The first thoughts that came to mind were, “What if I get lost in the woods during a hike and I get eaten by wolves? Or what if they make us shower in groups and there’s no stalls or curtains?!” My fifth-grade teacher had chosen the top four students in the class for a summer camp that (according to him) would surely be life-changing. It was. I embarked for the monthlong trip one Saturday morning and came back at the end of it convinced that I wanted to be a mineralogist or a world-renowned chef. Throughout the next 12 years of my life, those ambitions would change, but regardless, that summer program gave me the confidence and motivation to expand my views on what I could do with my life; the mentors and friends I made that summer influenced me to take my future seriously.
This summer, I traveled with a friend and Cal grad, Cristian de Leon, to the community of Las Cumbres 3, in my home state of Aguascalientes in Mexico. It is one of the most impoverished and underserved communities in the country. According to the Secretariat of Social Development in Mexico, Las Cumbres 3 is made up of more than 300 families facing extreme poverty and living in shanty housing, whose most pressing problems include a high rate of drug addiction, a lack of programs for minors, no community centers and contaminated rivers that lead to infection.This environment forces local youth into a cycle of disillusionment; they lose sight of the value of education. Only about 30 percent of middle-schoolers in Las Cumbres 3 end up continuing onto high school, and only 3 percent enroll in college.
According to the Mexican Human Rights Commission, an estimated 120,000 men, women and children have been murdered because of the drug war in Mexico since 2006. This has left Mexico with families devastated by the loss of family members, destructive influences on the youth and a society that is now accustomed to constant violence. Many people, including young people, are resorting to joining the drug trade in order to make a living. Solving Mexico’s growing drug war demands a collaborative and community-based effort to fight the problems of economic insecurity, lack of opportunities, a rise in drug cartel involvement among youth and a decline in respect and adherence to the rule of law.
I am now a recent UC Berkeley grad and co-founder of ¡Adelante!, a youth empowerment program in Mexico started at Berkeley and rolling out this summer. We are working to provide the same experiences of encouragement and motivation many of us had as kids to other children in marginalized communities in Mexico, to kids who currently have no access to programs like these. Our objectives are to motivate them to continue their education and to provide them with a safe haven this summer away from negative influences and violence.
We believe the most significant way we can bring about progressive change to oppressed communities is by focusing on empowering the most vulnerable of all: at-risk youth. A key factor in empowering these youth is in mending relations within their communities. Our ¡Adelante!program will provide Mexican youth with a space and purpose for interacting and cooperating together to empower themselves and their communities while motivating them to pursue educational and professional endeavors. ¡Adelante!’s objective is to intrinsically interest at-risk youth in their education and personal development so that they become motivated and interested in continuing their education despite their surrounding environment of ever-present poverty, violence, drugs and gang activity. We will do this by leading fun and interesting STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — and leadership development-based projects while mentoring them to lead their own community projects that address community needs through a month and a half of summer programming. We will also provide scholarships and mentorship to the students who choose to continue their educational journeys.
We expect that ¡Adelante! youth will set an example to other community members in how they can be productive and conscious members of society through the projects they will be developing and leading. We expect that participating youth will go on to become mentor figures to other youth who are at risk of dropping out of school or falling into negative influences. We are in the process of establishing ¡Adelante! as a nonprofit organization in Aguascalientes to facilitate the program’s expansion throughout Mexico.
The founding of our pilot program depends on fundraising an additional $9,000. We have so far fundraised $11,000 as winners of the Big [email protected] competition and through private donations. We have recently kicked off an Indiegogo campaign online to fundraise the remaining money. So we are now reaching out to the Berkeley community in hopes that we may reach our fundraising goals for our program this summer. Please follow this link if you would like to make a tax-deductible donation. Our campaign ends Friday: igg.me/at/AdelanteMexico2014, and if you would like to follow us on Facebook, you can like our page at: tinyurl.com/likemend
We firmly believe that through the expansion of ¡Adelante!, we will be able to pave the way for a brighter future in Mexico.