A New Life for Luis

A Honduran teen is reformed

The Dutiful Son

In the life of Honduran teen Luis, a typical morning involves little sleeping in at his home in a mountainous community overlooking the capital Tegucigalpa with buzzards flying overhead.

Luis in his home
A view from Luis’ neighborhood overlooking the city of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras
Luis helping his stepfather haul produce in the local market

Some days, he wakes early to help his stepfather haul produce in the market. On others, the dutiful son buys corn for his mother’s small tortilla business, carrying it in a heavy sack slung over his shoulder onto the bus back home.

“It’s good to go to work knowing that the money you’re earning is something you obtained from your own sweat and not from doing illicit activities,” Luis said.

Luis loads produce into a truck
Luis moves produce down the street to a store
Luis picks up the cornmeal his mother uses to make tortillas
Luis stands at the top of a hill near his house on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa

The Road Luis Takes

On the road Luis takes, he passes by a sprawling cemetery — an ominous reminder of the danger he faces growing up in Honduras, a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

In a past life, this lanky 15-year-old wasn’t always so keen to help his family out. In fact, his problems ran much deeper.

Losing His Way

Luis grew up with his beloved grandparents. He began to lose his way when he moved to Tegucigalpa at age 12 to live with his mother, stepfather and two younger half-siblings.

He didn’t get along with any of them. He refused to do chores or help his brother and sister with their homework.

Luis and his family pose for a picture near their house
Luis’ stepfather reads to Luis’ siblings in their home

In his new home, he didn’t feel like anyone loved him.

He thought his stepfather Saul just wanted to order him around, to punish him. Luis didn’t obey him or pay attention to his advice. Luis and his mother Gloria didn’t understand each other, either – they’d pass the day fighting, getting into shouting matches.

“I didn’t have anyone to talk to at home. I didn’t have people who supported me.”

Luis rests in the family’s dining room

Violence and Deaths, Shootouts and Drugs

But what might be a normal teenage rebellious phase elsewhere took a dark turn in Luis’s new neighborhood, where gangs fought over territory. “Here, there is a lot of violence,” he said, “and many people you can’t trust.”

“All the gangs fight, and there’s violence and deaths, shootouts and drugs.”

Luis examines his homework
A street view of the neighborhood where Luis and his family live
Luis and his classmates sitting in class during the school day

In school, Luis was the class clown, and he gained a reputation for being the most crazy, the most likely to act without thinking. This earned him the respect of his peers. He started hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Someone Important

Luis finally had found the acceptance that he craved. “I felt like someone important,” Luis said.

He began getting involved with drugs, playing hooky, and getting suspended for a week at time.

Luis and his friends enjoying a snack together
Luis and his friends get ready to play soccer

Afraid For His Life

Luis’s mom Gloria was terrified that he would be killed.

At her wits’ end, Gloria one day found the key to ending her family’s troubles: the USAID pilot program Proponte. The family was assigned to a counselor, Sabina, who helped Luis gradually change his attitude. At first, Luis was hesitant. “After the first meeting, I said, ‘This is stupid,’” Luis recalled.

Luis and his mother sit down with a USAID Proponte program counselor
Luis and a USAID Proponte program council discuss ways he can improve his outlook on life

A Better Person

But eventually, the counseling helped Luis stay away from gangs and drugs, return to school, form positive friendships, and learn to respect his family.

“Those six months for me were amazing because I changed completely,” Luis said. “I learned to change my routine for the better, to be a better person.”

A portrait of Luis in a classroom

“If I hadn’t joined Proponte … maybe I would be dead, or in a gang, or an assassin — killing other people.”

In family meetings, Sabina would talk about the importance of showing respect, love and support to each other. She’d remind Luis’s parents that boys and girls alike need affection, and encourage Luis to give his mom a kiss goodbye. She’d lead the family in exercises like constructing a family tree that showed the weakness or strength of each relationship by drawing one or two lines.

Luis constructs his family tree, an activity part of the Proponte program
A Proponte counselor and Luis’ siblings work on an activity
Luis’ stepbrother creates a list of house rules for the family

A Place for Learning, Fun and Distraction

One day, a friend of Luis invited him to hang out at a USAID youth outreach center.

After that first visit, Luis returned on his own several times. He learned valuable job skills – computers, appliance repair – while also having fun at the gym or playing soccer.

“I thought of it as a place to go to distract myself,” he said.

Luis learns basic appliance repair skills at a USAID youth outreach center
Several pieces of electronics that Luis practices on at the outreach center

He also made new friends – ones that had a positive influence on each other.

“I feel much better about myself; before I thought I wasn’t important,” Luis said. “Now, I know I’m intelligent and I can complete my goals.”

Luis and his friends pose for a picture before a soccer match
Luis and his friend playing soccer

About this story

Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere. The United States works with Central American governments to improve citizen security and rule of law and create opportunities for youth.

Adapted from a gang-reduction program in Los Angeles, USAID’s Proponte was piloted — then fully scaled — in Honduras to steer youth ages 8 to 17 away from gangs. Participants, selected through a tool that identifies risk factors such as weak parental supervision, underwent a seven-phase family-centered process.

The pilot resulted in a 77 percent drop in crime and substance abuse and 78 percent drop in antisocial tendencies. Now, the program is expanding to 800 families under Proponte Más.

Additionally, nearly 200 youth outreach centers in Central America provide a safe space to have fun, learn job skills, and avoid drugs and gangs.

While USAID programs don’t help people get out of gangs, they deter at-risk youth from joining them and provide support once they are out.

Photos and video by Thomas Cristofoletti