Building a Life, Building a Future

Building a Life,  Building a Future

How RET International helps San Miguelito Youth Transcend Challenges and Build Resilience

Overcoming the challenges posed by a complex and negative context that affects the youth requires commitment as well as expertise. Supported by the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) of the U.S. Department of State, the “Socio-Educational and Labour Reinsertion of Adolescent and Youth Offenders” programme implemented by RET International in Panama demonstrates that a seamless, holistic and sustained approach that both empowers and ensures continuity is of key importance in the process of building youth resilience.

The municipality of San Miguelito is part of the metropolitan area of Panama City and is the second most populated municipality in Panama. Comprising of 86’0754 individuals aged from 10 to 24, San Miguelito’s youth represents almost a third of the town’s total population. This high density of population brings with it a string of problems that include overcrowding, lack of services, minimal labour supply and low standards of living.

Other factors that particularly affect the young population worsen the scope of the problem, such as lack of life skills, very few job offers (and almost no sustainable ones) and absence of training opportunities that successfully respond to the needs of the labour market.

As a result, presently, many young people in San Miguelito are deprived of both educational opportunities and professional vocations. On top of that, young people in question tend to refrain from participating in civic and community activities – they feel threatened by the level of and are affected by discrimination in very concrete and visible ways[i].

In the face of this context of serious vulnerability, RET has decided to tackle the problem from two sides, employing a holistic approach.

In San Miguelito, RET doesn’t only work directly with young people strengthening their self-esteem, helping them to develop life plans, facilitating their access and retention in the educational system, and offering them livelihoods opportunities, but also collaborates closely with the local authorities and job providers, by starting capacity-building activities.
“This project[ii] has been developed in support of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies (IEI) of the Ministry of Government, together with the Municipality of San Miguelito and a series of strategic actors, to really focus on the generation of opportunities for adolescents and young people of the municipality”, explains RET International’s Country Director in Panama.

The specific actions implemented addressing young people in San Miguelito who are in conflict with the law were made complete with interventions to reduce the school dropout rates and to boost school attendance and uninterrupted education through specific pedagogical strategies.

This integrated approach was solidified with ties established with allied institutions aimed to offer support to young offenders to embrace opportunities and strengthen their resilience by empowering them to take control of their lives.

Breaking the Isolation

Initially, given the high level of mistrust the participants nurtured, RET International staff encountered several difficulties when creating a relationship with the youth. RET’s project implementers identified one of the key elements of this mistrust, as the social judgments that their environment created against them. This discrimination prevents them from recognising themselves as actors of positive social change.

In order to overcome this challenge, RET paid specific importance to socialisation, as both an outcome and an interwoven element of the programme.

Luz Arpi, Project Officer at RET in Panama explains this particular aspect in more detail: “Removing these barriers is a process of regaining their confidence, so that they can empathise with us and recognise our genuine interest in offering them possibilities and opportunities. It has been a process full of experiences and challenges, but also positive lessons, which allow us to say today that the intervention is valid and adaptable to other contexts.”

Encouraging the participants to leave behind the vacuum of isolation, the perception of being imprisoned to disenfranchisement and lack of empowerment; the experience of opening up to the social sphere accompanies skills development and strengthening of values. It increases the trust youth has for the people who accompany them throughout their lives.

“They noticed me, they helped me and they supported me. They worked hard on self-esteem because my self-esteem was low. They gave me a chance, which is what I like the most, an opportunity to get into a bar tender course. I finished it and I’m waiting for my diploma. It is very satisfying because I have learned so much about customer service, about serving others. Now I’m more tolerant, because of the fact that I have to deal with clients who have different characters and you have to know how to handle those situations.”. José[iii], a 20-year-old who participated in the project, comments about RET’s intervention and his story of breaking-out.

Opening to the social sphere always remains in interplay with the greater schemes of intervention. Through this process, young people find their own places in society, understand themselves progressively and identify their weaknesses. RET works with them to strengthen their capacity to confront the challenges they face.

The struggle toward resilience is always through an all-round approach and young people, when they eventually perceive that they occupy an important place in the society, they eventually gain the key to overcome future challenges: confidence.

This is why Carla, 22, who participated in the project stresses a budding perspective for her future that solidified after she gained confidence: “The experience in RET has been enriching. Because of some issues in my life, I did not stay in school, but they taught me to fight, to live positive things every day. I like it because, as a girl, I have learned not to fall down, but to move on. I love everything that we have done here, because they have helped us get out of where we were, which wasn’t really a good place. We have been able to move forward and to improve ourselves. We have learned things that are for life, who knows, tomorrow we could be great people. We learned to work as a team.”

Confidence, as the main outcome is accompanied by a greater capacity to listen and share with others, resulting in a feeling of community and reinforced resilience. It is the key that opens the door to opportunities and the very courage to make one’s dreams reality.

Making Dreams Reality

Once equipped with self-confidence, young people can develop the initiative to think long-term and sculpture life-plans. A vision of future can only be built and the practice of long-term, thinking can only be adopted once a solid basis is secured.

About this particular stage, Luz Arpi states: “An important change we could see in the young participants was that they could recognise their potentialities, their abilities, that they were able to identify their dreams and elaborate their life plan. They understood that they have dreams and that they have all the tools to be able to fulfil them.”

Gabriela, another young participant of the programme speaking about her achievements proves the value of having goals and long-term plans: “At first I thought it was boring, it was very hard for me. I am so weak; anything makes me want to start crying. They always encouraged me and told me that I could do anything, that I was able to achieve my goals and overcome my weaknesses. Thank God, I am finishing my studies and I am now part of Panama’s National Civil Protection System (SINAPROC). I like to be here, to meet new friends, have new experiences and share them. I used to be very shy and isolated from the others, but I have learned to relate and get along with my friends and the people around me. “

The final and one of the most important elements in RET’s action within the framework of the project is its sustained commitment to work with young people in a way that avoids re-victimisation. It’s known that in such contexts, the absence of proper follow-up activities leaves any attempt to build resilience as a one-time intervention whose fate depends on chance. If vocational and life-skills trainings and the implementation of a long-term life plan forms the crux of RET activities, sustained commitment guarantees their success.

Youth with Opportunities

RET International’s interventions allowed the challenged youth of San Miguelito municipality to become actors capable of generating positive change in their environments and communities. What these young people have learned will be very useful for their own lives, but also to support their peers who might have gone through similar situations and require someone to give them a hand.

Here lies the transcendence of RET International’s work, not only does it generate change within them, it also offers them the possibility to become multipliers of these changes within others and the community at large.


[i] MARTINEZ, Vicente. Socioeconomic and Cultural Reality of the Yourh of the Metropolitan Area of the Distric of Panama, Colon, La Chorrera, San Miguelito y Arraijan, in the Republic of Panama. Panama University. 2014.

[ii]RET International implemented in Panama the Project “Strengthening Sustainable Opportunities for Young People in San Miguelito”.

Jóvenes[iii]The names of the young people have been changed.