Megan Gilbert: Hello, everyone. My name is Megan Gilbert and welcome to Empowering Youth: Young People Are Our Future.
We often talk about young people being our future and that, of course, is true. But they are also our present and they are facing some enormous challenges. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than half the population is under the age of 25, and nearly 80% of the youth in that region live on just under $2 a day. Today, we are taking a closer look at how CRS is addressing some of those challenges that young people face. We’re also going to talk about our ambitious goal of reaching five million young people over the next 10 years. I have four guests who will be with us today.
Joining us are Christina Lamas, CRS board director and executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, a group that is committed to advancing the field of pastoral ministry to young people. Most Reverend Mark J. Seitz, CRS board director and Bishop of El Paso, Texas. Bishop Seitz serves a borderland community where thousands of unaccompanied migrant children are arriving from Central America. Petula Nash is the global technical director for youth programming for CRS. Petula has more than 20 years of experience in international nonprofit project management with an emphasis on holistic youth programming. And finally, we have Gabby Alfaro. Gabby is an employment management specialist working in El Salvador. Gabby designs and implements employability strategies for various projects. She also works to match young people with businesses looking for employees.
Petula, I’ll start with you. Why is it so critical that CRS address the issues that youth are facing right now?
Petula Nash: Megan, so we refer actually to the youth bulge and that’s because there’s 1.3 billion young people in the world today. As you noted, of those, 90% live in developing countries and one fifth of them—so that’s about 257 million young people—are not in education, employment or training. And of that number, 68% are young women, which is about 175 million. And so given these challenges and as part of CRS’ Vision 2030, we have made youth one of our five priority goals, which is to ensure that young people ages 15 to 29, have access to the needed support and services.
And often the question that comes to mind is, “What is the cost of not doing—supporting young people—particularly when we see such a significant population?” And I think to all of us, it’s clear that there is a cost. It’s the cost of lost potential. It’s the cost of losses gained to individual, to communities and to country, and lost gains both personally and economically. It’s also about young people then, for lack of alternative or opportunities, engaging in negative behaviors.
Megan Gilbert: I think any of us who have worked with young people know how well they respond to positive reinforcement. It’s just such a good approach to working with young people. They have the desire, they really want to do this, they just need some of the opportunities and connections. How are we making those connections for young people, Petula?
Petula Nash: So the youth platform really aims to provide young people with a scale and support system that they need to succeed both personally and professionally—as employee, as entrepreneurs, as leader in the community—and really be on the path of success. So CRS is investing in initiatives that are scalable and collaborative. And what we mean by that is that we work with all members of the community to better understand the environment. What are the barriers that young people are facing? Also, what are some of the opportunities that exist in this community? And then develop strategies that address the barriers and leverage what works, right? CRS has made a bold commitment of reaching five million youth in 10 years. And this ambitious goal really compels us to expand our work with actors in the different sectors—private sector, community organization, service provider, government, and young people. It is really by taking this approach that our efforts will contribute to changing the practices, the policies, and really make them more responsive to the needs of young people, in particular, and really bring, ultimately, positive shifts in communities.
Megan Gilbert: Yes, that positive shift is what we’re all working towards. You know, as someone who used to work with college students, I just always found them just so delightful and so inspirational. I just couldn’t wait to see what they were going to do. So, I’m curious, Petula, is there a particular story that has stuck with you or inspired you in the work that you do with youth?
Petula Nash: I mean, I’m happy to say there are many such stories, but the one I would like to share in particular is the story of a young entrepreneur and youth leader. His name is Lazara Panumizana. He’s from a small town in southern Madagascar. What I really love about this story is that it shows what young people can accomplish for themselves and their communities when they have the right support.
So, with support from CRS, Lazara was able to improve his skills through training. He developed a business plan and as a result, he was able to reach his short-term goal of buying a motorcycle, which then enabled him to go from selling 20 liters a day to 60 liters a day of milk. But he doesn’t want to stop there. He’s now saving to purchase a refrigerator because he has seen a market for making and selling yogurt. And so, in addition to these activities that he has planned for himself, he also doesn’t want to stop there. He sees himself or wants to become the mayor of his small town. And so to me, what this really shows is young people wanting to bring about change for themselves and their communities.
Megan Gilbert: And we certainly all should be encouraging those big dreams. Thank you so much, Petula. Let’s turn to Gabby Alfaro. Gabby, you have the challenge and the privilege of working with young people every day. What does the program specifically look like in El Salvador?
Gabby Alfaro: Thank you, Megan. So basically in El Salvador, the young population represents about one third of it, so it’s more or less half of the workforce. They’re the ones that face the most barriers when it comes to their personal or professional growth. The job skills that they learn don’t match what the market actually needs. You have to consider the fact that we have a decreasing economic growth right now, so that means less jobs available and these jobs aren’t usually targeted towards our youth because youth are usually linked with violence. They’re very discriminated when it comes to finding a job opportunity.
So at CRS, we work on providing opportunities for them to develop the leadership and professional skills that they need to become change makers—to find productive opportunities to grow. So they find that dignified first job opportunity, they develop the skills to become an entrepreneur, or they even go back to school. When the pandemic hit, everyone had to basically stay home. And after serving most of the young people in our network, we noticed that the majority was directly affected by this because either themselves or their family members suddenly found themselves without an income. They weren’t receiving any government help and they had basically no food security. So as CRS, we had to adapt and we had to adapt quickly.
Megan Gilbert: I can only imagine, Gabby. So, how did you have to adjust and how did COVID impact the way you do your job?
Gabby Alfaro: So, CRS El Salvador tried a lot of strategies and the first one was a virtual entrepreneurship contest. We know that the economic situation was very desperate because, as I said before, families suddenly didn’t have an income. So, at CRS, we developed a contest to provide capital seed money and technical assistance to help entrepreneurs. And everything was done virtually, which was very new to us.
For example, Giovanni, one of the youth that I surveyed back when all of this was starting, he was very unmotivated and frustrated because he had invested in construction tools, he had projects lined up, but because of the quarantine rules, he couldn’t follow through with these projects, so he basically lost the investment. But he proved to be very resilient and creative and he saw a market need for plexiglass. So basically he noticed that businesses that were still functioning, they needed plexiglass to protect the, for example, the cashier from the client, because we were still learning about how COVID worked. So he learned how to buy plexiglass, how to connect with businesses and how to install it. And he just needed help with scaling up.
And the entrepreneurs that we are currently working with, they dedicate themselves to different specialties. So half of them, they work on selling products like clothing, accessories or first need products, and the other half provide services and they’re very varied services, so it includes photography, editing, flower arrangements, tutoring, electricity, marketing, pastry, banquet services. It’s very varied. So, we created a toolkit to replicate this contest, and we really hope that these youth that we’re currently working become future employers or become future mentors to other youth. So that was one of the strategies that we tried.
And then the second one that I was involved in that I also love—I love all of them—we had to shift very quickly towards virtual learning. So we had a lot of youth programs that were suddenly shut down. And this was a very drastic change for participants because youth programs was not only a space for them to develop much needed skills, but also a safe space for them. So the training centers that we work with, they really tried to adapt to this new reality, but you have to consider the fact that they were working with participants that were facing a lot of at-home distractions and poor connectivity, for example, and then they themselves had very few resources and were just not prepared for virtual learning. So at CRS, we’re currently working with them on basically how to develop existing curriculums that we used to work in physically with our participants into digital learning, and also how to provide facilitation strategy so that we can keep learners engaged, despite the many distractions they face at home. So overall, it’s about helping educators teach and learners learn.
Megan Gilbert: I just love that Gabby, the creativity of the young people and saying, “OK, I see a problem, I’m going to figure out how to solve it.” It just makes you feel like the future is so bright. Thank you for sharing those stories with us.
I’d like to bring in Christina Lamas right now. Christina, as executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, you work with young people all the time and I’m sure you see some of their challenges. So, as you listen to Gabby and Petula talk about the work that they’re doing, do you see any similarities?
Christina Lamas: Oh, I absolutely see similarities, Megan. And Gabby, I loved your stories that you were sharing. I think the one thing that I would highlight is young people want and are seeking these opportunities. But I think across the board in terms of similarities between young people, regardless of where you live, they’re looking for three things. They’re looking for identity, they’re looking for belonging and they’re looking for purpose. Like, “Who am I in this world? Where do I belong and what’s my purpose? How can I contribute back?” And this generation is seeking to make a great impact.
So the creativity that we’ve seen unfold during this pandemic is what’s out there to come if we continue to empower, we continue to uplift, we continue to provide opportunities for young people. Regardless of where they live, they can change the world. They can change the way that we see things and how things are operated day to day.
Megan Gilbert: I think they will change the world and I have every faith in them to do absolutely great things. As you said, Christina, they’re just looking for that purpose. You also had the chance to visit El Salvador, so, you know, so what kind of impact did that trip have on you?
Christina Lamas: You know, I was blessed to travel with Catholic Relief Services in 2015, but there was one specific encounter that I had with Christian and with his mother Lorena.
We went to Lorena’s house and Christian was involved in a program through CRS at that time, that was called Jóvenes Constructores, which means Youth Builders, and it was really about resourcing and empowering young people. During this time, Lorena found herself in a very difficult financial situation and she knew she had to find ways to bring in additional resources for her family. So she told her son that unfortunately she did not have the means to send him for education, but that she had a dream. And in this dream, it was revealed to her that she had to build and make a hundred piñatas. And her son looked at her and said, “Where are we going to get the supplies to build and make these piñatas?” And his mom said, “I don’t know, but we’re going to figure it out and I’m going to teach you, and I’m going to show you how to make these piñatas, but I know someone’s coming and they’re going to need a hundred piñatas.”
And so she began to mentor her son in how to build and make these piñatas. And so she would send Christian out to look for metal, to look for paper, to start building them and making them and people within her community started to see that these piñatas were being made but they weren’t selling. But she was determined and she knew that there was a reason and there was a way. About a year later, to her surprise, somebody came into the community looking for a hundred piñatas, and she was blown away in terms of how her perseverance, her faith and knowing that God was with her, God was moving and walking along with her. And she mentored and taught her son how to now to carry on this family business. So along with the resources and the support that he was receiving from Catholic Relief Services in being a part of this group and his mother accompanying him along the way, Christian then grew with this opportunity and he was dreaming of going to college and becoming a professional in a field.
So when I came home, I’ve used that metaphor of building and selling a hundred piñatas. So when I’m faced with situations of unknown future, I remind myself of Lorena’s faith, of her knowledge and knowing conviction that God was with her to build a hundred piñatas. So when I’m facing that, I continue to tell myself, “I’m going to build them, God will lead me and they will sell.”
Megan Gilbert: I’m never going to look at a piñata the same way again. I love that story. Wow, what, what faith and, and what a good reminder of what faith can do for you. Christina, before I let you go, I do have just one last question for you and that is, why do you support the work of CRS?
Christina Lamas: I’ve been engaged with CRS since I was a local minister in my parish, so you can date me back to maybe 20+ years. The mission of CRS has been a part of who I am, and it resonates with my own beliefs. But I think I would sum it up in one phrase: CRS cares, and cares enough to empower, to resource people from their own communities to uplift them and to raise leaders.
And this image I found it quite often when I was in El Salvador. And it’s the image of the turtle.
They told me the story of this wise man—this very, very wise man that always knew the right answers. But there were these two young people that wanted to prove him wrong and they wanted to make sure that the whole village knew that they were smarter than this wise man. And so they said, “You know what? We know how we’re going to trick this wise man.” And so they said, “You know, we have this turtle.” So they put a turtle in their hands and they said, “Look, we’re going to go to this wise man and we’re going to ask him a question. We’re going to say, ‘Is this turtle alive or dead?’” But they were going to hide the turtle in their hands.
And so they said, “If he says that they’re alive, then we’re going to squash it and we’re going to let him know that he was wrong. And if he says he is dead, then we’re just going to let the turtle go.” And what surprised them was the response of the wise man. So they went through this process; they went to his house and they said, and they asked him this question, you know, “Is this turtle alive or is it dead?” And the wise man said, “The answer to your question is in your hands. You decide whether that turtle lives or whether that turtle dies.”
And so that reminded me when I came back from El Salvador and I heard and witnessed the stories and I heard the impact that CRS was having across the nation, across the country. And I thought,”Well, the decision of whether I continue to supporting a greater mission lies in my hands.” And so I continue to support Catholic Relief Services because I’ve seen them in action. I’ve seen how the resources are helping to empower, to uplift young people and their families across multiple generations. And so that’s why I care. And that’s why I’m here. And this is why I believe in Catholic Relief Services.
Megan Gilbert: Wow. I’m almost speechless, which is tough to do with me, Christina. But I think that’s so important to say that it is in our hands, because it’s in all of our hands—in all of us to be able to do whatever it is our part to help support young people all over the world. Thank you for sharing those incredible stories.
Bishop Seitz, you are in El Paso, Texas. We talked about what’s happening at the border there. So, you see another part of the challenges. I would love to hear your reaction to everything that you’ve heard from others today.
Bishop Mark Seitz: Well, I find myself shaking my head in agreement quite a bit. I’ve just always been so struck by the tremendous energy and potential of young people and also wounded in a way by the potential that is lost because young people are overlooked and their gifts are not recognized. They’re not assisted along their journey. It’s such a simple thing, really. It doesn’t cost that much either in terms of finances or effort. Just a kind word and a firm affirmation, a willingness to walk alongside. It makes all the difference in the world and we can do it. To me it’s one of those miracles that the Lord is ready to do if we simply dispose ourselves to cooperate with him.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you, Bishop Seitz.
Christina, I want to come back to you for a moment. You work with young people all the time, and I’m wondering if you have some advice for all of us about what we can do to support all the young people in our lives.
Christina Lamas: You know, I’m going to go back to a phrase that was echoed when I was in El Salvador. It was, believing youth when no one else will. And I think that’s what young people need. They need to know that there are caring adults that care for them and believe in their potential, regardless of their age—whether they’re six, whether they’re 13, whether they’re 17—that there is hope.
And then accompany our young people with prayer, providing skill sets, with resources and most importantly presence, that they know that there’s a caring adult that cares for them. I think, Gabby, you’re doing a phenomenal job in El Salvador and I think that’s what young people are responding to, that there are people who care for them.
Megan Gilbert: That is fantastic advice, just letting them know that you believe in them. So, Petula and Gabby, as you look over the next 10 years and our ambitious goal of what we want to do, what do you hope for? Petula, let’s start with you.
Petula Nash: I mean, the first thing I would like to say, first of all, we are on the pathway, right? Five million young people is a significant number and I think it is to CRS’s credit to take such a challenge. When it comes to working with young people, we need to take kind of a holistic approach to supporting them, right? As we’ve heard, it’s about the opportunities, the economic opportunities, but it’s also about the individual themselves.
And so, you know, a lot of what we do and what we’re aiming to do is to scale those initiatives that really look at the, at the entire system and connecting the different organizations working in it to better support young people. I think that is really critical, because young people will tell us, “I need support with employment; I want to be connected to my community; I want to play a role in my community; I want to take a leadership role.” Those are all the different elements that I think are really critical to successfully supporting young, young people. And this is really what we’re aiming to do on a large scale.
Megan Gilbert: Okay. Gabby, I will let you answer that question.
Gabby Alfaro: Well, in my case for example, I work a lot with the private sector and it’s so amazing when I have one of the youth that we worked with speaking directly to the private sector, or even to other sectors that we work with, what types of obstacles they face and what they hope for in the future. I want them to be the ones that have the ability to make this change—to bring joy, happiness, productivity to their communities. For them to become future change makers, future lawmakers, future employers of other youth, and for the system to work with them. Because right now in El Salvador, I think our biggest challenge is changing the system. Right now you could say that it’s working against the youth, despite the growing numbers in the country.
It’s important for us to recognize that they’re not our future, they’re our present and it’s time to work together and to, to change the system so that the doors are opened and they can prove to us how much of change makers they really are, because they are in their communities but I want to see that on a national level.
Megan Gilbert: What are the challenges and opportunities when you take a solution that has worked in one country and try to do the same thing in another country?
Petula Nash: That’s a very interesting question. People often feel what they’re experiencing in their own community is so unlike when anyone else has and I think often there are more similarities across communities than we think. I do think that we can learn from what others are doing, whether it’s in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, but I also think that there needs to be a certain level of adaptation. And a lot of this also has to be left to the communities
Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much for that. Bishop Seitz, do you have any final thoughts?
Bishop Mark Seitz: We’ve been reminded that young people are a very significant part of the population of the world and in their hands lies so much of our present and future. It’s so important if we want to have an influence on the direction of this world, our own country and others that we focus on them and their needs.
In a society in which so many of the structures are breaking down that really support young people and help them to reach their full potential, we can have a tremendous influence for the good when we provide them with structures and with people in their lives that will support them and affirm them, help them know their goodness and to dream again about what they can accomplish.
I really appreciated the stories that were shared. Let’s make sure that when the lives of others are in our hands that we nurture them and care for them and assist them along their journey.
Megan Gilbert: Bishop Seitz, Christina, Petula and Gabby, thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories today around this very important topic.
If you would like to learn more about our work with young people or are interested in the other priorities of the Go FAR campaign, you can go to gofar.crs.org. Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time.