Reigniting La Casa de la Juventud

Peter Saudek - Ecuador


February 25, 2011

“La Casa de la Juventud” or The Youth House is a youth group in Ibarra city that was started ten years ago to provide a program focused on leadership, human rights and youth development. It was founded with financial help from the city that paid for a space and a few social workers to run the group. With further help from international volunteers and government donations, the program became well-recognized and developed to include city-wide projects – including art and music – in addition to leadership workshops. But after the funding was cut off, and the volunteers left, La Casa de la Juventud did not continue to function.

When I arrived to Ibarra at the end of October, I was painted a picture of a thriving youth group with weekly leadership workshops, rooms for kids to learn and practice music, and theater in the works. Yet, when I went to work my first day to see their space on the second floor of the restaurant “La Choza,” there was a nearly empty room with a few desks and chairs, and a tiny locked office space that had half of a drum set inside with 4 acoustic guitars, all of which were un-usable and nearly destroyed.

After about three weeks of waiting for hours in the afternoons for the “youth gatherings” that my supervisor, Kleber, kept telling me were going to happen, I sat down with him to ask, “What is really going on here?” At the time my Spanish was not so proficient. However, in his response I was able to pick out words like “crisis,” and “without help or commitment.” It became clear through what I saw and word of mouth of asking those who previously knew La CDJ that there was currently no one behind it, and no kids participating. I faltered at how to react to this. I thought, “Why was I placed here if there is no actual group with no funding, leader, nor members?” I didn’t know anyone in the city, and my Spanish speaking ability was not at an effectively communicative level. The idea of starting this group over was one that seemed simply unrealistic and out of reach.

Fortunately, Kleber knows the majority of the people in Ibarra.

With his help I was able to get in touch with a number of teens who previously associated themselves with La CDJ. The common response was “everybody went off to work or university and there’s no new generation of kids nor is there funding to sponsor anything.” There was a common consensus that La CDJ was.

After lots of thinking and experimenting of how I could approach trying to start something up again, I hit mostly dead ends. I tried inviting some of the kids I got to know around the city to have little gatherings and get them on board with some of my ideas. Essentially, nothing was working, people didn’t show up, and there wasn’t any incentive to get anything going. In retrospect, I didn’t put any enticing ideas out there to spark any incentive, either.

Finally, at the end of winter vacation Kleber and I coordinated a New Year’s dinner and dance for any teens from Ibarra who were interested in joining us. The idea was to welcome the New Year and to propose what could be a new generation for La CDJ. We reached out to all of the teens we knew and asked them to spread the word. After laying down the vision during the dinner, we had a smashing evening full of dancing with the thirty teens that turned out for the event. There was also a surprising amount of talk among them about wanting La CDJ to return to the way it used to be in the past. This night was the spark of the new generation of La Casa de la Juventud.

Since that first event of the New Year, my role has been creating and organizing the activities and events, publicizing them, and putting them into works. “If you build it, they will come.”

Honestly, I was going let go of the idea of La CDJ, and go forward with other projects. Now, seeing a group of youth grow every week in numbers, but most importantly in unity has been, to say the least, an invigorating and uplifting process.

This experience and initiative is unique because La Casa de la Juventud is a youth group that now relies on the teens themselves to keep it going. It does not depend on occasional grants from external organizations, like it has in the past. I have been trying to emphasize this idea with the teens as much as possible, as it seems to be the only way this new group will remain: take the route of self-sufficiency, as opposed to depending on external resources.

In the remaining few months that I have here, my focus will be to further unite the current group through more leadership-oriented activities, and most importantly, to set them up to sustain this group after I leave. This means primarily thinking of who can take over the group to be the central leader(s), and how they can hold onto an office or a space without funding.

The greatest thing I’ve learned from this project is about the process. That a movement takes time, experimentation, failure, and hopefully some eventual success. For me, what I’m most proud of is being able to say that La Casa de la Juventud is a youth group, rather than was one.

I invite you to check out our blog that we recently made. It contains articles and pictures of the activities we do on a regular basis. A different teen writes an article for each activity we do. www.Casadejuventudibarra.blogspot.com

Peter Saudek