By David Snyder
Originally from a small community in the state of Colima, Mexico, Carlos Velasco still seems uncomfortable with the bustle of Mexico City. Sitting in a coffee shop near the university where he now studies, he recalls the revelation that motived him to apply for the Jóvenes en Acción program.
“In my state there are lots of young people who are in relationships, even as young as 11,” Velasco says. “Colima is a very small place, so violence there is more evident. There is a lot of family violence, so the young people in relationships tend to do the same thing.”
Motived to help, and having heard of Jóvenes en Acción through friends, Velasco applied and was accepted for the 2014 program. A partnership between the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, World Learning, and a range of U.S. community partners, Jóvenes en Acción is designed to expose Mexican high school students to U.S. culture, while instilling in them a sense of leadership and lawfulness. After four weeks in the U.S. taking part in leadership training, living with host families, and visiting organizations that work in their area of social interest, the youth return to Mexico to launch a six-month social service project working with a small team of fellow participants.
“When we came back we started our program in our high school, another high school, and three secondary schools,” Velasco says. “We started by talking with people about dating violence.”
Faced with a deep-seated culture of violence, Velasco and his team at first struggled to make progress. Despite weekly presentations to school groups of often several hours per day, the team felt their message was not resonating. So, they changed tactics.
“We brought in people who had been victims of violence, so people started listening to us. We also brought in psychologists to work with the students,” Velasco says. “We knew from our time in the U.S. that people who are violent often have similar characteristics, so when we saw those characteristics in students, we connected them to the psychologist.”
The change paid immediate dividends. Suddenly, the topic of dating violence, once hidden, became much more publicaly discussed. Among those most affected, Velasco said, were the teens boys with whom they worked.
“I think our work really impacted the community because I saw the change in the guys,” Velasco says. “We can’t measure it in numbers, but we saw the guys become much more involved with the psychologist, so we measured the impact in how they changed their minds about violence.”
Over the course of the project, there were more poignant personal moments as well. After speaking at a school, Velasco said he was approached by a 12-year-old girl who told him she was dating a 28-year-old man. Alarmed, Velasco immediately referred the girl to the psychologist.
“I followed up with that girl later, and she said, ‘Thank you. I have a better relationship with my mother now, and we know that it’s not okay to have that boyfriend,’” Velasco says. “So that felt very good to me.”
Deeply impressed by his experiences living and studying in the U.S. — he has twice returned to visit his host family in Kansas City — Velasco said the Jóvenes en Acción program ultimately guided him to major in international relations, with the hopes of perhaps one day working with the embassy. Soft-spoken and considered, Velasco said his experience with Jóvenes en Acción taught him lessons about himself he may not have otherwise learned at such a young age.
“Leadership was one of the biggest things I learned through the Jóvenes en Acción program,” Velasco says. “Before that, I think I was selfish. But when you live and work so closely with people from all over, you learn confidence.”