Panama City – Ten stories up, children pause their soccer scrimmage to peek over the railing-less roof of a colossal teal apartment building. A naked man is visible from a fourth-floor window. Behind, a river serves as a haven for drug users, and a repository for the weapons gang members toss out of windows when the police show up.
This is the center of Curundú, a Panama City neighborhood of 16,000 where the homicide rate at one point reached 151 per 1,000— more than 15 times the “epidemic” level as determined by the World Health Organization.
The Panamanian government is intent on lowering rates of violent crime in the country, and it’s changing the way it engages with neighborhoods like this one. With support from Creative Associates International’s Youth at Risk Program, known locally as Alcance Positivo, there is a new focus on community policing and youth engagement.
In fact the police are here today, somewhere in the bare-wire bowels of this massive 1200-apartment complex. They are not responding to anything, says Officer Teodoro Gomez. “Just talking.”
With patient emphasis on getting to know community members and working with them to solve problems, Gomez reports that crime here has gone noticeably down, and switched to mostly minor offenses.
Kids who never used to come out to play for fear of getting shot today scoot happily around a rusted playground in the courtyard.
They are also willing to walk, sometimes with police protection, to one of two nearby Youth Outreach Centers sponsored by Creative, local churches and NGOs and private companies.
Some of the Centers, like the Calidonia Outreach Center run by Pastor Andreas Fischer and his wife Kathy, have found especially inventive ways to engage them.
Children and teens come here to play ping-pong, soccer, foosball and karate, get help with homework and learn English and computer skills.
They also get to be movie stars.
The Fischers lead 10 or 12 teenagers at a time to write, produce, film and star in their own self-directed videos. Kids from warring neighborhoods collaborate on scripts, scout for locations and props and recruit extras together. After it’s edited, they put on a big opening night and invite the community to watch the final product.
“We do it to give the kids a voice of their own so they can express what they live,” says Pastor Fischer. “We feel it’s important for those kids that they have a success story to talk about.”
The last time he did an open air screening at night, residents screamed so loudly he had to replay the movie a second time after they’d calmed down.
The Calidonia Youth Outreach Center is in a gang-neutral zone at the confluence of several poor, violent neighborhoods including Curundú. That means kids don’t have to cross gang lines to get there. But it also means the Fischers are working with young people who need a tremendous amount of support.
For many of the teenagers, working on the film is the first time they take on a project and actually complete it.
“We believe that any person, any teenager in any circumstance, can change. They all have a future. They all have talents,” says Fischer. “We want to help them realize who they are and separate their thinking from the circumstances that they live in.”
The Fischers are also trying to deliver that message to young children.
The “esperanza” truck—inviting enough given its previous life as an ice cream truck—has doors that spring open to reveal a stage. Every Sunday, about 25 volunteers and staff from the Calidonia Outreach Center visit vulnerable communities, hand out snacksand put on puppet and clown shows that instill positive values in young children.
“It’s important to teach those kids even though they live in difficult neighborhoods, to start thinking positive about themselves, about their abilities, their talents and their future,” says Pastor Fischer.
In the first four months, more than 3,500 kids came to watch the shows.
“It’s growing everywhere we go,” says Pastor Fischer. “They wait for us. They know us. Every time I go somewhere: ‘Hey, where’s the truck? Where are the clowns?’”
On this day the clowns—who are known, when plain-faced and wigless, as Leopolido Kennion and his wife Anayansi– are back at the Outreach Center working on next Sunday’s script, and practicing with the other puppet volunteers.
There’s a perfectly-pitched mouse, a loud winking pig and several big-mouthed people-puppets who nod along with the kid-friendly dialogue.
They know children will listen, mouths agape, to a puppet or a clown much faster than they’ll listen to a Pastor. And in places like Curundú, those messages of friendship and future can’t come soon enough.