Erlin Espinoza sits quietly, taking a moment to compose himself, fighting to hold back the tears that are forcing their way out. It’s a tough topic for him, just like it is for most of the youth in Honduras. With a deep breath, he summons the strength to continue.
“Many friends of mine have left with their American dream to look for work in another country and many have returned sick, others don’t even make it back. We lose friends in the pursuit of their dreams, and to know that our country cannot give that to them.”
He takes another breath, emotion pouring out.
“We lose family members. They leave and no one ever hears from them again. People that you share things with since childhood, and the last thing they say is, ‘I am leaving here, there are no jobs. I can’t find one.’ And to see that they will return in what? In a coffin?”
Erlin’s perspective is not unique. Many young adults in Honduras are frustrated with the lack of opportunity that exists and often turn to emigration as a last-ditch effort to provide a better life for themselves and their family.
With half of the population living in poverty, the outlook can look dire (source 1). In rural areas the problem is worse, where one out of five Hondurans live in extreme poverty, on less than two dollars a day (source 2).
The lack of economic opportunity is difficult enough, and the threat of gang violence and narcotics only exacerbates the difficulties youth face. In Honduras, gang violence affects children and teens at much higher rates, many of whom are forced into gang life.
These are the problems The United States Forest Service set out to address when it started the Honduras Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program in 2017 supported by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Like the United States’ own Civilian Conservation Corps, established in the 1930s, this newly created program aims to not only provide technical training in natural resource conservation to participants, but also provide professional development and career preparedness. The program works hard to recruit vulnerable and low-income youth in Central America and the Caribbean. By focusing on those most likely to experience the negative effects of narcotics or gang violence, YCC provides opportunities for youth where there may otherwise be a grim outlook.
Mercy Licona, a recent graduate of the program knows this all too well.
“I will always remember that the YCC program came into my life at the right moment, because what was going to happen in my life was graduate and emigrate. I believe that the program made me stop. It gave me a break. It said: Wait. Let’s see what happens. So, when I got here, everything I thought changed. If the program had not existed, I would probably have been in a different country. It came into my life at the best possible moment.”
Many of the Migrant Caravans that have arrived at the border of the United States over the past few years have started in Honduras, as thousands attempt to build a new life in a new land.
Yaredy Alvarado was one of those people. In 2016 Yaredy left Honduras, without telling his family, looking for a brighter future.
“The reason why I migrated was mainly due to the lack of opportunities. That is why I think the majority of the youth abandons the country. No one tells you what you can be good at here, what you can accomplish here with abilities that you may already have, but we don’t know we have.”
Yaredy sits on the well-manicured lawn outside the dorms of the YCC campus. He has just gotten back from a day in the field, where he and his fellow classmates are building hiking trails in a nearby wildlife refuge. He takes a moment to reflect on how different his life is today than it was a few years ago when he made the difficult and dangerous journey north.
“The truth is that you live things that are horrible, that make you see the road there as a different thing. That it is not easy, and in my case, I know that I won’t try that again. I was grateful when I came back home.”
Today, Yaredy is one of over 100 participants that have gone through the YCC program, all of which are between 18–23 years of age. Over eight months and 1,400 hours of classroom learning, field training, and professional development, the program is building the future leaders of Honduras. Between the leadership training and capacity building, Yaredy feels very different about the future that lies ahead of him.
“The reason why my thinking changed, with regards to migrating, was because we have realized that we can make it here. We receive a course on entrepreneurship. We can create our own company, generate our own income. I feel like I have developed capacities that I will use when I exit the program and apply them in my community. For me, migrating is like a zero to the left. It doesn’t exist.”
That is also true for Mario López, who is weeks away from graduating YCC. His brother emigrated from Honduras, and Mario considered it as well. It was the program that kept him here. But in the end, it did more than just that. It changed his perspective on his home and his future.
“Foreigners know our country because they have categorized it as one of the most dangerous in the world. But the truth is that here we have beauty, here we have peace. The thing is that we don’t see it from that point of view, and it’s because we don’t develop that potential. The YCC program gives you that point of view.”
Although the young men and women who have journeyed through this program may not know exactly what the future of Honduras holds for them, they do know one thing; they are the ones who will create their own opportunities. They will be the ones to create the opportunities for the generations of youth that will follow. They will be the ones who create a better, more prosperous Honduras.