Meet the Founder of Los Patojos

While working as a teacher in Guatemala, Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes saw his students struggling with many issues that his own generation had faced, including drug abuse and gangs. At the age of 23, he turned part of his family’s home into a community center and started Los Patojos, a nonprofit that has become a haven for children and youth. In 2014, he was honored as a Top 10 CNN Hero.

Note: This article was first published by CNN in 2016. (Read the full CNN Article below)

Growing up in Guatemala, Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes watched many of his peers succumb to drugs, gangs and crime.

“Kids here are forced to grow up in a very harsh environment filled with violence,” he said.

Reeling from decades of civil war, Guatemala continues to be plagued by poverty and violence. According to the United Nations, the country has the fifth worst homicide rate in the world.

Romero Fuentes became a teacher in his hometown, and he found that many of his students were struggling with the same issues his generation had faced.

“Their parents had no jobs; their families were disintegrating. They had no hope or motivation,” he said.

So, at age 23 and with his parent’s blessing, Romero Fuentes turned part of his family’s home into a community center. In 2006, he began tutoring and mentoring a handful of kids after school. Word spread quickly, and children from all over the community joined the group.

Today, his program offers free classes, tutoring and meals, as well as free medical care. His nonprofit, Los Patojos – which translates to the Little Ones – has helped several thousand children.

“I created a safe place for them to realize that they actually can change bad aspects in their lives and their community,” said Romero Fuentes, now 30. “I wanted to give them a better present in order to attain a brighter future.”

Finding hope at home

Los Patojos has become a haven in a region where young people are in desperate need of opportunity and protection.

An unprecedented number of children from Central America have made the treacherous journey to the United States to flee violence and poverty in their countries. Since October, more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have been caught crossing the U.S. border. Some 37% are from Guatemala – more than any other country, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“These families are in desperate situations. They have no money and no hope for a better future for their children,” Romero Fuentes said.

Despite this harsh reality, Romero Fuentes believes his country can rebuild itself from within. But for the young people to help do that, he says, they need resources and support.

“In a violent country, the only weapon we can have is love,” he said. “These kids are already powerful, but they don’t know that yet.”

To that end, Los Patojos offers productive activities for children and youth 3 to 18, all aimed at giving them the tools they need to transform their families and their communities.

A generation of peacemakers

Romero Fuentes’ program takes place in the entire front portion of his family’s home as well as another building down the block.

At the main center, painted with colorful murals and quotes, children are exposed to a number of creative outlets. They take classes in dance, music, photography, theater and juggling and often put on performances for each other.

“These classes are to show kids that they can pursue their own passions in order to improve their lives,” Romero Fuentes said.

Leadership seminars teach the children about social, political and cultural issues. They learn the importance of moral courage, social justice and self-expression. They also explore ways to reduce violence.