One thing I have learned in my experience so far in the Peace Corps is that, while people from different parts of the world might appear immensely different in many ways, in the end we are more similar than we realize. This is true for all people, but in my opinion, especially so for young people. They are always some mix of serious and silly, sometimes shy, other times outgoing, but still very curious and with an inexhaustible amount of physical and intellectual energy. In my efforts over the past 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer, my work with the young people of my community has been the most rewarding and has made the greatest difference. Young people are the future; that is an inescapable reality and an amazing opportunity for every nation on the planet.
The Peace Corps program in Paraguay has a long tradition of leading initiatives that aim to engage young people. While development at many levels and with many different types of people is necessary, if we truly desire to invest in the future, we must start by investing in our youth. One of the newer and more exciting efforts to reach Paraguayan youth has been the establishment of a program called Paraguay Verde (Green Paraguay), which recently completed its third successful youth camp in the city of Aytra. The camp was an amazing experience, as much for the 80 Paraguayan youth who attended as for the Peace Corps volunteers and Paraguayan organizations that helped to plan and run the event.
The long-term goal for this program is to establish a sustainable and locally run organization that promotes environmentalism, youth leadership, and development within Paraguay. So far, Peace Corps has been organizing and partially funding the youth camps, but several other local organizations, such as A Todo Pulmon and Green Living (both Paraguayan environmental groups) as well as the Paraguayan chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, have been taking a bigger role—with amazing results.
This year’s camp covered many topics, from conservation to creating recycled art to composting and healthy eating. There were presentations, guest speakers, and a youth panel in which young leaders from around the country shared their experiences of starting youth groups and leading local initiatives. The camp concluded with a service project in the local community, during which the youths planted more than 100 trees and built several benches in a park using recycled materials.
More exciting than the camp’s accomplishments, though, was the attitude of each youth that attended. Over the course of three days, 80 young kids from different economic and social backgrounds, from different parts of this diverse and overwhelmingly impoverished country, were able to come together and form strong and lasting connections. The connections were both practical, useful to the youth as they work to organize and engage in local projects and activism; and psychological, exposing them to others with the same enthusiasm and motivation to seek a brighter future.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that such a simple program can have on the lives of young people. Especially here, where creating a better future is made that much harder by political instability and endemic poverty, sometimes the smallest amount of hope and inspiration makes all the difference. So to all those youth who helped make Paraguay Verde an amazing success this year, my hat is off. Thank you for your enthusiasm, your energy, and how much you continually inspire me. —Mario Machado