COLÓN, El Salvador — In a region of El Salvador where gangs can determine which street someone can cross and which they cannot, it can be difficult for youth to get on a viable path to a successful future. The prevalence of violence and gang activity can prevent kids from going to school or from getting a job that supports them and their family.
“It’s worth it, the investment and ... the effort so that the young people have a different future.”— Teresa de Jesús Avelar Jiménez, director, Colón FORMATE center
As part of a project to combat violence through a municipal center, the U.S. Agency for International Development has funded “FORMATE,” a program that works with municipalities in El Salvador to provide vocational training to young people to help them secure jobs. The short-course classes started in 2017 and focus on practical skills such as repairing motorcycles and electronics, and hospitality training in customer service.
In the customer service class, students learn how to appropriately greet customers, seat them, take their order, attend to them during the meal, and deal with potentially difficult diners.
“The objective is to create a formation center for all the young people, to support them in professional and vocational formation so they can start their own business or get formal employment,” said Teresa de Jesús Avelar Jiménez, director of the FORMATE center in Colón.
Even if young people have the necessary skills for a job, they face a number of obstacles to finding work in El Salvador. Some businesses are hesitant to hire youth because of the prevalent stereotype that all youth belong to gangs.
FORMATE tries to bridge this gap by providing connections to local businesses that need workers with the skills the young people are obtaining in their courses. Businesses come to interview students at the facility when they are hiring.
Young people also generally must find a job in their own neighborhood, because crossing gang territory lines to go to work in another area can be extremely dangerous. The center in Colón serves those living in gang territory, but there have been no problems with the gangs in allowing people to attend classes, Avelar said.
“It’s an achievement,” Avelar said of the 78 youth who have been placed in jobs after completing a short course. “It’s worth it, the investment and everything they’re doing, the effort so that the young people have a different future.”
Everything is free for students and the municipality provides support to continue the programming once USAID funding ends.
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Guillermo Guevara Huezo has been mayor of Colón for 30 years, and he said one of his major areas of focus has been improving the condition of young people in the area. He said technical education is important because it helps prepare people for practical jobs that exist in the community, or develop skills they can use to start their own businesses. Twenty-six students have done so after taking a course.
“With technical careers this is the best opportunity to have, and this is what we want,” Guevara said. “It’s given them better opportunities for the future.”
Guevara said the community has struggled since the country’s civil war ended in 1992 because the Salvadoran government and other institutions were so weak. Youth were particularly left behind, so FORMATE has been important to improving life in the community.
USAID programming in the area also targets youth before they are old enough to need employment. The agency funds a community outreach center in Colón that provides children a place to go before and after school to avoid them spending time the streets and getting enticed by gangs. The center, Las Moras, provides classes in subjects including English and IT, as well as music lessons and the opportunity to play sports.
Ramón Flores Navas, the center’s coordinator, welcomes the kids as they come in. Many shake his hand as they say hello before running off to play.
“The center has changed this community. Having a place for the kids where they can come and be relaxed, and the parents know they’re going to come here,” Flores said. “This has helped the community a lot. They’re studying, we’re helping them to do homework. We’re supporting them.”
For families where both parents work, the outreach center provides kids somewhere to go where they’ll be supervised and have structured activities. Flores said it helps keep them away from drugs and allows them not only to avoid activity that made lead them down a criminal path but to learn important skills.
He said beneficiaries are mostly from the immediate neighborhood, but some kids come from surrounding areas to have access to the activities at the center.
“In this municipality, we must persevere,” Guevara said. “I want to focus on youth because youth are the future.”