One mentor and one mentee at a time, Champions in Action is building profound hope within a context of pervasive violence, using the popular love of futbol to do so.
This isn’t the story of a single founder or leader, but rather a network of leaders working together for one purpose: To ensure hope and a future for kids living in the most crime-saturated neighborhoods of one of the most violent cities in the world.
Youth growing up in the red zones of Guatemala City face extraordinary challenges and pressures. Even kids making the most of their circumstances are attending over-crowded, poorly resourced public schools, graduating into a bleak economy with some of the highest homicide and extortion rates in all of Latin America.
There are, however, some who have made it through the gauntlet of urban poverty and are now teaming up to change the tide.
Champions has sixteen mentors throughout red zones in and around Guatemala City. Seeking the support of the local government, FIFA and with the leadership of some of the best futbol players in Guatemala, Champions in Action is positioned to develop and train a generation of desperately needed leaders.
This is their story.
Las Zonas Rojas
Guatemala City is separated into 21 distinct zones. Spiraling outward from downtown, the numbers progress in seemingly equal and controlled order, but life between one zone to the next is erratic. The zone lines serve more as a divide between affluence and poverty, safety and danger.
Downtown is the historic section dotted with neo-classical buildings and prominent landmarks. But adjacent to downtown is Zone 3 – El Basurero. Here, many people live amongst piles of garbage. Over a third of the country’s trash ends up at El Basurero. Residents reduce the waste by scavenging it: Children wade through looking for items of value, like watches or glass, to sell on the city streets.
Two more sections clockwise is Zone 5 – La Limonada – one of the largest slums in Central America. Once a beautiful natural ravine running through the city, it now provides makeshift shelters for more than 60,000 Guatemalans.
Both El Basurero and La Limonada are considered red zones, a term used to describe Guatemala City’s most volatile, poor neighborhoods.
Life in the Red Zone is most often characterized by extreme violence. Homicide, rape, and theft are ways of life. The maras (gangs) are some of the most violent in the world, using extortion to instill fear in community members and promise easy money to youth looking for work. By and large, it's said that gangs are more influential than NGOs working within the red zones.
“Many of our children come from the red zones,” says Jessica Hanson, Director of an orphanage called Casa Shalom just outside of Guatemala City. Casa Shalom often takes in young children who have lost their parents to gang violence or drug use. “A group of siblings came to us from El Basurero. They told us they don’t know a man in their family over 30-years-old who is not jailed or dead due to gang violence. This is the reality that these children live in.”
Fatherlessness is rampant, creating a cycle of violence not easily broken. By the time they are 13-years-old, it is expected that most boys, whether they join a gang or not, will get involved in some mix of violence and crime. Until then, children are caught in the crossfire.
Little is done to maintain order within the red zones. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report said corruption of Guatemalan justice system officials “contributes to high levels of impunity.” As a result, a deep culture of fear hovers over the red zones, both for those who live within them and those who try to stay outside of them.
A Struggle for Repair
Guatemala is a nation still struggling to repair itself after decades of war and a history of dangerous violence. In 1954, conflict between Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity and the Guatemalan government triggered a 36-year civil war that left a gruesome mark on the nation. By 1996, when the government signed a peace agreement to end the war, more than 200,000 people had died or gone missing. Thousands more were displaced, fleeing from rural areas to places of refuge in the city. The civil war stands the longest in Latin American history.
In the midst of the civil war, Guatemala experienced an earthquake that killed 27,000 people and left a million people without homes. They faced territorial disputes and guerrilla violence.
The tragic 20th century legacy blankets the city today. Children and grandchildren of war refugees fight daily for survival. Families still have yet to recover from the disaster of the earthquake. And the places that once provided refuge now hold an impenetrable stigma.
A City of Contrasts
Just steps away from La Limonada, the well-heeled trod down embassy-lined streets and pop in and out of luxury hotels. The landscaped high-architecture in Zone 10 – zona viva, or the lively zone – stands in stark contrast to the corrugated iron and tin roofs just streets away. Classism is the status quo in Guatemala City. Residents of more well-to-do zones simply do not cross into red zones. For that reason, classes in Guatemala City pretty much stay where they are.
Just steps away from La Limonada, the well-heeled trod down embassy-lined streets and pop in and out of luxury hotels.
“Short of some serious intervention, it’s pretty impossible for children to leave these situations,” says Ms. Hanson. “Even once they see life beyond what they are living in, it is still difficult for them to leave it behind.”
Truth is, the majority of kids growing up in the red zones have two options: MS-13 or Barrio 18, the two most powerful gangs rivaling for dominance. Riding int he wake of fatherlessness and poverty, these gangs offer youth a sense of belonging, protection and purpose.
Apart from gangs, kids also can also be lured by groups of narco-traffickers (who, ironically, hate the gangs) or small informal groups of bandits who rob buses and cars. True gang activity isn't pervasive throughout every single red zone. Often it's just poverty (not just poverty of material things, but of hope, of role models, of dignity, of education) and problems like alcoholism and domestic violence and lack of respect for authority that derail the lives of red zone youth.
Education ≠ Employment
In most parts of the world, education translates into greater opportunity. But in the ‘red zones’ of Guatemala City, this is sadly not the case. Even when teenagers from these violent, crime-ridden neighborhoods manage to defy the odds – choosing a gang-free life and graduating from high school – they meet overwhelming obstacles still. The reality is that educational accomplishments are not sufficient to overcome the stigma of zone life.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs writes about this symbiotic relationship between violence and lack of opportunity in a September 2013 article, Tackling Violence in Guatemala City:
In “red zones,” urban areas that have high rates of violent crime, a vicious cycle of violence and desperation is perpetuated. Young people in these areas who successfully complete high school are met with incredible resistance as they search for employment.
Many companies and organizations here see a certain zone listed, or note a lack of a formal address and toss away applications, fearing the worst. These professionals and recruiters have only heard about the violence and crime to be found in the zones listed.
The lack of opportunities for these at-risk youth is extremely challenging for them and for their families. Imagine the frustration of a mother working 12 hours a day, six days a week, to make sure that her oldest son has all the necessary notebooks and materials required by the public school. She waits anxiously for his high school graduation, hoping that soon she can cut back on her working hours and spend a little more time with the younger siblings in the house. Weeks and months pass after high school graduation, as her son frantically fills out job applications, waiting for a call back, for an interview, for a sliver of hope. Anxiety and pressure builds until a decision must be made in the household between feeding the household and the dream of formal employment. This young man, as many others, then has to decide between menial labor, with low risk but meager pay, and a life of crime, with high payoff but also high personal risk.
In addition to a struggling education system and lack of formal employment opportunities, urban youth must be seen as being extremely at risk due to the abundance of violence and a saturation of crime. Measuring crime rates across the country, 35 percent of violent and criminal activity occurs in and around Guatemala City. Living in the city as a young person, from 18 to 26 years of age, means that a person is 40 percent more likely to be a victim of a crime.
Many hardworking young people find their paychecks snatched away by armed thugs, typically of their same age. According to the same study, 70 percent of criminal activity is committed by youth aged 18 to 26. Young people are therefore not only at risk for becoming victims of violence, but also of falling into a life of crime.
For these reasons, the expectations of Guatemalan youth for their future ranked 19 out of 20 youth populations surveyed in Latin America, demonstrating that few really have confidence that they have bright futures ahead.
Champions in the Making
The relational engine of Champions in Action is its network of mentors. These are exceptional individuals helping youth in the red zones find their way through an increasingly challenging maze of obstacles.
Champions invests heavily in equipping its mentors and supporting them for the long-term. Each mentor participates in a three-month training program designed to teach the fundamentals of both coaching and counseling. Most mentors have a group of about ten kids to mentor, all from the same neighborhood the mentor grew up in.
Jairo mentors in Zone 3, which is known for El Basurero, literally translated The Garbage Dump. At the neighborhood school, kids—teenage boys—swarm for his attention. Eighty percent of these kids, he tells us, help their family scavenge the massive canyon of garbage looking for valuables to sell in the market when they're not in school. For most, this is a generational heritage.
One boy told us he aspires to drive the garbage truck instead of loading the garbage truck. Having watched the grown men carry massive bags of recyclables on their back through winding, narrow alleys in the hot sun and hundreds of women and children wade knee deep through stench and spoils for a sellable something, we nod with respect and understanding.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine how alluring gang life (and its promise of easy money) must be for some of these youth.
Having gone that route himself and having lost his best-friend-brother to gang violence, Jairo is a powerful and credible voice of hope. He is brother, father, teacher, coach (in varying combinations and differing degrees) to 45 beautiful innocents…born into El Basurero.
Two kids stand out.
Alejandro is a dashing young man, clearly eager to excel. At just fourteen, he has developed a remarkable resilience and fortitude. Following the examples of Champions’ staff, Alejandro wants to play professional futbol—but not without good grades, if Jairo has a say.
“What I like about this academy is that in addition to training us in futbol, they teach us values," says Alejandro. "Before I went to the camp, I was a kid who didn't have direction or meaning in life. I was a bit rebellious and often hanging out with the wrong crowd. Now, with the support of Professor Jairo, I've been able to reflect and think about what I'm doing with my life. I've changed a lot and I'm very grateful to Jairo for all he has taught me.”
To young girls, too, Jairo is like an older brother. Sulma, for example, is thirteen-years-old and everyday travels half an hour by bus from Zone 7 where she lives to Zone 3 where she goes to school and meets Jairo. "It's my passion to play for the Guatemala national team—to be the first woman player—and go on to achieve even greater things. Through the Champions Academy I've learned how to respect my teammates and play fair. I'm grateful to Jairo because he teaches us a lot and helps us," she tells us.
Humberto is a diamond in the rough. His story is one of dogged perseverance; genuine, pure humility and generosity. At a very young age, he left his family in rural Guatemala to search for work in the city. Now, at 24-years-old, he is studying industrial engineering at the local college while also volunteering for Champions and playing an active role in the neighborhood church. He washes the uniforms for his mentees by hand—all ten—carefully folding each one after they dry on the line.
In this sort of context, one cannot overstate the impact of a single positive role model in a child's life. These youth are almost literally standing on the shoulders of their mentors, straining for a glimpse of a different horizon.
One of them is for Javier, a 15-year-old who lives just a couple blocks away. We walk it over to his house and are treated to chocolate-covered frozen bananas on the way.
"I’ve always survived on my own," Humberto explains. "I have been very independent from my parents; I haven’t needed my parents telling me what to do or not do. I’ve made those decisions on my own. And God has helped me choose the right path. This is what I can teach the kids: It’s not necessary for people to tell them what to do in terms of making right choices. They can make their own decisions and overcome, with the help of God and critical thinking."
Angel lives in Villa Nueva and at the time of this writing is mentoring twenty-five youth. It takes only a moment of observation to recognize his genuine caring and calming presence. “Something I appreciate about my mentor, Angel, is that he sets up games for us against other teams. He shows us how we’re playing well and how we’re playing poorly. He’s a friend,” says thirteen-year-old Diego.
Kevin, also thirteen, says, “My mentor has helped us a lot. Like when we go to play, he coaches us and we don’t get angry whenever we’re losing—my attitude has improved. Champions in Action has helped me to meet other people and being on a team, we have fun and get to know each other better."
In his own words:
"It has been a blessing to be part of Champions in Action working as a mentor for the youth—being part of their spiritual, emotional and physical growth, which they really need. I think that they all need someone to take care of/look out for them. Unfortunately in our country, there is a big problem of broken homes. There are a lot of kids, girls and boys, who live without their father or mother and this has affected their emotional lives.
Mentoring, I believe, is important because I can give them an encouraging word, help them avoid bad decisions, reach their hearts. Sometimes they need a hug, sometimes they need an encouraging word, sometimes they need to be corrected. Getting closer to, more than just training, but being able to reach these kids on an emotional level. I think on a general level, as human beings, we often neglect our spiritual and emotional lives and we’re more concerned for the physical. I think that this is the important part of mentoring."
With genuine holistic concern, Angel is a real father to the fatherless.
"The life of a girl in a red zone is more difficult than that of a boy because there is more fear. As a woman maybe one feels less protected than a man, and to hear of so many bad things that happen around you, it’s hard to grow up like that. Having a mentor helps them, it gives them confidence. Many times they don’t have an adult or someone they can trust in their homes, so they know that nearby there is someone who can help them at any moment. If they feel alone or if they’re afraid, they can run to their mentor and tell them what they feel and she can help them.
Of my greatest challenges that I have faced as a mentor is the pain that I feel seeing that girls can’t make it to training because they have to go to work or because their parents prefer that they stay at home—locked up, doing nothing—instead of coming to train and doing something for their lives.
It's really rewarding to see how the girls have grown, not only technically in futbol but how they have drawn closer to God, their confidence in themselves, and how they even look happier, I mean, they appear whole."
The Way of Champions
In the most crime-saturated neighborhoods of Guatemala City, Champions in Action is using futbol to transform a fatherless generation into the hope and future of their country.
Of the 700 youth who attended a Champions in Action soccer camp between 2010 and 2013, 650 continued with the program, 50 did not. Of the group of 50 who did not continue with the program, 10 have been killed. Of the group of 650 who did continue with the program, two have been killed.
Coaching Futbol, Coaching Life
The model is simple: Champions uses futbol to connect at-risk youth to mentors. These mentors are dual-intentioned: coach futbol and coach life. With fatherlessness as powerful a force as it is in las zonas rojas, mentors provide critical guidance, care, and support. For many Champions youth, their mentors are the only long-term positive role models they have. Surrounded by violence and generational abuse, their options seem extremely limited.
Mentorship. Mentors meet at-risk youth at very impressionable ages when they face substantial pressure and need to make significant life choices. And so, mentors are not only sounding boards, but advocates who speaks hope, truth and encouragement into the lives of young people. Each mentor works with about ten youth, meeting together at least once a week usually on a soccer field of some sort.
Futbol. In this context, for these kids, futbol is a source of hope and refuge. It’s an escape from the violence, crime and poverty they see every day in their neighborhoods and for some it’s a viable career path in an otherwise economically depressed landscape. By creating a high-caliber league system and developing excellent (FIFA Certified) coaches, Champions is essentially building the professional futbol industry within the Guatemala economy. Kids are given the opportunity to compete, learn from excellent coaches and mentors, and—for those that really persevere with discipline and talent—the opportunity to pursue futbol professionally.
Soccer training is organized into three main programs: Camps, academies and leagues. Camps happen once a year, in the summer, and draw hundreds of area youth and dozens of volunteers (both local and international). Academies offer soccer training three days a week, year-round.
Leading the Way
After living in Guatemala City and observing the poverty, violence and fatherlessness, Jonathan Jakubowski founded Champions in Action in 2008. As a former NCAA Division I football player, he knew that athletes have a unique platform and and powerful influence with youth. Futbol is 'the language of the people' and Champions has made it a vehicle for delivering life-changing mentorship.
"It was an indigenous idea where the Guatemalan people that have succeeded in overcoming the difficulties of the streets, they would really drive the vision," Jon says.
Among the Guatemalans leading the way for Champions are two reknowned, professional futbol players, Gonzalo 'Chalo' Romero and Julio Gómez Barquín. Julio is a third-generation professional player and his father (of the same name) was named one of the starting eleven for Guatemala's National Team of Legends. Chalo played for CSD Municipal (Los Rojos) for eighteen years and the Guatemalan National Team for twelve.
Chalo's own story of overcoming is a powerful one. Like many of the kids in the Champions programs today, Chalo grew up very poor in Zone 5. Even as a young boy he had wanted to be a professional futbol player, though everyone around him said it couldn't be done. Knowing this, Chalo's father struck a bargain: He promised to buy Chalo futbol shoes and equipment if he maintained good grades. Because of his father's steady encouragement and guidance, Chalo completed high school and university while also rising to become a national futbol star. The strong guidance of his father was paramount in his success, he says, which is a powerful example of the role Champions mentors now play for many fatherless youth.
In his own words:
"I dreamed of playing two games in the Mateo Flores Stadium. That was my biggest dream. To play one with the Rojos, and another with the Guatemala National Team. But I read in the Bible, in Ephesians 3:20, that God gives to us much more abundantly than what we ask for or imagine, so…
I asked for two games, and God gave me the privilege to play 18 years with Municipal Los Rojos, and for 12 of those years I was with the Guatemala National Team. I participated in four World Cup qualifiers.
Now, God is giving me the opportunity to work for Champions in Action and change the lives of many boys and young men, and girls too, who are dreaming of playing professional soccer.
Still though, there are lots of people -- and the culture, and all the limitations -- who are telling them that they can’t make their dreams come true. But, through the support of many individuals and groups, and people in other countries who are working with us, we can change the lives of these kids, of these young people. We can get them out of their vices, out of violence, closer to God."
We are committed to doing our best to make real each one of the dreams of these kids, one by one, transforming kids’ lives until we’ve transformed our country.
Since its start in 2010, Champions has worked primarily in and around the red zones of Guatemala City. In 2015, Champions will continue expanding into other volatile and depressed regions of Guatemala, including Villa Nueva, Ciudad Quetzal, Palin and Izabal.
As Champions grows and expands, the organizational and administrative backend systems will become more critical to sustainability and success. The team has a few very practical needs which, if met, would make a world of difference to their ability to grow, scale, and produce impact: The Champions team needs three new computers and a high-capacity printer.
It is BitterSweet's hope that this story will inspire someone (or someones) to tackle this need and help Champions rise to the next level.
Every year Champions hosts week-long camps in the summer. These camps draw hundreds of kids and Champions relies on dozens of volunteers to pull it off.
As a volunteer, you’d work alongside mentors, supporting them as they coach kids in sports, life and faith. Volunteers encourage and pray for mentors, create cross-cultural, cross-generational friendships. Volunteers are placed in a group with a mentor and his or her ten campers for the whole week. You’d cheer kids on during their soccer matches, eat meals with them, have fun with them at free time, and worship with them at evening chapel.