By David Snyder
Tamara Ventura did not have to look far to see the effect of substance abuse in her community.
“Most of my high school classmates drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes, and many missed classes,” Ventura says. “Of ten classes, many would miss as many as five, so it was a real problem.”
Frustrated by the impact such abuse was having in her community, Ventura found an outlet for her passion through the Jóvenes en Acción program — a partnership between the Department of State’s U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, U.S. community partners, and World Learning. Through the program, Ventura teamed up with four other classmates and traveled to the U.S. for four weeks of service-learning immersion. After taking part in leadership and language classes in Vermont, Ventura spent 12 days living with a host family in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she and her teammates used their time to learn about the broader impact of substance abuse.
“We visited a school that was designated for people with substance abuse issues, and we visited a treatment center and an LGBT center,” Ventura says. “They shared with us their experiences about how they felt.”
Equipped with that knowledge, Ventura and her teammates returned home to Mexico, where they launched a community service project as part of their program commitment. Before leaving for the U.S., Ventura and her team had already agreed that tackling substance abuse would be their area of focus.
“At school we started reading clubs, and tried to share with others how consuming alcohol affected your health,” Ventura says. “We had a dancing club and other gatherings and used the times to learn why people were smoking or using other substances.”
While most Jóvenes en Acción participants conduct their service projects in school, Ventura says she and her four other teammates struggled to gain support for their efforts from school administrators. Undaunted, they sought the help of a local governmental organization that was working in the area of substance abuse, and continued their outreach activities in other schools and in the local community.
“We created activities to show them the effects of using substances,” Ventura says. “At first they didn’t pay much attention, but after three months or so, they started listening, and we started to make a little change in their minds.”
Though tackling such a deep-seated problem was no small task over the nine month scope of the project, Ventura says that measuring the impact of their social project is best done at the personal level.
“I think even if we reached just one person, it was a success,” Ventura says. “If we impacted five or ten people, then we were very successful.”
Now a serious and committed university student who chose summer classes over a three month break to get ahead, Ventura is studying medicine with plans to become a doctor. Describing herself as almost painfully shy before her experience with Jóvenes en Acción, Ventura says her time in the U.S. and her community work upon returning home boosted her self-confidence dramatically — a change others recognized as well.
“I really feel that [Jóvenes en Acción] made me a better leader,” Ventura says. “Now that I am in college, my friends say to me that I am so good at communicating. They come to me to ask my opinion because I have had experiences that they haven’t had.”