Panama City—There used to be a line here that you could not cross, guarded by men with guns. It separated the American Canal Zone, with its greenery, nice schools and the YMCA—constructed to offer workers with “entertainment of an elevating character”—from the rest of Panama City.

The line is here still, though no one guards it anymore. It divides the posh streets where “zonies” grew up attending English-language schools from the run-down dirty blocks where just a few years ago it was too violent to risk passing through by car.

Pastor Ivan Richards grew up in this neighborhood called Chorillo, in a single room he shared with his mother, grandmother and seven brothers. Most of the food he ate came from the free meals the Red Cross doled out from its building on Calle E.

Call it Calle E today and Pastor Richards will get mad. It’s “Avenida La Paz” now, he says with a smile softening completely serious eyes. Peace Street. If everyone calls it that, he says, it will be so.

Pastor Richards runs the Santa Ana youth Outreach Center on this street, a place where neighborhood kids can come to play soccer, do their homework, use the computers and go to church services. There are 22 such centers in some of Panama’s most violent communities, established with support from Creative Associates International’s Community Youth at Risk program, known locally as Alcance Positivo.

13 factors that increase vulnerability

The three-year program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is designed to lower the risk factors that lead youth into crime and violence by strengthening community and municipal participation in violence prevention and working with the government on reducing school drop-out rates and increasing job training and placement opportunities.

The centers combat violent crime like the 800 murders that took place in 2009, and the youth delinquency that feeds the hungry ranks of drug-dealing gangs.

Outreach centers like Santa Ana offer more than physical protection from a tough outside world: Creative and the USAID identified 13 factors that increase young people’s vulnerability to getting involved in illicit activities, like low self-esteem and limited job prospects.

The program created a model that strengthens five protective factors that keep them safe, healthy and productive instead—factors like having a way to creatively use free time, and a caring adult mentor like Pastor Richards.

“When you look at primary violence prevention, a lot of times, it’s the same type of activities you’d use for positive youth development,” says Alcance Positivo’s Director Michael McCabe. “It’s a safe space for non-school hours. It’s looking at mentors and the role of caring adults. It’s how do you improve formal and informal education and life skills opportunities, how do you create those first job opportunities for young people and give them a sense of civic participation. That’s what we call the Power of Five.”

Instead of finding a sense of belonging in a gang, they find it among peers, teammates and coaches at the Outreach Centers.

They are told for the first time to “dream their future” and develop a life plan—and then gather the skills that will enable them to make it reality.

A new approach, a new perspective

From the very spot where the Red Cross used to hand out food to the little boy who would grow up to become Pastor Richards, the Santa Ana Outreach Center now sits proudly under his direction. Creative’s Alianza Positivo joined forces with Richards to expand and fund the center, enabling him to start an after-school reinforcement program with math and English tutoring.

Children, teens, even little kids used to wander alone outside at all hours of the day and night, roving escapees from schools offering low-quality education or homes just as dangerous as the streets.

Now, neon-clad kids slip into the adjoining soccer field, learn the drums and guitar and play ping pong with peers they might previously have counted as enemies. Nearly 200 of them use the Outreach Center; it is bursting on weekends.

Police visit the center weekly to talk to the kids. The arrival of a uniformed female officer elicits squeals and hugs.

“You never used to see that,” says Chris Martinez, who worked on the project. “They used to see [police] as their enemies. Now they’re their heroes.”

Besides talking to the kids at the center, officers escort them there from cramped, run-down high-rise buildings known as “multis” to make sure they are protected. Depending on the neighborhood, kids are not safe enough to cross the street.

The new focus on community policing underscores their positive mission, and seems to be changing perceptions—quickly. Officer Silver Calles has only worked in the neighborhood for four months, but he’s noticed a difference already.

“When I first got here, people would not talk to us, people will not come close to us,” he says, as the kids around him put away their drumsticks and maracas and file noisily into the next room. “It’s the approach that the new team has with the community. It’s not just patrolling, we’re interacting.”

With the new approach, Calles says, officers go to people’s homes and just sit and chat. People have started leaving their doors open.

“It feels good, getting the trust of the people. Getting to interact with people and getting them to see the police through different eyes,” Calles says.

The community policing approach is contributing to lower violent crime. The homicide rate—which had more than doubled between 2006 and 2009—has ratcheted down from 23.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants to 18 in 2012.

“Our goal is that the population doesn’t look at the police as a suppressing agent anymore,” says Manuel Zambrano, Director of the Integral Security Office of the Ministry of Public Security. “We want the people to…look at the police officer as a person who can help and assist them.”

Domestic violence complaints and drug raids in neighborhoods with community policing initiatives have increased, demonstrating improved trust in authorities according to Zambrano.

His department’s programs, which include home visits by Ministry staff to better understand the problems facing youth in Panama and a gigantic soccer league, reach up to 32,000 youth each year.

Complex changes

Youth are starting to change as much as their neighborhood cops are.

When Dr. Eduardo Barsallo first opened the 24 de Diciembre Outreach Center in the Monterrico neighborhood—one of the poorest in Panama City—he visited local schools and asked teachers to identify students who were failing. These he invited to the center; to get tutoring but also to learn values and gain self-esteem.

At first the kids would steal anything he left out in plain sight. But today, aloof, disengaged and unsuccessful students have transformed into responsible and respectful young adults.

More than 600 of them showed up for a beach cleanup the center organized, and 250 routinely come to play soccer. These kids take pride in the center now. Everyone helps with the cooking and cleaning—boys included.

Things don’t disappear anymore.

“Changing a person’s conduct isn’t easy, it’s very complex,” says Barsallo. “Especially when these kids are beaten, abused at home and in the neighborhood they live in, kids who are hungry and don’t have the affection and love from their family. And they come here…because they find a healthy, clean and friendly place, a place with many resources so they can do homework and share with peers. That is the most important thing: that before this, they were enemies and now they’re friends.”

To Barsallo, the little changes are already noticeable: A boy who volunteers to sweep the floor of the outreach center. A mother who no longer cries as she recounts her son’s behavior at home.

But he has his eye on larger changes. “Take my word for it,” Barsallo says. “If the centers continue, the violence will decrease here in our country.”

Creating a coalition for sustainability

Barsallo, like other youth outreach center directors, is introducing small business activities to the center in an effort to move it toward sustainability.

Thanks to grants from Alcance Positivo, newly-delivered silk-screening equipment in a back room will allow youth to design and sell t-shirts and signs, while another 50 kids learned to barber. Rows of plastic-wrapped stuffed animals and play-sets will entertain toddlers dropped off for low-cost daycare. Gym equipment is on the way to provide healthy lifestyle opportunities—and membership fees.

Although the center has private sector support—the painted plane floating in a sea of soft clouds over the doorway is a tribute to sponsor Copa Airlines—income generation is the way forward. In fact, Alcance Positivo only funded centers that created business plans.

At the close of the program in September 2013, there were 22 Panamanian companies supporting the 23 outreach centers. Dr. Barsallo is set to assume the presidency of a fledgling Outreach Center Association so that all of the establishments can better access the government and ask for ongoing funding.

The United Way of Panama, which supports two centers on its own, has also agreed to step up to coordinate the centers, help them find private sector partners and advocate the government for continued support.

“There had never been in Panama a place where youths could go, without any cost, and have so many opportunities like the ones offered at the Outreach Centers,” says Rina Rodriguez, who coordinates the United Way-sponsored center in a neighborhood called Fondo Unido. “We don’t want to let it fall.”

“To us,” she says, “it is extremely important for youths not to feel like the doors were closed after having such an important program in their lives.”