The Honduran Armed Forces kicked off their annual Guardians of the Homeland program on February 18th. Through extracurricular activities, the program seeks to instill values and principles in young people to stop them from participating in criminal organizations. “We teach them to love their homeland,” Captain Mauricio Alemán, director of Policies, Planning, and Programs for Civilian Affairs of the Armed Forces told Diálogo. “What we teach the kids is fairly broad. We don’t teach them anything related to the military. That’s not the objective.”
The program is geared towards reinforcing a sense of right and wrong and instilling morals and leadership principles among minors throughout the country’s 18 departments. In addition to receiving ethical and spiritual guidance, the participants, who are between the ages of 7 and 16, are exposed to educational, athletic, and cultural activities. Roughly 136,000 children and young adults have participated in the program over the past five years.
The minors attend the school facilities every Saturday. In addition to talks and workshops, they are provided with medical services and psychological care for three months. Members of the Armed Forces pick up the children and their guardians from their houses and drive them to the educational centers. When the day is over, they return them home. “We are responsible for their commute, their snack, and lunch for them and their parents,” Capt. Alemán explained. “We organize medical brigades to provide health care, their teeth get fixed, they receive free medicine, and if possible, they are hospitalized free of charge when they get sick.”
To support their physical, mental and emotional development, the girls and boys have the opportunity to play, participate in soccer tournaments and visit museums, parks, and zoos. Throughout the day, the children also receive help with their performance at school. “We want to expose them to healthy spaces and experiences. We want to improve their sense of self-esteem and their ability to analyze and make good decisions in the future so they don’t fall prey to people who want to lead them to violence,” Capt. Alemán said.
Children of gang members
The program is backed by government institutions such as the National Institute of Professional Training, where young people receive technical training in the areas of construction, electrical work, carpentry, computers, tourism, automotive repair, food management, and baking. The private sector is also involved in the program. Universities provide psychologists and sociologists, while medical associations send representatives to provide health care.
“Up to now, we’ve had around 200 kids who’ve received grants,” Capt. Alemán said as he discussed the collaboration of private companies that provide grants to the older children. “They are supporting us because they see the program as being positive since we work with at-risk kids.”
“We received a letter from a gang member. In it, he expressed his gratitude to the Armed Forces because we are educating his child differently. He mentioned that he doesn’t want his child to be like him. He doesn’t want him to be a hit man. He wants him to be a good child,” Capt. Alemán said.
The Honduran Armed Forces work with state institutions designed specifically to look after the wellbeing of the country’s minors. “We are also supervised by DINAF [the Directorate for Children, Adolescents, and the Family, per its Spanish acronym], so that the civilian population can be certain that the program is only looking to ensure the wellbeing of the children and youth and help out the parents,” Capt. Alemán said. The program provides care and guidance to approximately 28,000 young people annually.
Paola Ortíz, 17, is one of the teenagers who has benefited from the program. “In those days, I wasn’t going to school, my mom wasn’t able to send me there,” she told Diálogo. She saw in the program a worthwhile opportunity to learn. “To tell you the truth, I felt like my morale was very low, but the talks they gave us really motivated me. They said that if I fell, I should get back up, and so here I am. I thank God always,” Ortíz added. She dreams of being a journalist.
Her dream could become a reality. Ortíz received a grant from Guardians of the Homeland, and today she is enrolled in the first year of an undergraduate program in sciences and humanities at the Intur Institute in Tegucigalpa. “Being part of the program has helped me a lot in life,” she concluded.