In Nueva Guadalupe, El Salvador, these teens don’t sleep in – they are up with the roosters – literally.
His blond hair stands out in the circle of youth. They’re debating the merits of selling chickens vs. keeping them for their egg-laying abilities. Carlos Torres Santos – nicknamed Chele, which means “Whitey” - is the president of this chicken co-operative, and he’s definitely in charge of this board meeting.
This co-op is owned and operated by youth in a small town outside of San Salvador, El Salvador, and consists of 28 members, aged 13-26. World Vision staff Sandra Benavides, who works with the group, says they are responsible for about 400 hens, donated to them (along with the coop structure) by the town’s mayor.
“He himself came from very poor beginnings and identifies with the youth,” Sandra explains.
The business is a by-product of Youth Ready, a program run by World Vision in Honduras and El Salvador that empowers youth to build a future for themselves, while giving them an alternative to joining a gang. With nearby San Salvador ranking as the seventh most violent city in the world, most youth either join a gang out of fear, are being exploited by one, or see no other means of earning a living.
The program has been supported by the Barrett Family Foundation since 2016. Responding to its positive impact on thousands of youth in Honduras and El Salvador, the family, in partnership with World Vision Canada, recently announced an expansion of the initiative into five additional countries - Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Learning to take on life’s challenges
The Youth Ready program is broken into learning modules. The teens not only attend English classes and vocational training, but also learn life skills that build the resilience to handle life’s up and downs. Some examples of this would be having a positive identity, how to challenge stereotypes, their responsibilities as citizens, child rights and values, presentation skills and more.
This is an important foundation, as many youth come from broken homes and have not experienced the love and support of their parents or guardians. As Chele says, “What we learned in the first module (called Abilities for Life
), we don’t learn this at school. But we need these life skills, as our parents may not teach us this.”
Throughout the training, the youth receive formal mentoring from a thoughtfully selected mentor, who can guide them through some the tough stuff – such as what to do if they lose their job, are forced to drop out of school to support their family, or even how to deal with violence from their past.
A project becomes a vocation
Chele and his friends worked together on an assignment in the first Youth Ready module, where they were challenged to visualize a business they could all be a part of. After drafting a chicken co-op business plan, they were so excited about it that they approached Sandra Benavides, a Youth Ready facilitator, to make it a reality.
“They worked together to make plans for the chickens, how to identify clients, where to sell the eggs, how to document the partnership. When the first egg was laid, it was really exciting for them!” she shares.
Chele takes his turn bringing the eggs to market to sell.
The youth take turns feeding, watering, cleaning and collecting the eggs. Over 360 eggs each day are collected and cleaned, then taken to market to be sold.
World Vision has provided training, business plan and legal support, and recently donated two bikes that the youth use to transport the eggs to market.
Just like teen entrepreneurs around the world, the youth are using familiar technology to assist them: WhatsApp to coordinate scheduling, communications and selling, and Facebook to spread the word when the vegetables have been harvested, or where they’ll be selling the eggs next.
Putting learnings into practice
It has not been a path without challenge, though. Egg producing chickens require significant amounts of food, and the group is spending most of their profits on chicken feed. This is where the learnings from the earlier phase are beneficial, as it’s taught them to weather roadblocks like this, and to come up with solutions.
World Vision staff Sandra (far left) listens in to the co-op meeting where topics such as selling price, share of the profits, and scheduling are discussed. Business decisions are made by voting and are counted and recorded every time.
In this case, a nearby vacant greenhouse presented an opportunity to grow cucumbers and sweet peppers, that they can sell to buy food for the chickens.
“We presented our plan to the local agricultural association, who own the greenhouse. The vice president is a mentor for Youth Ready. They were impressed with our plan, and voted to lend the greenhouse for a year. Now that they see our success, they want it back,” boasts Chele.
Gloria holds one of the eggs with a smile.
In the end, the success of the business is that it gives its members the chance to dream of a future. Gloria, 26 and William, 22 both belong to the co-op and have been married for two years. “It’s making a difference in our lives, a great opportunity to learn and plan for our future. Maybe one day we can open our own business, based on what we learned here.”
A guide for communities with sponsored children
While participants in Youth Ready are not sponsored children, the programming approach has been so successful in empowering youth to transition effectively into adulthood, that Area Development Programs across El Salvador and Honduras have begun modeling their own projects after it. And with the upcoming expansion into five more countries thanks to support from the Barrett Family Foundation, thousands more vulnerable youth will be reached.
All photos by Paul Bettings