Far from the high-crime and poverty-stricken barrios of Honduras, where she spends most of her time, Miriam Canales waved to a crowd of global leaders and activists as U.S. President Barack Obama called her name at the 10th annual Clinton Global Initiative in New York City in September 2014.

“We stand with humanitarians like Miriam Canales,” the president said. “In communities that are wracked at times by horrific violence, children are so terrified to walk the streets that many begin that dangerous and often deadly march north. And Miriam’s Outreach Centers give them a safe place to play and grow and learn. …We couldn’t be prouder of you, Miriam, and we stand with you.”

Indeed, Miriam’s work with thousands of youth in the most at-risk communities in Honduras, a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, is nothing short of heroic.

As the northern region program coordinator for Alianza Joven Honduras-USAID (Youth Alliance Honduras), Miriam oversees 29 neighborhood Outreach Centers, which provide thousands of at-risk youth with opportunities for education, recreation, personal growth and job skills training off the streets and away from gang violence. The program is funded by the USAID and implemented by Creative Associates International.

“From the outside, people usually see these communities as places filled with violence, or like a horrible place to enter,” she says. “The truth is that by us accessing these communities, we can show the world that there are good people here and that good things are happening.”

Many of those good things—vocational training for youth, community sporting events, the creation of municipal violence prevention committees—are due to Miriam’s mobilization of community members and a resurrection of hope in some of the most difficult situations.

Finding the good, changing the bad

Growing up comfortably in San Pedro Sula, Miriam was buffered from the poverty that plagues many in the country. But troubles with her family presented their own challenges for the budding humanitarian.

“My dad’s alcoholism encouraged me to find another meaning for my life. …I don’t think that there’s anything bad that won’t bring something good in life,” she says.

Miriam found meaning by seeking out the good in everyone, in every community, and working to reverse the bad—the social injustice she saw around her. She incorporates that philosophy in her work.

“I get to a community and before judging or looking around or wondering about how these people’s lives have been, I look at all the qualities they have—because I learned how to love my father despite all of the situations that arose. …And because of that I’ve worked in social projects all my life,” she says.

Photo by David Snyder
Photo by David Snyder

Before joining Alianza Joven Honduras, Miriam volunteered for a number of community causes, from mentoring children at a local orphanage to building houses with Habitat for Humanity. As a volunteer on San Pedro Sula’s Municipal Violence Prevention Committee, she first collaborated with the project and later joined its staff.

“I fell in love with it from the first moment I heard what I was going to do in violence prevention,” she says.

Though Miriam and her colleagues face real risk entering some of the neighborhoods, she says she fears indifference even more—residents getting used to the violence and those outside ignoring it. The violence, explains Miriam, should never feel “normal” to anyone.

“I don’t fear for own my life when I’m there. …I mostly fear indifference and getting used to seeing evil.”

She persists, knowing her efforts may mobilize others or help a young person get off the streets.

“When I entered that first community, I felt like working there was worth it, making changes that would impact people’s lives…there’s always a bit of fear of what might happen or of the unknown, but beyond that fear is the hope of seeing these young people living in a better future and a better Honduras.”

Many people avoid Honduras’ most stigmatized communities suffering from violence, but Miriam Canales sees possibility in each neighborhood and each young resident. She oversees 29 neighborhood youth Outreach Centers and works closely with local volunteers to build momentum for positive change. Photo by David Snyder
Many people avoid Honduras’ most stigmatized communities suffering from violence, but Miriam Canales sees possibility in each neighborhood and each young resident. She oversees 29 neighborhood youth Outreach Centers and works closely with local volunteers to build momentum for positive change. Photo by David Snyder.

Transforming Honduras community by community

Miriam and her team are growing a national coalition of partners in government, private enterprise, religious establishments and community organizations to create that better future.

When her team arrived in the Miguel Angel Pavon community in San Pedro Sula, the members discovered that the venue selected for an Outreach Center was abandoned and dilapidated. The community had heard empty promises of reform before and doubted the building could be restored.

But as walls went up and rehabilitation funds poured in from a private partner, which Miriam had helped recruit, community members joined the effort. Through their own labor and the support of partners and project staff, the Outreach Center opened its doors on June 5, 2015, and continues to be a source of community pride.

Miriam defines her success in transformative moments like these: When a community once known for its violence becomes known for its violence prevention efforts; when a teen finds purpose mentoring his younger neighbors; or when a child learns how to use a computer or speak English at the Outreach Center.

These moments combine to create a pool of opportunities for young people at home in Honduras. With migration from her country at peak levels, breaking many families apart, watching this transformation is a dream come true for Miriam.

“It inspires me to know that someone doesn’t need to risk his life and that these kids don’t need to risk their lives in search of a future, that they can find it here in their own country,” she says.

In this future, she says, Honduras will no longer be infamous for its crime and violence, but renowned for the vibrancy of its communities. As more communities move toward this goal, the number of private sector, government and community partners in the coalition is multiplying.

Miriam knows she will play an active role in this transformation.

“I don’t want to be one of the people who sat while Honduras changed,” she says. “I want to be one of the ones who was standing and transforming Honduras, through hope, motivation and working hard with the younger generations.”

By Jillian Slutzker