JOCOTENANGO, Guatemala – Juan Pablo Romero grew up in Jocotenango, a Guatemalan municipality in Sacatepequez province where street gangs and violence were part of the children’s everyday life. But now there’s a new degree of hope for the future of those “patojos,” as the local kids are called.
Mom and dad moved away with 13-year-old Juan Pablo so he could get an education. He later returned as a young adult questioning the state his country was in and asking about the friends he grew up with – only to be hit hard by the truth.
“They were all dead or in prison...and then I saw another bunch of little kids in the street. The cycle was starting all over again,” he said.
With no definite plan in mind, he decided to open a place in his childhood home to get the youngsters off the street and share with them what he had learned – although, he said, “nobody showed up for the first 20 days.”
To get the kids to come, he decided to ask them what they needed, and “the first thing they told me is that they wanted something to eat.” That was how Romero started his plan 11 years ago, in 2007, with three children that he played with and told stories.
On Saturday, he walked down the colorful corridor of the colonial house that is now the second institution of the “Patojos” project – and was greeted by 370 rowdy kids either trying to get his attention or dancing in their classes or playing soccer in the patio.
Romero started out by identifying the key points for his project: caring for the nutrition and health of the little ones so they would be free to just think about making their dreams come true.
Juan Pablo’s own dream, as he told EFE, is to create 25 alternative education centers around the country. The third location will be at San Miguel Dueñas in Sacatepequez province.
“The first center is where I lived the most important eight years of my life,” Romero said. “It will be converted into a market where the kids will sell vegetable garden produce and other items they make...the second, located on a street in Jocotenango called Patojos Street, is where the little ones are currently looked after.
The third center targets teens and young adults: “it’s where we get them on the road to apprenticeship, production and the dignity of work,” Romero said. The dreams never end. They began with a vegetable garden and now include opening a restaurant, technical laboratories, a gymnasium and a swimming pool.
For this leader the most important thing about the program is that it teaches children and teenagers to think critically, get organized at a community level and understand the social context they’re living in.