to develop.

These zones are defined by areas of high levels of poverty, crime and violence. You can see the stark changes when you cross into the area by the condition of the buildings. Concrete walls, corrugated iron and tin roofs personify the red zones. The gangs have moved into many of these areas, controlling the neighborhoods through extortion and violence.

photo courtesy of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission

Little is done to maintain order or resolve the issues in the red zones. The class system is a way of life in Guatemala City.  If someone lists a red zone address on a job application, it is likely to be thrown out. As a result, classes in Guatemala pretty much stay where they are.

Why Mentoring?

Many children are left fatherless as a result of the civil war, lack of jobs and violence. As a result, the gangs begin making false promises to young kids, promising them a sense of belonging, purpose and protection. Promises they can’t fulfill. But, these kids, looking for some type of direction and escape from their realities, join the gangs and the cycles continue.

For the youth of these zones, even with achieving education, it is extremely difficult to break out of the cycle of poverty or even to secure a decent job. Kids are unable to see an end to their suffering. There is a lack of hope.

photo courtesy of The Daily Mail

Mentoring is crucial in these areas. Children missing parents need someone to look up to. Gangs are all too happy to fill this space. But, with a positive influence, change occurs. The gangs and their strangle-hold the on the communities become lessened one by one. Children are able to see that people from their communities can be successful and create a better life. Kids are encouraged to stay in school and make positive life choices.

I moved to Guatemala a year and a half ago to be a part of the movement and to make an impact through mentoring to a generation of youth that need someone to look up to so badly. Young Guatemalans, not much older than 18 themselves, are now stepping up and reclaiming their communities. In some of the most dangerous and volatile neighborhoods, mentor groups are slowly starting to form and grow; making a lasting footprint on their communities.

Celebrating La Estrella 

The group of mentors from a community in Ciudad Quetzal are one of those groups that is taking it upon themselves to take back their neighborhood. In perhaps one of the most dangerous communities in the area, these mentors are defying the odds. The bus route from Guatemala City to Ciudad Quetzal is one of the most dangerous. People hear gun shots every night. Most mornings, the neighbors wake up to a crime scene.

Three years ago, a small band of early twenty-somethings came together to begin working with the kids in their community. Taking the kids’ love of soccer, they began coaching them in soccer while implementing life lessons. The mentors have tripled in size over the past three years. The sphere of impact is continuing to increase with more and more kids joining the program.

This month, the group is celebrating their 3rd anniversary of working with the youth of La Estrella and the surrounding communities.

As if the need for change in the community of La Estrella wasn’t obvious enough already, a grim reminder came the morning of the celebration. The gangs killed a bus driver early that morning and none of the buses were running their routes.

The celebration planned was for the mentors but the mentors chose to celebrate their community and kids instead. The leaders planned a day filled with games, awards and food to celebrate. The day started with ice breakers with all the kids and their parents. Then the families broke into teams to start the competition, an obstacle course. Parents and kids inched along in a plastic circle, passed water from cups on their heads and sack raced to victory. Later that afternoon, the mentors provided food for everyone present.

The highlight of the day was the joy present on everyone’s faces. In La Estrella, mentors are making a significant impact for change. Before there was little hope for the violence and poverty in the community. Now, the gangs strangle hold on the community is lessoning and kids are staying in school. Soon, more and more opportunities will arise for the community.