MARACAIBO, Venezuela — I am a lawyer, focusing on areas linked to child protection. I work with UNICEF, which manages the program funded by Education Cannot Wait in Zulia, a border state in western Venezuela.
Even before COVID-19 arrived in Venezuela, one million children were already out of school across the country. Providing opportunities to children and adolescents who are out of the school system or at risk of dropping out is a unique opportunity to make a difference. That's what keeps me highly motivated, despite the difficulties involved in the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated deteriorating conditions in Venezuela
I joined UNICEF practically at the beginning of Venezuela's COVID-19 quarantine. My first field visit was to a Wayuu indigenous community, where we visited an alternative school center. Due to the pandemic, we had to redesign the strategy of the program, which had been based on in-person attention to children and adolescents, including the provision of meals and academic follow-up in community centers.
Luckily, most of the facilitators live in the same communities that they serve. The new strategy includes delivering humanitarian assistance like food kits for families, educational kits for children, and notebooks and learning guides to promote reading, writing, and mathematical and logical thinking.
Each facilitator is responsible for following up with 25 children, going house-to-house for socially distanced visits if they live nearby, or through WhatsApp or text messages if families have access to those tools. The children can also visit the community center to pick up materials and meet with staffers.
Continuing to work with communities and ensuring that support reaches the most vulnerable populations is our goal. My most recent field trip to the community included a visit to a job training center for teenagers and young adults. This center is in a community where people lack electricity for 12 hours every day. Their only access to safe water is from a water truck that comes once a month or through pipes that are only occasionally turned on. Most of the houses are made of zinc sheets, with a dirt floor.
It is here, in the most vulnerable communities, that UNICEF can have the greatest impact on the lives and futures of children and young people. In my role as an education officer, I hear stories that inspire me, like Roxymet's, a young girl who is training to be a chef. She is also a volunteer in the community center's kitchen, helping to prepare meals. "To me, it is important to reciprocate and, in some way, give back the educational opportunities that I am receiving for free," she told me.
I was outside on the street telling jokes with the others," says Miguel, a teenager in a job skills program. "Here, they are teaching me how to become a chef. It was here that I found my calling.
Another young trainee, Miguel, told me, "I was outside on the street telling jokes with the others. Here, they are teaching me how to become a chef. It was here that I found my calling."
Appreciation is the word that I hear most when I go out into the field. What we do is very significant. We are giving these young people a chance to change their lives and define their future.
Education and job skills training programs give hope and opportunity to children and adolescents in crisis
With funding from Education Cannot Wait, UNICEF's initiative aims to provide access to education for millions of children and adolescents who live in situations of crisis, conflicts, natural disasters and disease outbreaks across the world.
In Venezuela, the program is aimed at children and adolescents at risk of dropping out of school or who are outside the school system due to family situations, supporting them with academic follow-up and school nutrition directly in the schools and community centers. The program includes key messages and hygiene kits, as well as psychosocial support. By the end of July, the program had reached more than 4,900 children, adolescents and young adults in the state of Zulia.
Top photo: With funding from Education Cannot Wait, UNICEF staffers like Maura De Moya (far right) provide food kits, educational supplies and academic follow-up for students and families in Venezuela who are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. © UNICEF/2020/Ochoa