The Caribbean is one of the most hurricane-prone regions in the world, killing people every year and making communities more vulnerable with each and every storm that hits. But it wasn’t a hurricane that put Yen Carlos Reyes at risk.
Reyes’s father dealt drugs in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic and rival gang members routinely raided his home. His mother abandoned Reyes, leaving him to bounce around from one relative’s house to another. At age 17, he was a street fighter in the Dominican Republic, headed for jail—or worse.
Reyes’ story is one that resonates with many youth across the islands, where a lack of opportunities leads teens to partake in the crime and violence that plagues their communities. But now, in some of the toughest neighborhoods across the Caribbean, the energy and creativity of at-risk youth are being channeled to help them make the leap from neighborhood trouble-maker to community life saver.
The Youth Emergency Action Committees (YEAC) program led by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) with support from USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) is one that transforms teens like Reyes into disaster-preparedness leaders. It teaches young people how to plan for and respond to hurricanes, administer first aid, map out evacuation routes and set up emergency shelters. In dedicating himself to the program, Reyes just may have saved his own life.
Started in September 2009 in four of the most hazard-prone and marginalized neighborhoods of inner-city Kingston, Jamaica, CRS began engaging youth through an ‘edutainment’ approach—education plus entertainment. Teens write music, create skits, and perform them to raise community awareness about disaster preparedness while simultaneously learning life-saving skills. Rap music, in particular, has been a big hit, with the group coming up with lyrics such as, “Send in the broom and the shovel. Don’t bring the violence, please leave the trouble.” Because the program was so successful, CRS expanded it to the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Grenada.
Reyes says his priorities shifted and his life changed when he joined YEAC. With his teammates, Reyes helped build new homes and rehabilitate old ones for families whose houses were not able to withstand natural disasters. When Hurricane Sandy hit Puerto Plata, Reyes and the others on his committee—named El Esquadron, or the Squadron—were ready, helping to relocate 80 families to emergency shelter and implementing a disaster response plan for their community. Reyes says he has a whole new set of goals including going back to school, thanks to the confidence YEAC has given him.
“Little by little, I started to see that I had value and that the other kids weren’t judging me. The work we did within the communities made me feel like I had something to offer and I started to see that my neighbors were looking at me different too,” said Reyes.