Companies around Honduras are realizing that one of the smartest investments they can make is right down the road in the country’s most at-risk neighborhoods. Lowering violence and bringing opportunity to youth is good for business and even better for the future of Honduras.

Choloma, Honduras—Factories, or maquiladoras, dot the highways around this city, as well as its better-known neighbor of San Pedro Sula. Surrounding these powerhouses of Honduras’s export sector are some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere.

“Choloma is a city with a high violence rate, and we have a very good part of our employees that live here and their families,” says Paola Villanueva, Communications Manager for Gildan, an international clothing manufacturer with four facilities and more than 24,000 employees in the country.

The national homicide rate in Honduras was 83 per 100,000 residents in 2013, and levels soar even higher in the most at-risk neighborhoods plagued by gang violence. For Gildan and other private firms working in these areas, taking action to stem the violence has become a company priority.

“It’s really important that our employees know and feel that their kids are safe when they’re working and they have a place to be away from gangs or violence,” she says.

To create these safe spaces and, in turn, more secure neighborhoods and places of business, Gildan and other companies are teaming up with Alianza Joven Honduras (Honduras Youth Alliance), a youth violence prevention program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

The business of opportunity

With 46 youth outreach centers around the country in the most high-crime neighborhoods, Alianza Joven Honduras is a natural partner for businesses seeking to improve security and bring opportunity to the communities in which they operate.

“There’s not a lot of initiatives like this here in Honduras. So we saw this and we decided it was time for us as a private corporation to get involved,” says Julissa Ustariz, Director of the Lady Lee foundation—the philanthropic arm of Corporation Lady Lee, which owns real estate, malls and chain restaurants throughout the country.

The program’s outreach centers provide at-risk youth with safe spaces for recreation and opportunities including life skills, job training, tutoring and volunteer work.

Through its partnership with Alianza Joven, the Lady Lee Foundation has supported a national holiday toy drive benefiting the centers, a recycling program and several of the centers’ gyms where youth and community members exercise.

Ustariz notes that the company’s involvement in the program has benefits for brand loyalty, but more importantly, she says, Lady Lee’s support through the outreach centers has empowered neighborhood residents to “get involved in their community and work towards something positive in their community.”

The centers, which are jointly funded by USAID, the Honduran government, foundations and private sector partners, are based on a low-cost model, so support from companies can go a long way, says Salvador Stadthagen, Director of Alianza Joven Honduras.

The centers’ activities are sustained by committed community volunteers, many of whom are youth who have benefited from the centers’ violence prevention work.

Cecilio Torres, for example, is one of these volunteers. Kicked out of the house by his mother’s boyfriend at age 10, he found himself out on the streets with no opportunities except joining a gang to survive.

Now living a life free of crime at age 22 and a beneficiary of the outreach center methodology, Torres mentors younger children through his López Arellano neighborhood outreach center in Choloma to keep them out of gangs and off the streets.

“For us it’s also really important to see how the community is committed to be part of the project,” says Villanueva. “That was one of the things that we liked about it.”

Among other initiatives, Gildan’s team funded the construction of a sports court at the Exitos de Anach outreach center near one of its factories in Choloma.

Changing attitudes & environments

Although the distance between Honduras’s most at-risk, impoverished areas and its higher income neighborhoods is short, the gulf between residents of the two places can be vast, explains Graco Parades, Director of Corporate Affairs for Cervecería Hondureña, the country’s largest beverage bottling firm.

When Cervecería Hondureña joined Alianza Joven Honduras’s efforts, Parades decided to attend an inauguration ceremony for a new outreach center in the Chamelecón region. The company often provides support for the community celebrations to launch new centers.

“I’ve heard about [Chamelecón]. I’ve seen it in the news, but I’ve never been there. And when you read about it, most of the time or you see in the news, it’s basically bad news. It’s violence,” he says.

Parades’s friends, family and colleagues expressed concern for his upcoming visit and his safety. But his experience at the outreach center told a different story.

“It was a very nice feeling to actually be there and that people who were just like us live there and people that want an opportunity to live in peace were there,” he says.

During the inauguration ceremony, among the speeches, cheers and dance performances, he says, there was a lot of excitement, hope and motivation.

“We saw color again,” says Parades. “I mean, it was a very nice place to be and we saw happiness there. So I think positive things are starting to happen.”

As more private sector partners step up to support violence prevention efforts through Alianza Joven Honduras and other initiatives, the more positive change communities and companies are witnessing.

“I think lately we’ve seen a whole window, door, everything that opened with la empresa privada [the private sector],” says Ustariz. “We can’t wait for people from outside to come and help us. We also have to do our part, whether it’s on a personal level or on a business level, any kind of level, and get involved directly with the community.”

With reporting by Emanuel Rodriguez in Honduras