The streets of Gracias, Lempira were silent, which was typical for the small town at six in the morning. As the sun peaked over the surrounding forests and illuminated the colorful buildings, the soft pounding of feet on brick laid streets and muffled, rhythmic chants could be heard coming down the hillside towards the town center.
If there was any confusion before on the source of the noise, it quickly disappeared as a group of thirty-eight young men and women came into view, advancing in orderly lines and dressed in matching attire. They had become a common sight around town, bringing much joy to those who knew what they were there to accomplish.
Each person proudly wore a logo across their chest, denoting them as participants of the Honduras Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program. Like the United States’ own Civilian Conservation Corps, established in the 1930s, this newly created program in Central America set out to provide technical training in natural resource conservation, professional development opportunities, and career preparedness.
Founded in 2017 by The United States Forest Service and supported by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the program works hard to recruit vulnerable and low-income youth in Central America. By focusing on those most likely to experience the negative effects of narcotics or gang violence, YCC provides opportunities for youth where there is otherwise a grim outlook.
Standing tall in the early morning light with whistle in hand, Luis Tinoco, coordinator of the YCC program, is no stranger to the threats that youth often encounter in his country. Having dedicated the last 35 years of his career to working with young people, he runs his program with discipline. He expects a lot from the participants, knowing that success here will translate to brighter futures after students graduate the eight-month-long training program. The students have a deep respect for Luis, who is as kind as he is passionate.
Now with over one hundred alumni of the program, the future is already looking better. The 1,400 hours of classroom learning, field training, and professional development gave the students tools to create a new path for themselves. But Luis also knows that this program is more than just teaching the next generation sustainable environmental practices. He considers it to be a leadership school where youth can discover their true passions.
“This is a country that needs a generational renewal, and these youth will soon be the decision makers for the country. This type of program in Honduras is contributing to develop human capital, which is the most important thing we have in our country.”
Following the early morning run and subsequent Zumba workout session, the YCC heads back to the dorms where they eat a hearty breakfast and attend a classroom lecture before packing up for the day. With hardhats in hand and tools loaded into the backs of vehicles, the group heads to the Mount Puca Wildlife Refuge.
Typical of most field days, the work ahead of them is challenging yet also exciting. On this particular day, the students are tasked with building hiking trails around the wildlife refuge. Puffs of dust can be seen rising from the hillside as pickaxes and shovels transform the rough terrain into neatly graded single-track paths. At this point in the program, they need no supervision. The students understand the task at hand and work with an intense sense of teamwork only found in close-knit circles where trust and comradery are everything.
During lunch, laughter fills the air under the shade of a tree as students swap stories and tell jokes. The program is coming to an end in a few short weeks, and these strangers who quickly became friends, will go back to their various communities scattered across Honduras. There is a sense of both unease and hopeful excitement as this impending departure draws nearer. The question of ‘what comes next’ sits heavy with them all. A year ago, before this program started, their futures seemed determined. Most only had about a middle school education and limited opportunities.
Ester Cruz is no exception. With graduation just around the corner, for the first time she is hopeful for her future. Feeling empowered by the program, she has found her passion and plans to study biology when the program concludes.
“If I had stayed in my community, the opportunities would have been limited. Society teaches you that you shouldn’t try to continue, and so you stop trying. But here the road opens. There are many doors towards a new future, and you aspire to be a much better person. I think at many times we don’t believe in ourselves, but we can accomplish what we propose for our lives.”
The effects of the program go far beyond transforming the participants. The aim is to change the country, community by community. When students leave the program, many will head back to their rural homes equipped with new knowledge and the confidence to teach others about the importance of sustainable environmental practices.
Many graduates serve on community water boards, volunteer with local organizations, attend university, or find careers that put their new skillsets to work.
When Miguel Molina returned home after finishing his YCC training, his community took note. Starting with his friends and family, Miguel began teaching others how to improve their habits through small actions like conserving water and picking up litter. Later he organized larger projects with fellow graduates, planning reforestation initiatives and educational visits.
“People created a new image from me. They see my actions, and then they start to change. They start to see things differently, even though they’re small things. They start to change, become aware.”
Recent graduate, Marta Solórzano, hopes to take her message even further. After completing the program, Marta is studying at a university to become an English teacher. The lessons she learned in the YCC have stayed close to her heart.
“As a future teacher, I want kids to understand the importance of natural resources. How can we raise environmental awareness in kids and make a change, convert these kids to be agents of change?”
The work has ended for the day and the team has changed out of their dusty uniforms. Dinner has concluded and the cohort spreads across the green lawn outside their dorms as the sun begins to set. A lively game of soccer plays out in one corner and volleyball in another. Students lay in hammocks reading quietly, detail the day’s events in journals, or chat excitedly on the steps of their rooms.
Luis quietly watches the scene from a distance. He understands that these students will not just leave with new knowledge and capacities, they will leave with memories that will last a lifetime. He knows that without this program, their lives would have looked very different. Many would have worked the farm like their parents and grandparents, others might be forced to emigrate, and some would have inevitably been swallowed up by the violence that comes with illegal drugs and gangs.
Yesterday theses participants were merely children without opportunity. Today they are young adults redefining their futures. Tomorrow they are the leaders of Honduras.